Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Upper SC Curriculum For Parishes Considering Same Sex Blessings, or Not

The Bishop of Upper South Carolina, Andrew Waldo, is urging all of his congregations to undergo a series of facilitated conversations on same sex blessings whether they want to have such blessings or not. The Bishop has admitted that  these "meaningful conversations" will not change people's minds (see earlier post).

So what is the point? The unstated purpose is to keep people from leaving the Episcopal church. With that in mind, one might expect to hear soothing words that might further the goals of such an exercise. "Staying in relationship", "respecting differences",  "being together in mission", or similar catch phrases might come to mind.

Since those old catch phrases never worked in the past, perhaps our Bishop has a new plan.

The following text is from just one of the several sessions Bishop Waldo wants his people to go through.  I think it provides a good illustration of how the game is played.

1) Ask a question or two.
2) Present carefully selected background material from opposing sides in order to create the impression that there is no right or wrong answer to the question.
3) Cite "Prominent theologians" and present clearly heterodox views as if they were theologically equivalent to orthodox ones and worthy of equal consideration.
3) Provide carefully worded summaries with just enough information to confuse the average lay person.
4) Avoid answering the original question, and don't repeat it in the final set of questions.
5) Make sure that the final questions for discussion have zero relevance to most of the people who took time out of their lives for these conversations.

