GENERAL CONVENTION 2003
One person's thoughts about same-sex blessings
Deputy Lowell Grisham (C1 Arkansas)
July 20, 2003
We all grow up being
taught the conventional wisdom of our surroundings. I never knew anyone whom
I could identify as being a homosexual until I was in college -- nice people
didnít talk about that. On the other hand, early on I learned the language
There was a boy in our
neighborhood named Tony. He was a bit younger than my buddies, but large for
his age -- bigger than me. But Tony never played with us. We invited him, but
he didn't want to. He preferred to play house. He
had dolls and a playhouse. He got along great with the girls next door. We didnít get too close to all of that.
There was something about it that made the rest of us guys nervous. So we made fun of Tony and called him sissy. One kid called him a "queer," so the rest of us did too, even though we didnít know what that meant. We didnít know any better. Or did we? Somewhere inside, it felt wrong to tease him. Mostly we ignored him. That was easy. He was different.
By the time I went to
seminary, I knew what the words meant. Homosexual, heterosexual, gay straight,
lesbian, though I wasnít sure what transgendered meant. There I met the
first openly gay person I had ever known. Michael
was a priest who came to tell his story to our first year seminar group. His story was like so many I've heard since. He knew he was different from childhood. He had no role models nor reference for being a gay person except the very strong message -- it was bad.
So he repressed all of those thoughts and feelings and married his best friend, determined to be a good, loving husband. Eventually the lie was too much for him to live with; the emotional and physical costs were enormous. He and his wife came to an amicable divorce; by then, she understood.
As I remember it, a couple
of years after his divorce he met and fell in love with his life-partner, they
created a covenant ritual with each other, exchanged rings, and were a loving,
happy couple. I well remember the question and answer session that followed.
I looked Michael in the eye; I pointed my finger at him and I said with deep
conviction, "But donít you know? Your body is the temple of the Holy
Spirit." His eyes never broke contact. He looked at me and spoke with a
profound conviction. "Yes! My body IS the temple of the
It was the first anomaly in my world view. It was two summers later when the issue surfaced in earnest. That summer I was doing clinical training in a hospital with a small group of other seminarians. It was a remarkable group. Bright, gifted, spiritually committed. You get to know people pretty well when you are in an interactive small-group seminar five hours a day.
Over the weeks, one person
began naturally to rise as a leader among equals. Dave was informally recognized
as the most spiritually mature, pastorally sensitive and theologically grounded
person in the group. He had earned our respect. Then we learned that he was
That summer, Dave gave
us a great gift. He let a group of straight guys ask him every dumb question
you ever wanted to ask a gay person. At the same time, we did some independent
study on our own. With new information and some reflection, every one of us
changed our minds.
I learned that our sexual
orientation is given to us, not chosen. I learned that psychological tests show
that gay people are just as sane and normal as straight people. (And just as
crazy.) I learned that heterosexuals are more
prone to pedophilia and sexual violence than homosexuals. When Dave asked off early one Friday to go to the 50th Anniversary celebration of a gay couple who were his friends, I learned another of my old stereotypes wasnít so true.
That summer I looked
for the first time at the scriptures behind my assumption that the bible condemned
homosexuals. There weren't many. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Most
of the passages were from very
culturally conditioned Old Testament sections that we no longer hold as binding. The biblical assumption is that everyone is heterosexual, and to behave in a homosexual way is unnatural. But, I wondered, what if someone is
naturally homosexual? To be forced to behave in a heterosexual way would be unnatural.
Once I began to listen
to the Bible with my openness to the possibility that sexual orientation is
part of our inheritance, given to us by God, I began to hear the scriptures
speak to the issue in many places. Think of all of the
stories about discovering Godís presence and blessing in the unexpected. A slave child floating in the Nile; a burning bush; the youngest son, the shepherd David; a still small voice; a Moabite named Ruth; the peasant child of
a virgin; a short tax-collector; a Canaanite woman; an Ethiopian eunuch; an officer in the occupying Gentile Roman army; a Samaritan woman; a fisherman from Galilee. A major theme of the Gospel tells us that God surprises us in
the stranger and the outcast; that God in Christ is breaking down the walls we've built separating people for no good reason.
