Monday, July 04, 2005

Of "Christian Groups" and "Marriage Rights"

Seldom do I mention the UCC here, but I received an e-mail from my Interim Conference Minister that piqued my curiosity. Here's the interesting passage:
By about a 3/4 vote in favor, the General Synod adopted a resolution supporting "equal marriage rights" for all persons. Note the word"rights". Gay marriage, as such, was not an issue that was considered, except as it is implied perhaps in the resolution. The real issue for most folks I've talked with focused on the need for equal rights, no matter what the "union" may be called.
Of course, the New York Times is not taking it that simply:
With a movement to amend the United States Constitution to ban gay marriage picking up steam, the United Church of Christ became the first mainstream Christian denomination to officially support same-sex marriages today when its general synod passed a resolution affirming "equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender."
I wanted to disagree with that statement (I certainly think the headline is poorly chosen: "Christian group"? Since when is a mainstream church with roots in Europe and Puritan New England and a membership of 1.3 million a "Christian group"?), but then I read the resolution itself:
The marriage equality resolution (1) affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage; (2) affirms equal access to the basic rights, institutional protections and quality of life conferred by the recognition of marriage, (3) calls for an end to rhetoric that fuels hostility, misunderstanding, fear and hatred expressed toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, (4) asks officers of the church to communicate the resolution to local, state and national legislators, urging them to support equal marriage rights, (5) calls upon all settings of the church to engage in serious, respectful and prayerful discussion of the covenantal relationship of marriage and equal marriage rights, (6) calls upon congregations, after prayerful, biblical, theological, and historical study, to consider adopting Wedding Policies that do not discriminate against couples based on gender, and (7) urges congregations and individuals of the UCC to prayerfully consider and support local, state and national legislation to grant equal marriage rights to couples regardless of gender, and to work again legislation, including constitutional amendments, which denies rights to couples based on gender.
The emphasis in the first part does emphasize "rights" over the rather inflammatory term "gay marriage," but the issue is a legal and an ecclesiastical one, and it isn't really helped by fudging the language.

"Rights" are a legal term. "Gay marriage," so far as it it has a legal aspect, is a question of equal protection under the laws. Should "marriage" under law give the rights and privileges of the contractual state only to those of opposite gender? That's a legal issue.

Should churches recognize the union of those of the same gender as "marriage," whether it is a sacrament or not? In most Protestant traditions, marriage is not a sacrament, but that fine theological distinction is lost on most of the laity (and probably no small part of the clergy). There is a mention here of the "covenantal relationship of marriage," which is clearly a reference to marriage as other than the merely contractual relationship the state is concerned with (divorce, death, and taxes are the only time the State concerns itself with the marriage contract; for the State, it is all about property, and has been so since the Middle Ages at least). Update: As one delegate to General Synod points out (per the updated NYT article), "covenanted relationships are not under constitutional threat."

I agree with the sentiment of the supporters of the resolution:
The message of the Gospel is the lens through which the whole of scripture is to be interpreted. Love and compassion, justice and peace are at the very core of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is a message that always bends toward inclusion. The biblical story recounts the ways in which inclusion and welcome to God’s community is ever-expanding – from the story of Abraham and Sarah, to the inclusive ministry of Jesus, to the baptism of Cornelius, to the missionary journeys of Paul throughout the Greco-Roman world. The liberating work of the Spirit as witnessed in the activities of Jesus’ ministry has been to address the situations and structures of exclusion, injustice and oppression that diminish God’s people and keep them from realizing the full gift of human personhood in the context of human communion.
But frankly, I'm not convinced this resolution gets us anywhere toward that goal. In the eyes of the "world" (i.e., the NYT), it's a support of "gay marriage." As my Interim Conference Minister indicates, that's what he's afraid his congregations will think. And what's the answer? Did General Synod deal with a legal issue? An ecclesiastical issue? A moral issue? Or even a sacramental issue?

An update: the NYT link above now has a new headline, as you will note if you go there. Right now it reads "Church of Christ Delegates Support Same Sex Marriage." Originally, it read "Church group Supports." However, "Church of Christ" identifies another denomination entirely. Ironically, this is usually the problem with the church name, outside of New England. But one would expect the NYT to know better.

And this morning (July 5), they do. A problem of the internet? But today, the NYT article is both more comprehensive, more accurate, and still a bit bewildering (no fault of the NYT, I think). Interestingly, it shifts the focus of the discussion from the church to the state. Which keeps us at the original question: what is the church position on this issue? What is marriage? A matter of property? Or of propriety?

On which does the church speak, and why?

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