Friday, June 26, 2015

Supremely Joyous and Awaiting Translation

The wait is over. The United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has made marriage equality the law of the land in all 50 states. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court's majority, found that denial of marriage licenses to LGBT couples is in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. And Kennedy wrote:

"The challenged laws burden the liberty of same-sex couples, and they abridge central precepts of equality.The marriage laws at issue are in essence unequal: Same-sex couples are denied benefits afforded opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right. Especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial works a grave and continuing harm, serving to disrespect and subordinate gays and lesbians."

This from a man who when he sat as a federal appeals judge in the 9th Circuit back in the 1970s ruled against one of the first married gay couples forcing them to leave the country, and then re-enter it illegally. Forty years have obviously given Justice Kennedy time to reflect and see a new way. It is possible, and we must never lose hope that reasonable people can change.

I hold that same hope for those meeting right now in Salt Lake City, Utah, at The Episcopal Church's General Convention #78. With the Supreme Court having made the final say on our secular law, the Church's large bicameral body is weighing what to do with its sacramental marriage rites. Will they make changes to Canon Law to allow for marriages to take place? Will they adopt concurrent resolutions designed to give some ease to potential language conflicts in the Book of Common Prayer? Will they defer and insist on more theological study, more evidence that the sacrament of Christian marriage can extend to two people and not just two people of opposite genders?

Our "Saint of the Day" at the 12:10 Eucharist today was Isabel Florence Hapgood, an Episcopalian with an affinity for the Russian Orthodox Church and its Divine Liturgy. Hapgood, after extensive study and travel in Russia in 1887-89, sought and received permission to translate the Orthodox liturgy into English. Her skills in language (Russian, Polish, French, Latin and Church Slovanic) made her a translator of note at the end of the 19th Century. That idea of "translator" resonated with me as I continued to offer up constant prayers for those examining the questions about the marriage rites in the Episcopal Church and the canonical and constitutional authority. I think what's needed most in this debate is that ability the Spirit provided in the upper room at Pentecost to translate and allow all parties to hear clearly the power of God. We need a translator to take our sometimes cumbersome language and practices and make them real and spiritually relevant to a world that is moving at a faster pace toward full equality. In other words, we need to have the ability to translate the Love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in ways that are understood by generations who don't see a difference between the relationships of their LGBTQ friends and their straight friends. To keep treating them as separate and distinct is to create a further disconnect with the people who are seeking and searching for the God of Unconditional Love that they have heard tell about.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Length of a Second

The church bells, both in the tower and the handbell choir, rang out in memory of the nine people executed at Emanuel AME church last Wednesday evening, and prayers were said for them by name as well as their killer during the Prayers of the People. 

And I wept. The tears just flowed from my eyes. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine anything more horrific and senseless than that unleashing of hatred on a group of innocent people gathered for prayer and study. 

I was struck the other night when on the CBS Evening News, they reported that the white supremecist who shot and killed nine people at an AME church told the police that he had actually thought for a moment about not going through with his planned attack. He had been sitting with a group of people in a Bible study. But then he thought, "If I don't kill them, who will?"

This chilled me to the bone. 

For a moment in time, perhaps a second or a minute, Dylann Roof considered abandoning his premeditated murderous plot. Was it the experience of being in the presence of Christ that made him pause? Was it that these folks welcomed him in to their circle, trusting that he had come there with an intention of good and peace? How long or how fleeting was that moment that raised the question for him, 'Is this the right thing to do? Should I really shoot innocent people who I don't know at all and have done nothing to me'? I have no idea. Such a sociopathic mind that chooses death over life totally eludes me. 

The family members of the slain individuals spoke to Roof via an audio interface. He could not see them and he stood motionless in front of a video camera during his arraignment. He listened to the victims' families strain to keep their voices from cracking into sobs of grief. They spoke words of forgiveness and Love to him. But if you listen to them, you have that sense that even as they strived to forgive, they were battling against that rage that would take them away from the Love they hold dear to in times of trouble and sorrow. I can only imagine how difficult it is to find words to speak to someone who betrayed trust and wrecked havoc on the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. He made them, and their beloved people, his target for his warped vision of racial hatred. 