God in Christ knocks
down those barriers and walks across the lines between upper class and lower,
male and female, slave and free, outsider and insider, and most importantly
in the doctrine of the Incarnation, God walks across the line between God and
You hear that message
nearly every week in one of our four readings of scripture. Today: "But
now in Christ Jesus you (uncircumcised) who were far off have been brought near
by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his
flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God." Ephesians 2:13-16a
Those were radical words, and the churchís policy of inclusion of the uncircumcised was so threatening to many Jewish leaders -- and such a departure from Scripture and tradition -- that it cost many early Christians their lives. Until Jesus and Paul and Peter, the uncircumcised were outside the lines drawn by their religion.
But when Jesus and Paul
and Peter saw the presence of God manifest in the lives of the uncircumcised,
they walked over the line and drew a circle of inclusion. The Church has been
doing that ever since.
The church has recognized
that the social conventions of the Biblical ages are not the unchanging Word
of God, and whenever we have discovered new possibilities for human liberation
and for more abundant life, we have embraced them. The Bible prohibits lenders
from charging interest, assumes that government is led by kings and that slavery
is part of the way things are, that women should be silent and obedient, and
that divorce and remarriage are forbidden. But weíve seen new possibilities
of grace and changed our traditions, however, not without struggle.
Weíve had conflict
and disagreement at every step. Good, sincere, faithful Bible-believing Christians
have lined up on both sides of these issues -- Can Gentiles become Christians?
Can eunuchs be baptized? Can we allow economic activity fueled by borrowing
at interest? Do only kings have a divine right to rule? Shall slaves be free?
Shall women serve on vestries, read the lessons in church, become priests? Can divorced people be remarried? Shall black people be equal? It seems that every generation has to live through one of these conflicts.
When I was growing up the issue was race. In Mississippi it was incredibly threatening to challenge centuries of tradition, after all, it was argued, God made the races separate from creation. Interracial marriage was a criminal offence and for most whites, emotionally repulsive. Good, sincere people left my parish church when the Vestry said black people would be welcome. The good news is -- most all of them came back, and none of them believes anymore that God intends for black people to be a separate, inferior race. Once integration occurred, it wasnít as bad, as unnatural as it seemed to some. They found their fears to be exaggerated.
Today, what was formerly unthinkable, we donít give a second thought -- we sit in a restaurant next to a black person; a divorced Episcopalian has a wedding with communion at St. Paulís; we elect women to the Vestry; and Lynne Spellman celebrates at our altar. In the words of our Epistle today --
"So Christ came
and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;
for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.So
then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God."
I believe that the full
inclusion of gay people in the life of our church and our society is as inevitable
and as God-energized as the full inclusion of the uncircumcised, slaves, women
and people of color has been. I believe it
is the work of the Holy Spirit and it is ultimately irresistible.
I look forward to the day when boys like Tony are no longer teased, but are accepted, and can date and fall in love and give themselves to another person with the full support of their church and an understanding society, just like I did. I look forward to the day when young men like Michael donít have to repress their true affection and will no longer marry their best friend and doom themselves and their wives to an unfulfilling future.
I look forward to living in a society when we no longer oppress lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people so that they feel they must live in closets. I look forward to a day when we draw a wider circle and cross that line to allow gay Episcopalians to commit themselves to the churchís values that I've pledged myself to with my spouse -- "fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God." (General Convention, 2000)
More than a hundred Episcopal Churches already offer blessings to those commitments; St. Paulís would not be the first, even in Arkansas. I think when that day comes for us, it will not seems so strange or awful as some may now fear. Let me give you a snapshot of how that might look. How it looked in another Episcopal Church, described in Nora Gallagherís memoir "Practicing Resurrection."
Their first service of
blessing was back in 1997 between Charles and Philip. The story begins with
a conversation between Mark, the priest who would be presiding at that eveningís
blessing, and Martha, the Altar Guild member preparing for the service. Earlier
she had let them know, she would not attend.
In the sacristy, Martha
Smith was ironing the linens. Her hands moved across the old ironing board that
flipped down from the wall next to the processional cross. "I will be coming
to the, uh, ceremony," she said to Mark as he wafted out of the inner sacristy.