Are same-sex blessings the right or wrong thing to do?  Does God bless same-sex relationships?   (This material may be used for one or for two sessions.)  
Background: As Bishop Waldo notes: “That the Church seeks in all things to find its way faithfully and in accordance with God’s will matters. The historic tradition of the Church is and should be a cautionary  reminder  of  dangers  along  the  way.  Secular  influences  that  are  decidedly  not Christian  are  always  striving  to  pull  us  off  the  path,  whether  we  are  “conservative”  or “liberal.” Voices raised in faith and out of the pain of experience, however, remind us that God may be speaking a word to us that we have not yet heard, for whatever reason” (In Dialogue  with  Sacred  Tradition:  A  Pastoral  and  Theological  Reflection  on  Same-Sex Blessings, p. 24).
As  Bishop  Waldo  noted  in  his  Pastoral  and  Theological  Reflection,  the  1998  Lambeth Conference  of  bishops  reiterated  the  traditional  doctrine  of  Christian  marriage  in  its Resolution 1.10: “In view of the teaching of Scripture, [this Conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”  While the resolution went on to advise against the “blessing of same sex unions,” nevertheless it committed to “listen to the experience of homosexual persons” and assured such persons that they were “loved by God” and “full members of the Body of Christ.”
There are, Bishop Waldo suggests, a number of ethical questions that have been raised: “Are same-sex  blessings  equivalent  to  marriage,  such  that  the  two  should  share  the  same rite?
Are  they  similar  in  form  but fundamentally  different,  requiring  distinct  kinds of  rites?  Are they mutually exclusive, with marriage between one man and one woman the only faithful option?” (Background Note, In Dialogue with Sacred Tradition: A Pastoral and Theological Reflection on Same-Sex Blessings, p. 5). 
Narrowed  down,  the  central  question  seems  to  be:  Does  God  bless  lifelong, committed sexual  relationships  –  characterized  by  fidelity,  monogamy,  affection,  and  holy love  – between two Christians of the same sex?    
The following readings are designed to give us tools drawn from Holy Scripture, and from theological reflection upon Scripture, to help us as the Church respond faithfully to these pressing and difficult questions. (Note: While this document contains only summaries of the readings,  fuller  excerpts  from  these  texts  can  be  found  on  the  diocesan  website  in  an appendix.)  
Reading and Summary: 
“The Radical Hope in the Annunciation: Why Both Single and Married Christians Welcome Children,”  The  Hauerwas  Reader,  ed.  John  Berkman  and  Michael  Cartwright,  (Duke University Press, 2001).
In this essay, Stanley Hauerwas, a prominent theological ethicist at Duke who serves as Canon Theologian at Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in Nashville, reminds us that Christians don’t  “get  to  make  up  what  sex  is  for.”  Instead,  we  start  with  the  church’s historic practice of marriage, as it has been shaped by Holy Scripture.  We do this, rather than start from a “general account of human sexuality,” because we as the church are called to live together as Christ’s disciples. The church is called to be a witness to the world of what it looks like to live together as disciples of Jesus, full of fruits of the Spirit such as love, hope, peace, patience, gentleness, forgiveness and faithfulness. That means that when we think about sex, we have to think about where sex “fits” into the church’s overall character and mission.
As the church, we live as a people of faith and hope. Even when it seems like suffering and sin may have the upper hand, we have faith in the victory that Jesus won over sin and  death,  and so we  can  live  patiently  in  hope  until  the  day  when  Jesus  returns  to establish his Kingdom of love, peace and justice forever.
Marriage fits inside that larger vision. God will be faithful to his promises to save and renew his church, even when we are unfaithful to him. As we learn to respond with our own faithfulness to God’s deep and abiding faithfulness, we discover what it means to love  this  God  who  so  loves  us.  As  we  learn  how  to  respond  in  love  and  faith  to  this faithful  and  loving  God,  we  also  learn  how  to  live  with  our  spouses  in  love  and faithfulness. The church’s practice of marriage requires us to be faithful to our spouses “till death do us part,” even though we can’t possibly know what we’re getting ourselves into! But the promise of faithfulness gives us the time to discover what this love really means. And by God’s grace, knowing that God in Christ is forever faithful to us, we are able to live up to this promise. In this way, the love of our marriages reflect the love and faithfulness of Jesus.
Children fit within this vision, too. We have been given a very great hope in Jesus, so great that we believe the church is called to bear witness to it over many generations. Even our own individual deaths cannot swallow up this hope; Jesus destroyed death on Easter morning. We bear, raise and baptize children as a sign that even though we shall die and someday our children shall die, too, the hope we are given in Jesus is stronger than  death  itself.    We  raise  children  to  pass on  this  hope  and  faith to  those  who  will come after us.
The practice of marriage, then, as “unitive and procreative,” is one facet of the church’s larger  witness  in  the power  of  the  Spirit  to  the  love  and  faithfulness  of  God in  Christ. When we think about sexual ethics, we have to start here.    
Reading and Summary:
John Milbank, “Gay marriage and the future of human sexuality,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation Religion and Ethics, 13 March 2012 (
The  prominent  Anglican  theologian  John  Milbank  argues  that  male–female differentiation and procreation are an essential part of what Christian marriage means. He appeals to our created nature. As the popular book from several years back had it, Milbank  thinks  that  men  are  from  Mars  and  women  are  from  Venus—they  have significantly different ways of viewing and acting in the world. He rejects the common, older  view  that  women  thus  should  stay  in  their  place,  or  are  somehow  lesser  than men—men  and  women  are  of  equal  value  and  worth,  partners  that  need  each  other precisely in their difference.  And marriage, he thinks, is the ancient social institution that grew up in large part to bring men and women in all of their differences together, in a common project on equal footing. A key element of that common project, for Milbank, is bringing up the next generation. As  an  ethicist,  Milbank  is  concerned  that  severing  the  natural  link  between  sex  and childbirth will lead to deep and unwelcome cultural changes.  Most of us have a sense of,  and  deeply  value,  the  family  ties  that  go  back  generations—some  part  of  me,  for instance, is carried forward from the old homeplaces and traditions of my ancestors. And most of us can know that we were created in love by two persons and received as a gift, rather than made in a lab to precise specifications for a price. Milbank thinks that these basic, natural realities are at risk. In the complete essay, he argues (unlike Radner) that the church ought to accept same-sex blessings!  But he holds it is important to view them for what they are, as something valuable but distinct from marriage, so as not to efface the distinct value of traditional marriage itself.  