Many Episcopal Churches used the story of David and Goliath today, where David, a smaller in stature man defeats the Philistine warrior, Goliath, with a slingshot. As I listened to that story, I contemplated the many Goliaths that face us out of this tragic event and the many others like it. There is the obvious and ongoing problem of racism and race-based hatred. Some are quick to point out that "race" as in "skin color" is a social, not a biological, construct and that we are one human race. That is true. But we humans are more interested in finding those things which divide us rahter than unite us and so we cling to our social constructs to disasterous ends. We have another, equally as menacing Goliath called the National Rifle Association which continues to spread the false security of gun ownership. The NRA lines the pockets of Congress with dollar bills stained in the blood of those who have died because of the gun manufacturers' products. Everyone's afraid to take them on because, well, they've got money and weapons. But at some point, it has to be as socially unacceptable to own multiple guns as it is to be a chain smoker. These are two Goliaths we must be willing to tackle in the same way that David overcame the odds and defeated the Philistine. 

The church doors were open at Emanuel AME Church this morning, as they have been for many a Sunday year in and year out. This iconic photo, captured by Joe Raedle for Getty Images, tells the story of how a house built on Love will continue, and the old will welcome in the new. A new generation is coming and with that is the hope that these Goliaths that their ancestors have grown weary fighting will finally be laid to rest. This is my prayer. This is my hope. This is my cry in the wilderness.

General Thoughts on a Convention

I've been wrestling and thinking about what I want to say in advance of the upcoming 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Others have written quite a bit. There are the commentaries from the people on "the left" and the people on "the right." And, as one might imagine, the biggest topics of discussion (or at least the ones that are the most contentious) deal with the proposed changes in the church structure and the whole reimagining our mission (which fall under the acronym "TREC") and the even bigger subject of what makes a marriage a "Christian marriage" and will the Episcopal Church allow LGBT couples to be part of that definition? My blog has its beginnings in the exploration of my faith journey as a "queer Christian"; hence I'm going to stick just to giving attention to the marriage issue. I am interested in the potential restructuring of the Church, but I also have had enough life experience to be a bit leery of this idea that we're going to do a wholesale reinvention of the Episcopal Church in a 10-day convention. Such ambitious plans often generate a whole lot of heat without much actual fire because these ideas are always dependant on those with power being willing to share some of their authority with others. On the whole, human tendancy is to hoard perceived power and always find such excellent reasons why it can't be distributed more widely. So, I am not going to hold my breath on any big changes occuring soon.

That's what I have to say about TREC. I have a lot more to say about marriage. And I offer my thoughts based on my credentials as a newly-married lesbian and an active life-long Episcopalian who strives to walk closely with God.

A few weeks ago, in the Diocese of Florida, the bishop called a meeting of all the clergy in the diocese. It was not a mandatory meeting, but there was an implied message of "be there or be square!" The topic was not about the current Convention's proposals, or at least, not exactly. The subject up for discussion was the blessing of same-sex relationships. One might remember that General Convention 77 in Indianapolis three years ago already dealt with the adoption of a provisional marriage blessing rite for same-sex couples. But there had been no discussion or dialogue allowed on the issue of blessings nor any attempt to address it for the past three years. Some rectors of churches in the diocese had attempted to broach the subject and asked if they could be test parishes for using the blessing language. Each time, they were told "No." Even at this latest meeting, the ground rules for the discussion apparently began with an assurance that there would be no change in the diocesan rules in re: blesssing same-sex couples. However, a dialogue has started, even if it's years behind where the rest of the church has gone at this point.  

I also attended a meeting designed to let the laity and clergy of the diocese meet with the bishop and deputies heading to General Convention for the Diocese of Georgia. Unfortunately, only the bishop attended this particular session held in Albany, something that distressed a few of the people in the room. From my perspective, I was happy to have a 90-minute free-flowing question and answer period where we got to hear the thinking of the bishop. This kind of transparency is a welcomed change. And while I didn't always like or agree with the things I was hearing from the bishop, I took him at his word that he was remaining open on the question of the proposed marriage resolutions because he said there were many ideas getting floated and he was still wading through them all. He said he hopes that the U.S. Supreme Court settles the issue of marriage equality in favor of allowing LGBT couples to marry. I would imagine if the civil laws change, this will make a difference for those who want to follow the strict rubrics outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. From what I have observed and heard coming from a large number of people and clergy in the Diocese of Georgia, they're ready for the state to give them the go-ahead. The diocese already allows a portion of the blessing rite for same-sex couples to be used. Whether the whole diocese is ready to plunge into declaring that gays and lesbians can enter into this realm of "a Christian marriage" brings back 'round to whatever gets adopted at General Convention and whether it is something the bishop will allow to happen.