"But --" And she stopped.
"But?" he said,
turning, one hand on the ironing board.
"I will not come to communion."
he said gently.
"Because I don't
believe in this," she said softly, tilting the iron back to rest on its
heel and smoothing the fair linen with her hands and then smoothing it again.
Mark said, putting a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Thank you for telling
me. Just promise me one thing." Martha nodded.
"Promise me you
"I will," she
said, and took the iron back into her hand.
Nora's narrative then
describes the opening of the service, observing, "I think probably each
one of us was asking whether we felt, well, different, at this wedding than
at other weddings. I felt the same tears coming as I always do
when two people walk down an aisle with so much hope and promise in their hearts, engendering so much renewal of hope for others. These two were, like others I had seen before them, proclaiming the human gift of making a promise."
After the declarations
of consent, the preacher Anne Howard began her sermon. "We stand today
on new ground," she began. "It is a new day. We have never been here
before, and itís a little scary."
Then she told a story.
She told of her familyís visit to the ancient shrine of St. Cuthbert in
Durham, England. A beautiful, massive Norman cathedral. And then I looked down
at the floor. . . . I looked down and saw a long, wide black marble line inlaid
in the stone floor. It stretched across the entire width of the nave, across
the back end, the west end. I had never seen anything like it. And then I looked
up and saw a framed sign posted on the column, explaining the line. The sign
said the marble was laid there in the 1100's, when the cathedral was built,
to keep the women back, to keep the women away from the main part of the church.
It was a protective barrier, to keep the altar and St. Cuthbertís holy
shrine pure and free from the corrupting power of women....
It hurt to see that line.
It hurts to remember it even now -- that barrier established in the name of
purity. That day, as I stood there, surrounded by the power and might of the
church, I thought of the men who had laid that marble and all the women who
had stayed behind the line.... We all know about lines....
That line on the floor
of Durham Cathedral serves no purpose anymore. It is a relic from the past.
I believe that the day that marble was laid, God wept. And I believe that every
time we cross a line like that, God dances.
Today, we cross the line.
Today, old barriers lose their power, old wounds can lose their sting. Today,
as we gather our collective courage and our good will, healing is possible because
we gather to celebrate something larger than ourselves. Today we celebrate not
only the love of these two men but the love of a God that invites us all to
cross the line, to stay back no longer, to step into healing, and into hope
and into joy. Today, we cross that line. And so today, God is dancing. Amen.
She sat down. The church
was as quiet as a deep forest. We sat there, in the quiet, and then Charles
and Philip stood up and exchanged their vows....After
I had taken communion, and sat back down, something made me look up. And
down the aisle in the communion line came Martha Smith, solemn, quiet, measured.
She crossed herself and
reached her hands up when she arrived in front of Mark and opened her palms
like a crane coming to rest in water. "The Body of Christ," Mark said,
placing the bread on her uplifted palm. "Amen," she replied... Afterward,
in the sacristy, Martha Smith was cleaning the chalices and placing the linen
in the laundry bag handing by a hook near the door.
Mark came in from the church, and he saw her there, going about her Altar Guild business, matter-of-factly, solemnly. She looked up at him and he looked at her.
"May I ask you,
Martha, why did you come to communion?" Mark asked. "If it is any
of my business at all." "Because I've drawn too many lines in my life,"
she replied and held his gaze for a second or two, and then she reached down
and picked up another chalice to wash. In the parish hall for many hours, we
danced." (Nora Gallagher, Practicing Resurrection,
I have seen the presence
of Christ in the lives of individual gay people. I have seen the fruits of the
Holy Spirit manifested in their committed relationships. St. Paul tells us that
the fruits of the Holy Spirit are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control." And he goes on
to say, "There is no law against such things." (Galatians
I believe that it is
time to remove the line that has separated the church from recognizing and blessing
the holy and loving life-long intentions of committed gay couples. I believe
that God has already blessed them. I truly believe that
God is lovingly inviting the church "to cross that line, to stay back no longer, to step into healing, and into hope and into joy," and to join the eternally expanding circle of Godís dance of reconciliation.
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