Reading and Summary: 
Ephraim Radner, “Same-Sex Marriage is Still Wrong,” The Anglican Communion Institute, 17  July  2013): is-still-wrong-and-its-getting-wronger-every-day/. 
This  excerpt  places  marriage  in  the  context  of  where  Christ  calls  us  to  follow  him  as disciples.  The  prominent  Episcopal  theologian  Ephraim  Radner  sees  “suffering procreative love” as deeply joined to what it means for humankind to follow our Lord in the way of the Cross. We are born to die, but marriage is a little red flag of love and hope we wave in the face of death: through the pain of childbirth and the great sacrifice of childrearing, we will pass along the deep goodness of life itself to the next generation. We will do this out of a love so strong that it’s willing to suffer great pains and losses; out of a sacrificial, agape love that’s faithful for the long haul, come what may. Out of this love comes the next generation; only out of this love will the next generation flourish. This Radner sees as deeply connected to walking in Christ’s footsteps as his disciples, as it images the suffering love of God in Christ that created and redeemed the whole world.
Marriage,  then,  Radner  understands  as  essentially  bound  up  with  this  “suffering procreative love,” with the project of men and women to bring forth and raise up the next generation. That is the deep logic to why Christian tradition has historically viewed procreation as essential to marriage; it “fits” with the whole story of how God in Christ has created and redeemed the world.  To make procreation an extra add-on rather than a  fundament  of  marriage  would,  then,  change  marriage’s  meaning  altogether.    As  a Christian ethicist, Radner reflects upon Scripture: what does it mean to say that marriage is a sacramental reality that somehow images “Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32)?  This is his explanation of the Christian tradition’s answer to the question, and he does not think revisionist views are capable of “fitting” nearly so well with the story of Scripture. 
Reading and Summary:
Deirdre Good, Willis Jenkins, Cynthia Kittredge, and Eugene Rogers: “Marriage begins in eros, and ends in caritas,” from “A Theology of Marriage Including Same-Sex Couples: A View from the Liberals,” Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2011. 
Summary: For these four Episcopal theologians, the love that is essential to marriage has nothing to do with male–female differentiation, nor does it necessarily involve the procreation of children.  Rather, marriage most basically is a “school for virtue” that teaches its pupils to grow in love: from eros, the erotic, romantic sexual desire of one for another that’s often the spark that first lights the marital flame; to caritas or agape, the love that loves the other as one’s own self.  In other words: the path to marriage might begin with seeing a  very  attractive  young  woman  across  a  crowded  room,  and  end  with  tightly holding that same woman’s hand 60 years later as she’s dying.  From eros, to caritas—not leaving eros behind, but eros growing into something deeper. That, these theologians propose, is what marriage is all about at bottom. It shapes our loves well, in the pathway of Christ. We might begin as amorous teenagers who “love” every cute movie star and pop idol we set our eyes on.  We are led by marriage to love our spouse for his or her own sake, rather than for the sake of our own sexual pleasure alone.  Marriage  is  thus  a  school  for  our  sanctification,  for  growing  in  holiness  as  our loves  grow  more  Christ-like.  Gender  differentiation  just  doesn’t  come  into  play,  and procreation  isn’t  essential  to  the process.  Same-sex  couples  do  this  just  as  well. They need marriage to sanctify their loves, just as opposite-sex couples do, and the church needs their own particular witness to Christ-like love. 
Questions for discussion:  
1. Why  does  Milbank  think  that  same-sex  marriage  will  change  the  basic  meaning  of marriage?  What does he think is risked in doing so?
2. How  might  it  be  argued  that  same-sex  blessings  won’t  change  the  basic  meaning  of marriage?  Are there ways in which one might argue that marriage and community would actually be strengthened?
3. Are there elements of “lifelong, committed sexual relationships characterized by fidelity [and] monogamy… between two committed Christians of the same sex” that are aspects of God’s creative purposes?  If so, what should be the response of the Church to preserve and encourage the growth of these elements?
4. Within your parish, what is at stake in your response to question 3?
5.  What further questions have been raised for you by this discussion?
These summaries do not help the average pewsitter to answer the questions posed at the very start of the exercise. It appears that the readings don't give the lay person "tools drawn from Holy Scripture" as promised by the Bishop. There is only one scriptural reference quoted, and that was from Radner, and that has at best only a tangential bearing on the question of same sex blessings. What the selected readings actually do is to pass along false teachings to the people, and that is precisely what a bishop is not supposed to do.

So just what is this narrative that our Bishop is trying to stitch together?

Like Odysseus'  Penelope, our bishop weaves and un-weaves his tapestry, presenting to the assembled crowd a work that will remain perpetually unfinished.
He may rely too long on Athena’s gifts –
talent in the handicraft and a clever mind:
so cunning... (apologies to Homer)
Clearly, Bishop Waldo does not want his congregations to come to a conclusion as to whether or not same-sex intercourse is blessed by God, or whether or not same sex blessings are the right thing to do (of course the answer to the latter should be based on the answer to the former). The goal is to convince enough people that there is no consensus from the experts, that there is no right or wrong answer, and that we can go on with this deception forever. With no end in sight, one might be easily persuaded to think, "What's the harm in offering a blessing?" and one might vote to allow their parish priest to perform the rite.

It will be interesting to see how this curriculum plays out in the various congregations in Upper South Carolina in the upcoming months. Given the underwhelming response the Bishop's curriculum has generated thus far, I suspect the diocese will muddle along with continued slow attrition as elderly, conservative minded folks die off and the hoped for flood of people coming in seeking same-sex blessings fails to appear.

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