law, ministry, same-sex marriage

Frank Answers About Same-Sex Marriage

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.

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 but is now divorced from him. The other has also married his same-sex partner. My wife and I were not able to attend their rather quickly arranged weddings, although we attended receptions for them at a later time.

[Update on October 24, 2016. My divorced son married his boy friend  on October 6 and the whole extended families of my son and his husband were at the wedding to show their support and I officiated for deeply personal reasons. See Frank Answers About His Same-Sex Wedding Homily.]

Over the years I have taught the biblical and confessional understanding of marriage  as divinely-instituted. It is between a man and a woman with the promise of offspring. I taught this while also ministering to gay and lesbian congregants and being supportive of my sons. So, 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.

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.

The force of political correctness will undoubtedly curtail open discussion in corporations and universities, as it already has, but not in the churches or the public square. 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, blessings, intercessions, and perhaps the Eucharist. Officiating is a civil function; blessing is a priestly function. What cannot be included in a same-sex marriage rite is the nuptial blessing because there is no word of Scripture pertaining to same-sex marriage.

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 on the promises concerning marriage in the Bible; there are no such biblical promises for same-sex marriages. But marriage in the Bible is also 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.

Pastor Frank Senn

Same-sex wedding female

6 Comments

  1. Karl Johnsen

    I agree that there is nothing in the Episcopal blessing to which you refer that could not be offered in good conscience. The place where I would argue for caution is in what Amy Schifrin has spoken of in the past, wherein the liturgy is performatively exegetical. When you have a couple approach the altar, hold hands, exchange vows and rings, and receive a blessing, I would be hard pressed not to call it a wedding. In any event, anyone who walked in off the street and saw it happening would assume this to be the case. Why? Because if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck …..

    It is also important to note that the LBTQ community has never been keen on liturgies of this kind. They see them as dishonest half measures, and as hypocritical. It looks to them like a duck, and sounds to them like a duck. Therefore it seems hypocritical to them that we will not use the word “duck”.

    Another caution I would have is that we as Lutherans hold that God’s word comes to us as Law and Gospel. I wonder how this would apply to a blessing of this kind being offered without an a priori admonition to shun immorality.

    I know that this issue is much more personal to you than to most of us. And I want you to know that this is something with which I too struggle. I can even agree that once the horse is out of the barn, it becomes impossible to live with differences between one state and another. If the Dred Scott decision and the ensuing chaos has taught you Yanks anything, it has taught you that.

    On balance I would have to say that my Libertarian streak would say that if a society wishes to allow such a thing, then it is free to do so. And it is also free to suffer all of the consequences that come with such a decision. The troubling thing is that even as one freedom is given, there are more and more examples of other people’s freedom being taken away.

    • Frank Senn

      Dear friend from north of the border, with regard to the Rite of Blessing on which you comment, I don’t think there is any deception. It would be performed at same-sex weddings and it has the very shape of the Marriage Service. It does not use readings that refer to the institution of marriage in Genesis (male and female, two become one flesh, be fruitful and multiply), nor does it include such references in the prayer of blessing. How could it? Instead it draws on Scripture’s abundant images of the Lord’s covenant fidelity (steadfast love) with his people and seeks to root this human relationship in that kind of commitment.

      As for shunning immorality, one would hope that the institution of marriage would contain sexual acts within a monogamous relationship for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. “Forsaking all others” should apply to all married couples, whether gay or straight.

  2. Rev. Luke Seamon, STS

    Rev. Senn,

    Please read my comments with the deepest respect and charity from one minister of the Gospel to another.

    I find this to be a rather baffling post, and honestly quite disappointing. Your comments seem to be more capitulation than argumentation. There is simply no warrant nor grounds in all of Scripture, the Creeds, or our Lutheran Confessions to acknowledge or bless anything like a “same-sex marriage”. We have no command, nor anything close to permission from our Lord, to bless a homosexual erotic relationship. Indeed, this is so clearly condemned as sin that to suggest that we could bless it is extremely troublesome, in the very least.

    You assert that pastoral care of homosexuals will somehow necessitate that we acknowledge and bless homosexual couples, but give no arguments. On what grounds do you make this argument? How is good pastoral care blessing what St. Paul says will lead to ones exclusion from the Kingdom of God? How can we as under-shepherds claim to have discovered a better pastoral care than the shepherd? Is this not rather abandoning our vocation in order to make accommodation?

    I pray you will reconsider your teaching on this.

    peace and all good+

    Pr. Luke Seamon

  3. Frank Senn

    Dear Pastor Seamon,

    Yes, I raised the question of the Churches accommodating this new situation even as they continue to teach the biblical view of marriage. Here’s why.

    Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. We may continue to debate the decision on legal, moral, even ontological grounds along the lines of Chief Justice Roberts’ Dissent, but unless the Supreme Court overturns this decision it is a ruling we will be living with. Gay and lesbian members of Churches, even Churches that won’t permit same-sex marriage, will seek this “civil right” for themselves.

    How will our pastors and congregations provide pastoral care for such couples in order to keep them within the orbit of the church’s life? The rite I referenced (the only one I know of) would probably be used by Churches that do want to bless same-sex marriages. Undoubtedly many (most?) clergy will not even consider such a possibility. So then in what other ways can our congregations offer a ministry to same-sex couples? Or are they simply to be shunned? I know some gay and lesbian people who have in fact been shunned by their families and churches.

    There may be an argument to be made in favor of accommodating same-sex marriage along the lines of St. Paul’s “better to marry than to burn.” It seems to me that homosexuality is not a condition that is freely chosen no matter what its cause. The condition itself is not condemned in the Bible (“homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are modern terms), only particular actors are. St. Paul lists some actors who will not inherit the kingdom of God. What is meant by “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11? (The term “homosexuals” cannot be used to translate the two Greek terms in this text). Are they cult prostitutes and rapists? Is Greek pederasty involved? How does this list of condemnations relate to Paul’s (and Luther’s) central message that we are justified by faith through grace for Christ’s sake?

    I agree that we have no authority from Scripture to bless same-sex marriages. Some Christians have argued that we have no authority from Scripture to baptize infants, but the Churches have accommodated this practice to the point where it has become practically the norm. I don’t expect same-sex marriage to become the norm of marriage. But maybe at this point we must remember what Luther wrote to his colleague Philip Melanchthon when he was considering undertaking some reforms that the Catholic Church would consider sins: “sin boldly and trust God’s grace more boldly.”

  4. Rev. Luke Seamon, STS

    For pastoral care of homosexuals you have overlooked a third option which is consistent with Scripture and the Christian Tradition: church supported celibacy. Certainly we ought not simply drive out all who have same sex desires or orientation, but an equally tragic error would be to pretend Scripture has no clear teaching on the act of sex: between a man and woman in lifelong marriage. Are we no longer to teach this simply because the Supreme Court has ruled it in error?

    The Church has long supported celibacy as a faithful way to live as a disciple of Jesus. The truth is that one can live a full, blessed life in celibacy, but needs the support of the entire Christian community. Why not make use of this tradition for our era?

  5. Frank Senn

    I agree that celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is a noble calling (also for heterosexuals). It is for those who discern that they have the gift and it requires the support of the whole Christian community (as does marriage, actually). But it is not for everyone. I recall that Luther’s words in his letter to Melanchthon from the Wartburg about his decision to “sin boldly, and trust the grace of God more boldly still” were in reference to his intended proposal to call for a ban on enforced celibacy. Churches and ministeriums, including those that won’t bless same-sex marriages, had better be discussing how to deal with and provide pastoral care for members who are are in same-sex relationships and go to the county court to get married and then continue to be active in their congregations.

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