Question: What do you think about the U. S. Supreme Court’s Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage? What does the Church do now?
Frank answers: I figured these questions would come up and I weighed whether I would get into them, especially at a time when everyone is talking at once. Let me preface my response by briefly rehearsing my “history” with homosexuals.
Today, which is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles in the liturgical calendar, is the anniversary of my ordination to the pastoral ministry in 1969. That was also one day after the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City that launched the gay liberation movement. Police harassment of gays had been building up all during the 1950s and 1960s and on this occasion the gays fought back.
As part of the sexual revolution that began around 1960, homosexual lifestyles were “coming out” into more mainstream culture through novels like John Recky’s City of Night and films like Midnight Cowboy. These portrayals of gay hustlers did not put homosexuals in the best light, but below the shock value was the sense of alienation and loneliness that these artistic expressions conveyed, as well as gay compassion for marginal people and moments of tenderness.
Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
In the early 1980s I served an urban congregation in Chicago that had several gay and lesbian members and we included them in the life of the congregation, including serving on the church council and as parish deacons, although not without some resistance. I experienced the different sides of gay lifestyle in this parish. I conducted the funerals of two African-American gay brothers who died of AIDS. I also conducted a house blessing for a gay couple who simply wanted to settle into a quiet domestic relationship. I have known gay and lesbian couples who have been quietly living together for 20 or 30 years, although without the benefits of legal marriage.
My two sons are gay. They came out as gay in high school and fortunately received the support of friends in our rather “progressive” Evanston community. They made it relatively unscathed through adolescence. Many gay youth do not. Many gay youth are alienated from their families and churches. They experience bullying in school. The percentage of gays among youth who commit suicide is high.
One son married his same-sex partner when California allowed same-sex marriage but is now divorced from him. The other has also married his same-sex partner when Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage. My wife and I were not able to attend either of their rather quickly arranged weddings, although we attended receptions for them at a later time. (See the update below this article on my younger son’s second marriage.)
Over the years I have taught the biblical and confessional understanding of marriage as divinely-instituted between a man and a woman with the promise of offspring while also ministering to gay and lesbian congregants and being supportive of my sons. During this time the battle for the civil right of marriage was waged by gays and lesbians and their supporters as state after state instituted the legal right of marriage to same-sex couples. Now the Supreme Court has said concerning same-sex marriage, “It is so ordered.”
In the light of this decision, for better or for worse, here is my answer. It will probably satisfy no one. It may not satisfy me. But writing something that might be read by others has a way of clarifying jumbled thoughts.
My response to the Supreme Court Decision
After studying and thinking about the Supreme Court’s decision over the weekend I’ve concluded that it was the correct decision under the current circumstances. First, same-sex marriage is already the law in some states, and the principle of comity suggests that once one state legalized same-sex marriage we would have to arrive at a point where that marriage would be reciprocally recognized in all states and by the federal government. The states control marriage by issuing licenses. And while regulations differ among the states, all the states and the Federal government recognize each state’s legal marriages. When the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act I assumed that this decision was inevitable. I don’t see how our federal system could require all legal marriages to be recognized and allow some states to not recognize the same-sex marriages legalized by other states.
Second, if marriage is defined strictly as a legal contract, then all applicants for a marriage license must be accorded equal rights before the law in conformity with the U.S. Constitution. It’s hard to avoid that issue of civil rights. The dissenting opinions raise the objection that marriage is more than a legal contract. It is! And Justice Kennedy’s majority ruling recognizes the deeply personal and socially consequential character of marriage. But in an officially secular state (we have no established religion, and the U.S. Constitution forbids the establishment of one) how else can the court regard marriage than as a legal contract? Would we want the Court to be establishing a religious definition of marriage? I wouldn’t.
Moreover, if the court had agreed with Chief Justice Roberts that human societies from time immemorial have understood marriage as a union of male and female geared biologically toward procreation and established that as the basis for marriage law in the U.S., all previously licensed and contracted same-sex marriages would have been invalidated. It would be a situation not unlike the effect the Dred Scott Decision had on fugitive slaves seeking freedom in non-slave states.
Chief Justice Robert also argued in his Dissent that the U.S. Constitution nowhere speaks about marriage, that it’s a stretch to link it to the 14th amendment, that it has been an issue reserved to the states, and that judicial fiat cuts short public discussion and legislative deliberation. These are valid points that can and will be debated. In the light of that possibility, I disagree with the Chief Justice that this decision by “five lawyers” manages to effectively shut down what has been a lively debate on this issue. As Roe v. Wade did not shut down debate about abortion, so Obergefell v. Hodges will not shut down debate about same-sex marriage.
How will the Churches respond?
The Court cannot put a restraint on the free exercise of religion or public speech, and so far it has shown no inclination to do so. Preachers and politicians will not be muzzled. In fact, Justice Kennedy referenced the guarantee of freedom of religion in the Constitution in the majority decision (as did Chief Justice Roberts in his Dissent).