This is probably the most confusing and upsetting part for the vast majority of LGBT people who potentially could see themselves entering into a church. According to the latest Pew Research Survey on Religion, almost half of the the LGBT population identifies as having a religious affiliation with Christian being the most prominent choice. Finding a home in a faith community, however, is tricky business for LGBT people. Lots of us have turned or, in my case, returned to the Episcopal Church in no small part because of the posititve publicity generated by the consecration of bishops such as Gene Robinson and Mary Glasspool. We see the headlines about the Episcopal Church passing resolutions at General Convention that are marvelously progressive. We see the famous "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" signs on the property. If we''re lucky, we enter a church where the people are genuinely friendly and the clergy greet us and soon we find ourselves getting involved and becoming active. 

But when God's love for us results in the decision to baptize a child or get married or even feel a call to enter the ordained priesthood, too often in too many pockets of the church, the welcome and the warmth suddenly turns cold and unfriendly. We are welcomed to take part in the life of a church community as long as we don't let ourselves get too carried away with following the Spirit of God. We can play the organ, be in the choir, serve as an usher, but some of the sacraments of the church apparently come with fine print and restrictions. And this happens even after the General Convention has spoken in an affirming way about opening the doors of sacramental life to LGBT people. What the New York Times and Chicago Tribune don't explain is that, often times, the language of these resolutions makes sure to include  a "conscience clause" that allows individual bishops to opt out of conforming with what the General Convention has done. Progressive supporters of the LGBT community have said this is necessary in order to get these resolutions passed. But what they haven't considered is what happens when they give bishops such latitude in determining what would constitutes "generous pastoral care" in their "context" and how that just compounds injury to the LGBT faithful who find themselves in a church that nationally boldy proclaims a Gospel of Unconditional Love but locally it is Love predicated on whether we will agree to be "not so gay" or "in your face" (whatever that's supposed to mean!)

I see the same scenario brewing with this Convention and the adoption of a resolution changing the definition of "Christian marriage" to be "marriage between two persons" as opposed to the current "male and female" language. I see the church adopting this change to Canon law, big headlines, and then a refusal to implement in many dioceses that are South of the Mason-Dixon line. There is much fear about what will happen if the church opens this door: will gay people overrun the churches with marriage requests? Will a bishop get sued for failing to comply with this canonical change?

Let me answer the latter with simply referring people to a more knowledgable blogger on this point, Tobias Haller, who is a clergy deputy and served on the task force that has been examining the marriage issue: 
In A Godward Direction. I've linked part two of the three part discussion. Well worth the read if you want the academic and theological arguments.

On the former point, I go back to the statistics that show only 49-percent of LGBT people identify as being a member of a faith tradition. That's a larger number than I would have thought, and yet it also reflects a sad and disturbing truth about the churches: they have been so successful at making LGBTQ+ people feel as though they have no place at God's banquet table that the queer community has desserted the churches. Why, then, would they demand a church marriage ceremony when a civil marriage meets all the important legal needs? Our marriage was a civil ceremony, and yet it was, for me, a sacred moment in which the God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and manifested in Jesus Christ was present and a witness to our relationship. At times, I sometimes think that some in the church believe themselves to be more relevant to the LGBTQ+ community than they really are. Meanwhile, these same folks would be willing to withhold sacramental marriage from people who they know and see and live alongside in the pews. It all comes back to being afraid.  

Fear is a crippling emotion. And the more we stare at what we fear, the larger that fear seems to grow until it is a big looming monster that we can't possibly deal with and we freeze like a deer caught in the headlights. But just as love drives out the darkness, love will help us conquer our fears if we allow it to be the more dominant emotion. Love that is perfected through God casts out fear. These are not just platitudes and words culled from the letters in Scripture. This is the truism every time a person gives over the fear and allows him or herself to step out in faith. 

There are those who think we need to slow down and give more time to this discussion. One person actually told me that I need to acknowledge that there are people on the other side, and that anything worth doing takes a generation to get it done. Well, the issue of marriage equality actually kicked off in the country in 1975. The Episcopal Church has been pledging full inclusion of LGBT people since 1976. And if my math is correct, that's 40 and 39 years respectively. A generation is roughly 28 years, so we're already into our second generation. It's time for us to get serious about fulfilling the promise to our community that we have the same access to the sacraments as all other people.