"As I mused, the fire burned"

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Blessing versus Marriage: Is there any difference?

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Our Synod (the business meeting of our part of the corporate church) passed a resolution to permit the bishop to authorize same-sex blessings for civilly married couples. There have been some media stories and some discussion that the question of a blessing is somehow different than a marriage.

I specifically noted the Journal article that had this comment from a priest in Edmonton (links all gone):

It is not a move toward allowing Anglican priests to marry same-sex couples, [he[ cautioned.“All it is, is an affirmation, saying to people, ‘The church wishes you well,’” [He] said. “It is no more complicated than that.”

That is incorrect from both sacramental and liturgical perspectives.  It is just poor theology.  However, it has been apparent throughout this process that the majority concern has far more to do with feeling good, than engaging theology in any coherent way.

The last serious piece of theological work done by the Canadian church on this question was the St Michael Report, published in 2004.  I take issue with some of the conclusions, but this report is the result of a real engagement with people of radically different perspectives who thrashed out over the course of years a consensus.  When you think about that achievement, it is truly awe-inspiring, and example of what it means to sweat through tough theology in community.  That we could duplicate that process in what remains of community here!

So, the St Michael Report has this to say about the difference between a blessing and a marriage:

39. It is the view of the Commission that any proposed blessing of a same-sex relationship would be analogous to a marriage to such a degree as to require the church to understand it coherently in relation to the doctrine of marriage.  The Commission noted that the change in civil law in Canada to permit the civil marriage of same-sex couples requires a clarification of the validity and sustainability of the distinction between blessings and marriages in the Canadian context.

40. Also in our church, a civilly married husband and wife who have committed to lifelong fidelity may seek the blessing of their marriage by our church.  This is significant because the Marriage Canon (Canon XXI) of the General Synod recognizes that ‘not all marriages in human society conform, or are intended to conform, to the standard here described’ (Preface).  The blessing thus recognizes the civil marriage as Christian marriage or holy matrimony.  Moreover the blessing recognizes that the couple have the intention, and the church the expectation, of the godly behaviour outlined in the Preface to Canon XXI (see Appendix A).

That is pretty definite on the question – that a ‘blessing’ is so close to marriage that it must be coherently understood in relation to the doctrine of marriage.

When a priest performs a marriage liturgy, there are two distinct actions carried out.  One is the church act, the sacramental binding of a man and a woman before God.  The second is a legal act, where the priest serves as a commissioner of marriages for the state, and administers legally-binding oaths (and the paperwork, of course).

In the case of a civilly-married couple who enter the church, there is provision for the church to perform a ritual of blessing.  I won’t do a line-by-line analysis, but all the liturgical rituals are available here.  If you compare the Occasional Services rituals for blessing of a civil marriage to the Book of Alternative Services marriage liturgy, you will see the parallels.  What the blessing ritual, as published, does is impart the sacramental aspect of marriage to a couple who has already fulfilled the legal requirements of the state.

A bit of history helps to understand why the language of blessing same-sex relationships has come to be a bit dated.  Looking at that bit from the St Michael report, “The Commission noted that the change in civil law in Canada to permit the civil marriage of same-sex couples requires a clarification of the validity and sustainability of the distinction between blessings and marriages in the Canadian context,” this distinction is highlighted.

When this discussion began some 30 years ago, it was against the law for a same-sex couple to marry.  The language used in the church was around the question of blessing same-sex couples, because the question of marriage was moot as it was unlawful.  When the federal marriage act was altered to permit same-sex marriage, the church never updated our language, and continued to talk about blessings.

The information from the Edmonton Journal is inaccurate because the distinction that used to exist was undone when it became lawful for a same-sex couple to marry.  As civil marriage is lawful, it is nonsense to continue to insist there is some distinction between a blessing and a marriage.  The blessing of a civil same-sex marriage, unless we are going to discriminate against them as compared to same-gender civil married couples, is the church imparting a sacramental seal on the married couple.

The only way around that would be to carefully write the blessing ritual so it explicitly excluded the sacrament of marriage, although I have no idea how that would even be possible.  The blessing of a marriage by God, is the sacramental part of marriage.  We would need to create some different category of blessing a marriage that does not presently exist.

If we did create a new category of blessing, I have a hard time understanding how that would not be discriminatory on our behalf.  Our Synod voted to bless civilly married same-sex couples, and as the St Michael report stated, that is so analogous to marriage that it must be understood coherently with respect to the doctrine of marriage.  To now create a civil blessing ritual that was somehow different than what already exists for civil marriages would also be nonsense.

I’ll conclude by noting that I think we went down a very serious road with this resolution, one that will serve to fracture the church further.  My point in arguing that we have in fact authorized the sacramental marriage of civilly-married same-sex couples is to point out the exceptionally awful level of understanding and discourse around this topic.  If our clergy don’t even understand their sacramental theology, how can we possibly expect a business meeting to get it right?

Written by sameo416

October 17, 2012 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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