Celebrating The Holy: Marriage Equality As Sacrament

I've been preparing to write about the gardens at St. Mark's Church where I work, or our food pantry or the power of place, but the state of New York and The Episcopal Church keep making strides on marriage, bringing the inner workings of our church into the national media and since this won't always be the case, I have one further point to make on this issue.

In much of the Christian world, marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments are understood slightly differently in different Christian traditions. You can find an Eastern Orthodox understanding here. In the Episcopal tradition, some would say there are only two sacraments, Baptism and Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion). Some, me included, would say there are more, including Marriage.

Our church was mentioned in The Guardian a few weeks ago and inadvertently entered a bit of a controversy about sacraments. A member of our church and Guardian writer Theo Hobson writes about how he has found our style of worship at St. Mark's Church, particularly how we approach the preparation, consecration and distribution of the elements at the sacrament of the Holy Eucharistic, deeply moving. We don't have pews; we sit in chairs arranged in a large circle around the altar, which is a 5' wide, round, low table. At the time of communion we gather around the table. I have heard from many in the congregation that it is surprisingly quite moving. In response to Theo's article, we've heard some concern from people deeply committed to other styles of worship, that our worship feels threatening to their preferred style. I think their concern speaks to the same impulse Theo is writing about. Sitting in rows in what has come to be traditional in The Episcopal Church, observing a late medieval style of ritual, is deeply moving for them.

Religious practices are not simply a matter of intellectual submission or ecclesiastical orthodoxy or canon law. When they work, we are changed. The Buddhist discipline in meditation might be the best-known example of ritual that changes individuals and communities, but we too, as Christians, practice rituals in the belief that we are centered in the presence of God and community to the sacred at work in our midst through the regular practice of ritual. It is not simply a matter of belief, but a matter of experience.

Christians in the traditions I know, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy, believe we are participating in a narrative far greater than our lived experiences, defined in the relationship of the Creator with Creation or Christ with the Church. For the Orthodox the Church mitigates that relationship. For Anglicans there is that established reality, the Church, and some space for more of an emerging understanding of God as knowledge influences wisdom. Whether it is the pre-colonial liturgies of the Middle Ages, the Broad Church practice of the majority of Episcopalians or the Post-Colonial circle at St. Mark's, Anglican ritual responds to the divisions of our day with a Godly desire for reconciliation, enacted in ritual.

Which brings us to marriage. Now that it's legal for same sex couples to marry, Episcopalians, whose canons (church laws) say that we marry in conformity with the laws of the church and the state are invited to a sacramental understanding of marriage beyond gender. For most of us that has been an intellectual exercise that seems reasonable enough because of our experience of our own relationships and other wonderful gay and lesbian couples in our congregations and communities. Some of us have offered blessings to same sex couples for some time now, in acts that move us towards recognizing these relationships as sacramental in nature, at least on the very local level. The Gospels call us to "testify to what we see" and we do. The church as a whole, however, has not expanded its notion of marriage beyond gender. Sacraments are foundational to our understanding of God at work in the world, so significant conformity is expected, but we are also a tradition that takes our lived reality seriously.

For those of us aware of the history of the Church and those people the Church has been slow to recognize as fully deserving of all sacraments, it is not that much of a stretch to imagine that there are still others whose full humanity remains invisible to the establishment and whose inclusion requires the institution to take risky and seemingly novel stands. The recognition of the full humanity of people who are not at least middle class and English men, all women, people of differing physical, intellectual or emotional abilities, and shamefully many others are fairly new innovations in the Church. Depending upon your understanding of gender, this might or might not be comparable to the pews vs. chairs dilemma. What brings some to God and the Church can be profoundly alienating to others.

It might be easier for us in The Episcopal Church because as a tradition we do not say that marriage is specifically for the purpose of procreation or the nurture of children. We acknowledge the validity and wholeness of married couples that do not produce or care for children. Unlike some traditions, we do not say the Church mitigates marriage. We celebrate interfaith marriages. We say marriage is a covenant made between the two who seek from the Church the blessing of their marriage. We have said that clergy (priests, deacon and bishops) are advised to respond pastorally (compassionately and appropriately with discernment to emerging situations) in places where civil marriage between persons of the same sex is allowed.

For most of us that sounds like permission to marry, but the disparity of responses in the Episcopal Diocese in the state of New York illustrates that the church overall has not done the work of expanding the definition of marriage. In our tradition, change tends to come after a period of local testing, so this is not unusual, but we are not yet done. We meet as a body triennially in General Convention to discern our future on exactly this kind of issue.

A sacrament, and I believe marriage is one, is a manifestation of God's grace and love, an outward and visible sign, we say. Something you can see and understand that points to what God might be like.

The relationship between two people in marriage as we understand it today is miraculous and holy. That is obvious when we know people who are wonderful together, and it is also illustrated in its holiness when relationship is fraught with struggle, betrayal, misunderstanding, annoying family burdens or old baggage. The fact that we choose to hold together when nothing in the world demands it of us is also a sign that we are more than creatures ruthlessly pursuing our individual good. We seek relationship; we love; we risk, and in doing so, we are participating in the Biblical narrative of the faithful who seek the face of God.