Most churches will continue to teach and practice a traditional understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of a man and a woman with the promise of the gift and heritage of children. This includes the Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, Evangelical, and Pentecostal Churches, as well as conservative branches of historic Protestant traditions such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. There have also been schisms in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian Churches over supporting same-sex marriages, including the ordination of candidates living in same-sex relationships, that have produced new denominations opposed to same-sex marriage. Add to this mix Orthodox Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other global religions now being planted in the U.S., and it is clear that the religious sector of our country, as expressed in the various religious teachings, is nowhere near embracing same-sex marriage.
There will undoubtedly be conflicts between church and state in areas where religions offer services to the general public, such as in schools and social services. We have already seen these conflicts in such matters as refusing to hire teachers in parochial schools who are living in a same-sex marriage and church social service agencies forbidding adoptions by same-sex couples. There have also been cases of bakers, caterers, and photographers being slapped with fines (and worse!) for refusing to provide their services for same-sex weddings. So the courts will have plenty of opportunities to adjudicate state challenges to the free exercise of religion for both religious institutions and individual believers. State legislatures may also pass laws protecting religious freedom, as some already have. Surely a country as big and diverse as ours can find ways to accommodate dissenters if common sense rather than ideology prevails.
What should the churches do now? Some churches have clearly defined positions that marriage is only between a man and a woman and they will expect their ordained ministers to uphold their teachings from the pulpit and in marital practice. I think churches need to continue teaching the biblical understanding of marriage as a conjugal union between a man and a woman as an arrangement God blesses. But I also think that in the light of this new situation even those Churches that do not countenance same-sex unions will have to decide what kind of pastoral care they will provide for their gay and lesbian congregants.
Pope Francis has spoken of “accompanying” those who live in morally ambiguous ethical situations, including homosexual church members. What would this “accompaniment” look like for pastors? Attending state-sanctioned same-sex weddings of members? Would the marriages of same-sex couples be included in the thanksgivings and intercessions of the church in public worship?
For those pastors whose denominations allow clergy to officiate at same-sex wedding (like my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), the question will arise as to what rite is available for such celebrations. The content of the traditional order for Marriage that references a conjugal union is not appropriate for same-sex weddings. We should also remember that every wedding in the U.S. is a civil wedding because it is licensed by the state. When clergy officiate at a wedding they do so as agents of the state who have been given authority by the state (not the church!) to witness the wedding and certify that it took placed within the jurisdiction and time frame specified in the license. As ordained ministers of the Church pastors and priest may add to the marriage service other, specifically Christian, ritual elements such as Scripture readings, homily, prayers, and perhaps the Eucharist. Officiating is a civil function; blessing is a priestly function. What cannot be included in a same-sex marriage rite, in my view, is the nuptial blessing because there is no word of Scripture pertaining to same-sex marriage on the basis of which we may proclaim God’s blessing on this union. Nor is there a clear prohibition of same-sex marriage in the Bible, even though same-sex marriage was practiced in Greco-Roman society.
So what can be done? Speaking as a liturgist, the only rite I know of is The Episcopal Church’s order for “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” (just authorized in their General Convention). This rite is carefully crafted to provide the character of a marriage service but nowhere speaks of marriage or even of sexuality. The rite provides a prayer for God’s grace on a covenant commitment between two persons in which they promise to “support and care” for each other until death parts them. It does not proclaim a nuptial blessing based. But it draws on the Bible’s teaching about covenant fidelity. This rite offers one solution to the problem of what to say when one is officiating at a same-sex wedding. It provides communal and spiritual support as the couple enters into a lifelong covenant. Maybe it is a model of what can be done to provide a marriage rite for gay and lesbian Christians that is different from the traditional marriage rite in content and does not compromise the biblical teaching regarding marriage as a conjugal union.
Offering such a rite assumes that the pastor or priest believes or is at least open to the possibility that the Bible’s condemnations of particular homosexual practices do not address the contemporary issue of two persons of the same sex entering into a committed, loving, lifelong relationship. But I think even pastors and congregations in denominations that don’t approve of same-sex marriage and will not solemnize them are going to have to figure out what they can do to provide pastoral care for their gay and lesbian members who will take advantage of their new legal opportunity. I see some rough passages ahead for pastors and churches as we try to figure this out.
In addition to debating interpretations of biblical texts and natural law, it might be helpful to get to know gay people and learn about gay love and ordinary gay life.
Pastor Frank Senn
Update: My divorced son married his boy friend on October 6, 2016 and the whole extended families of my son and his husband were at the wedding to show their support. I officiated for deeply personal reasons to show my support to my son and to speak some words that might be helpful to the families. It was not a church wedding and I officiated as a licensed marriage officiant of the City of New York.
Nick and Ben exchange their vows.