Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Forsaking All Others

There has been, as one would expect, a lot of talk about marriage equality in the past few months, especially since the President's announcement about his support of it. Although his support of it is not surprising, a great many odd comments have been made about it, some accusing him of changing his position for purely political reasons. I happen to think that there is nothing odd about a state senator supporting marriage equality in Illinois, but deciding not to do so as a US senator. Different roles often call for slightly different positions. What should be obvious is that the President has been a supporter of the rights of Americans who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

More troubling to me than the critical comments about the President's position, have been assertions that marriage equality puts us on a slippery slope to accepting polygamy. Most of those who make these assertions are Christians, arguing that same-sex marriages are inconsistent with Biblical marriage. Of course, anyone who has actually read the Bible knows that there is not just one pattern of marriage seen as acceptable. However, these critics of marriage equality do get one thing right. Over time Jews and Christians came to believe that monogamous lifelong unions were, if you will, God's will. In western democracies these have also been accepted, with perhaps some waffling on lifelong, as the one kind of relationship that deserved legal recognition. Sadly, what we have now in the US is both lifelong monogamy and serial monogamy. There is, I think, no reason to believe that marriage equality will do anything to increase the incidence of serial monogamy. It will not destroy what its critics like to call traditional marriage.

There are two qualities of marriage that I think are just as likely to be true in same-sex as in opposite-sex marriages, and may, for a variety of reasons be more likely in same-sex marriages: mutuality and fidelity. When a couple marries in the Episcopal Church, they include in the statement of their intention to forsake all others. I often like to point out to couples that the others should include anyone or anything that becomes more important than one's spouse, but the most obvious meaning of this is that what the Church describes as a union in "heart, body, and mind" is intended to be exclusive. I think one reason why fidelity is essential is because without it mutuality will not be possible. Even with fidelity, most married people find mutuality challenging at times. This may be particularly true for men married to women. Patriarchy is still a powerful force in society and it is often very hard work for men - and at times women - to leave the father knows best mentality behind. Mutuality means, as a colleague once said in a wedding homily, that it's not about me, it's about her. If I am in the relationship to get my own way, to get my needs met, then I am not committed to mutuality. While all healthy relationships do involve mutuality, the mutuality that is intended in marriage, that union of heart, body, and mind, is not possible in polygamous relationships. We cannot give ourselves wholly and unconditionally to more than one person.

Like the domino theory on the 1960s, the slippery slopeargument against marriage equality sounds hollow. What rings true, and what the wider society needs to hear from Christians, is our support for lifelong monogamous marriages marked by fidelity and mutuality, our belief that it is such marriages that most of us will flourish.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I bullied another student when I was in junior high. I only did it once. A friend and I decided to gang up on a classmate we didn't like, although I cannot remember what it was about him that we didn't like. Things went as planned until somehow the boy we were bullying got me down on the floor, sat on my chest, and punched me in the nose. My nose broke and I learned a lesson.

Not that bullying was wrong, but that I wasn't much of a fighter.

I learned the more important lesson much later as I began to hear stories about kids who didn't fit in being bullied. Perhaps Mitt Romney hasn't heard those stories or hasn't made the connection between the bullying that happens every day in America and the "pranks" that he did when he was at Cranbrook. Maybe Romney doesn't think bullying is serious. It is and what Romney and I did as teens was wrong. Not a a little high spirited horsing around, but ugly use of power to hurt and humiliate another person.

I like to think I was lucky to have had my nose broken that day in junior high. Maybe if I had succeeded in my bullying I would have kept on doing it. If the stories from Romney's fellow students at Cranbrook are accurate, he was a more successful bully than I. As hard as it can be to own up to our bad deeds, I think Romney would do us a great service by admitting that what he did was bullying and join other leaders in taking a stand against bullying

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Marriage and Diocesan Autonomy

In a recent post Fr. Eric Funston pointed out a distinction between marriage, a relationship governed by the state, and matrimony, the Christian sacrament. In describing marriage he said that it was a relationship which the parties could not dissolve by themselves, but only with the consent of the state.

As I read his post I recalled my use of the metaphor of marriage to describe the relationship between an Episcopal diocese and the Episcopal Church. When a group of Episcopalians get themselves organized enough to want to form an Episcopal diocese, they ask that this new diocese be admitted into union with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the highest authority within this hierarchical church. The organizing convention of the new diocese has to agree to abide by the Episcopal Church's rules, its Constitution and Canons. 

It was the use of the word union in describing the new Diocese's relationship with the Episcopal Church that led me to use the marriage metaphor to talk about that relationship. Granted, the metaphor isn't perfect, but I think it helps us as we consider those dioceses whose conventions have voted to leave the Episcopal Church. While there is no canonical provision for such a separation for dioceses within the US, there is provision for dioceses that were organized outside the country. It provided that such a diocese could request to become part of another church within the Anglican Communion. Those requests would have to be agreed to by the General Convention. Taking that canonical provision as a starting point, I concluded that the only way that a diocese could divorce itself from the Episcopal Church was with the consent of the General Convention. Both the diocese's organizing convention and the General Convention agreed to the union, so only the two bodies together could dissolve it. While a marriage can be dissolved without the consent of both parties, that only happens when a civil court agrees with the party seeking the divorce. As there is no court in the Anglican Communion to settle these divorce questions, the mutual consent of both parties would be required for an Episcopal diocese to leave the Episcopal Church.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marriage Equality

Yesterday I got involved in a long and perhaps fruitless discussion on Facebook of the President's announcement. I tried to restrict my comments to civil marriage, but religion has a way of creeping in. I made an argument there which I had first heard made at the Chautauqua Institution by the Rev. Oliver Thomas, a lawyer and a Baptist minister. Thomas argued that religious people need to make secular arguments when they engage in public policy discussions in order to be effective. I said that arguing that God prohibits same-sex intimacy simply is not an effective or perhaps even valid argument in a discussion of civil marriage equality. For arguments to be effective they need to address the question of whether marriage equality contributes to the common good. I understand that framing the question this way would seem unnecessary if we believe that marriage is a right, but I find that that argument, like the religious arguments, is not particularly effective. 

