One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church, in which I am privileged to serve, is the Church's use of sacraments in its rich, liturgical life. As a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I had to memorize the definition of a sacrament: A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as a sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. So in the sacrament of Baptism, the outward and visible sign was water, and the inward and spiritual grace was the baptized being grafted and incorporated into Christ's Body, the Church. In the sacrament of Holy Communion or the Eucharist, the outward and visible signs were the bread and wine and water, the inward and spiritual grace was being spiritually fed and nurtured by Christ's sacrificial giving.
This is Christian language, perhaps difficult to make much sense out of unless it's your own language. But the thing about the sacraments that made sense to me, even as a child, is that the sacraments took the great mysteries of our faith (How does one explain the grace of God given to people?) and made them concrete, so to speak. We can't see what happens to an infant, spiritually, when the infant is baptized. But we can hear the water flowing into the baptismal font, and the person being baptized can certainly feel the wetness of the water. Likewise in the Holy Eucharist, we understand that we are being nourished by Christ's self-giving and presence, but we can only taste and see that the Lord is good (as the popular hymn goes).
The thing that I would ask people to consider is that the sacraments are not things that we bestow upon people. They are not means by which we human beings proffer grace. It is God who gives grace to God's people. God is the author of all blessing. So what is it that we are doing when we celebrate a sacrament or offer a religious blessing? We are recognizing God's gift of grace in others. And, most usually, we are recognizing God's gift of grace in the context of a community, which not only recognizes God's grace, but pledges to support the people receiving it.
So, an infant is not a child of God by virtue of its baptism. An infant is a child of God by virtue of its birth. What happens in baptism is that the Community of Faith recognizes God's gift of grace in the life of that infant, and the community pledges to support and uphold that person as he or she grows in the life of faith. In other words, the Church, through its sacraments, recognizes realities that already exist (i.e. the fact that God has given God's grace into the life or lives of people); celebrates that fact, and pledges its support to the ongoing life.
In the Episcopal Church, marriage has traditionally been treated as a sacrament. The outward and visible signs of the sacrament are the rings and vows that two people make to each other. The inward and spiritual grace is the reality of the relationship the two people already have given by God. The Church doesn't make marriages or give God's grace to the marriage. God's grace is God's to give! What the Church does is recognize the love and relationship two people already have and desire to grow in, and pledge the community's support to the couple, helping to uphold their vows of to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.
Now for the big question. Are there lesbian and gay couples who love and cherish each other, and stick together through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, who appear to manifest the grace of God, already given in their lives together? Do we have currently existing in our communities gifts from God that have not yet been recognized by the community as a whole? What would be the benefits (if any) of recognizing, blessing, or solemnizing those relationships?
I believe we do have both hidden and more readily apparent gifts from God in our religious communities. Gay and lesbian couples of all ages and races and ethnicities have managed to receive God's grace even as the Church has declined to recognize it in them. For many gay and lesbian people this has been more than sufficient reason to leave or forget the Church, and simply live out their lives together in as wholesome and healthy ways as is possible. My own sadness about this is that it is the Church that misses out! The life of the very Church that I love will be so enriched once it finds a way to publically, respectfully, and intentionally recognize God's grace poured into the lives of gay and lesbian couples who have committed themselves to one another and are already living lives of great integrity.
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