A few of those posting comments did accept the challenge to frame their comments in secular terms. Two arguments against marriage equality were made, one focusing on the procreation and raising of children, and the other on a perception that gay and lesbian people are not capable of fidelity. The latter argument is a mean-spirited red herring that it is almost impossible to engage. Over time I thnk that warped perception will disappear as people have more and more friends who are married to persons of the same sex. The argument about children is worth engaging, although we do not require that married couples procreate. The evidence is that children raised by same-sex parents are just as healthy as children raised by opposite-sex parents. The idea that children must be raised by a father and a mother is a new one in human history, as children have, until recently, been raised in extended families and other wider circles of adults. The modern nuclear family is, in fact, not at all good at raising children by itself, nor matter the sex of the parents. 

After reading an excellent post at Tobias Haller's blog In a Godward direction, I found myself translating a religious argument into a secular one. In the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, the purposes of Christian marriage are laid out. Only after listing the couple's "mutual joy" and "the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity" does the description of purposes include "the procreation of children." That purpose statement seems to me to be a valid one for any marriage. If we believe that marriages have played an important role in the making married adults better people, people who contribute to the common good, then why would we deny the society the benefit that will come from allowing same-sex couples to marry?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Now, North Carolina?

My colleague Mike Kinman, Dean of the Cathedral in Saint Louis, wrote a letter to the editors of his local papers and posted it on his blog, Come Together, with an explanation of why he had taken such a public stand on marriage equality. The post is worth reading and I posted comments which I share here with some editing.

I have already posted about the NC vote, expressing my view that fear was the motivator for many who voted for Amendment One. I hope that that two conservative mentors that Mike mentions in his blog post  would have opposed the amendment because of their awareness that an amendment of this sort about an issue where there is such a diversity of convictions is bad public policy. 

A few years ago someone writing in The Atlantic suggested that the best path for dealing with this marriage issue was through allowing the states to decide. We now have a handful of states trying what The Atlantic writer would call the marriage equality experiment and the results will be there for other states to see as they consider the question. (The divorce rate in Massachusetts went down a bit in the year after the Commonwealth got marriage equality.)

North Carolina has, sadly, locked itself into a position where changing its marriage laws will be much harder. The federal courts may end up declaring Amendment One unconstitutional, not the ideal way for change to happen, as it provides ammunition to those who enjoy attacking "activist judges."  If the Defense of Marriage Act is overturned and NC refuses to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who were legally married elsewhere, there will be some couple who will sue the state in federal court. I would discourage any of the same-sex married couples that I know from moving to NC unless they want to engage in that kind of court case.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Thank You, Mr. President!

I think the title says it all.

A Sad Day

The decision of the voters in North Carolina was a sad one. I give thanks for all those religious leaders who took a stand against Amendment One, but it seems that fear won. The fear that somehow allowing people of the same sex to marry one another will destroy the marriages of opposite-sex couples. The fear that children who see healthy same-sex marriages might choose to be gay. The fear that same-sex couples might show us that there is a way to have marriages of equal partners. What is also very sad about this Amendment to North Carolna's Constitution is that, unlike the First Amendment to the US Constitution, it does not protects rights but denies them. Imagine how our First Amendment would read if those who wrote Amendment One had written it - freedom of religion and speech and peaceable assembly for opposite-sex couples only, or only for conservative Christians, or only for property owning white men. A sad day, but in time the people of North Carolina will see the truth about marriage equality and that truth will set them free.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Elizabeth Warren Controversy?

Driving back home at noon today I heard a Boston journalist say that he would not have checked the minority box that Elizabeth Warren checked even though he is 1/16th Native American. He said it in a way that seemed to me to convey the assurance that his decision was the only reasonable one and that Warren's decision must, therefore, be open to severe criticism. I disagree. The decisions we make about seld-identification should rarely be open to challenge. There is no evidence that Warren's decision to self-identify as having Native ancestors was made with the intention of furthering her career, nor is there any evidence that it did. Absent any evidence of the sort, her decision should go unchallenged. 

The manufactured controversy reflects not only the way in which politics often "majors in the minors" but also a tendency which people have to want to define the Other. Pigeonholing people makes life seem less complicated, although that is a delusion. Pigeonholing people is also a favorite pastime of many privileged folks. Thus Romney, whose privileged status should be obvious, tries to pigeonhole Obama with comments about his having spent too much time at Harvard. (Doesn't Romney have a Harvard degree or two?) Attempts to classify others or to denigrate their decisions about their identities are not as much about understanding as about power. If we can successfully put someone in her place - it's more often her place than his - then we have power to get what we want, often, maybe usually, at the expense of the other person. 

Whether it's a refusal to allow Warren to claim her family's story of a Natve ancestor, or a refusal to refer to groups by the name they choose for themselves - remember the consternation with which some white folks clung to calling Americans of African descent "colored"? - or even the uneasiness many of us feel about using the pronouns that transgendered people claim for themselves, at heart it's about power. At its best it's about our power to have a way to understand the world around. At its worst it's about the power to control others, to make them what we want them to be, rather than who they know themselves to be. 

If Elizabeth Warren isn't elected to the Senate, I hope it's about the issues and about the experience and character of the candidates and not about the non-issue of Warren's self identification. The citizens of the Commonwealth deserve that.