Yesterday the General Convention passed two resolutions on marriage.
The first authorized new liturgies for marriage services in the church. The second rewrote our marriage canon. Canons are the “church law,” or, as I like to think of them, the “house rules” we use for doing the church’s work.
By now you have probably heard or read in the secular media that these resolutions mean the Episcopal Church has approved same-sex marriage. And that is true. But I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I think what we’ve done is significantly broaden and deepen our understanding of marriage. Not just same-sex marriages, but all marriages.
The new marriage canon is written in gender-neutral language. That means that instead of using language like “man and woman” or “husband and wife,” it uses language like “the couple” or “the parties”– which is pretty standard legal language. And it includes all kinds of couples.
What’s more important is the language this new canon uses to describe what marriage is all about. It says that marriage is for “mutual joy, for the help and comfort we will give to each other in prosperity and adversity, and, when it is God’s will, for the gift and heritage of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of God.” And it also says that marriage is “unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong.”
I think that is a wonderful description of marriage. It describes my relationship with my wife, the relationship we work together to build up and to celebrate. And that describes the kind of relationship that I, as a priest, really want to help other peope enter into, and grow into, for their lives. And the fact that the church can now share that relationship with couples of the same gender, as well as couples of the opposite gender, really broadens the range of people we can bring into that commitment of love. I think that broadens and deepens our understanding and commitment to marriage.
In order to live out that broader and deeper understanding of marriage, the new marriage rites basically give The Episcopal Church two wedding services, each of which comes in two versions, a gender-specific version for “husband and wife,” and a gender-neutral version for “spouses.” There is also a service for blessing a life-long covenant for use in dioceses outside the United States, where same-gender marriage is still not legal.
The more I think about it, the more I see these two marriage rites as kind of like Rite I and Rite II in the Eucharist. Both services intend to do the same thing, but they do it with different language and with slightly different theological emphasis.
Rite I Eucharist emphasizes pentitence and forgiveness of sins in communion. Rite II emphasizes creation and resurrection and new life in Jesus. But both of them are Communion.
It’s the same way with the marriage services. The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage – the existing Prayer Book rite, which we will now have in gender-specific and gender-neutral versions – emphasizes the couple’s union, and how they take each other “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.”
The other service, The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage – which will also be in gender-specific and gender-neutral versions – emphasizes the couple’s covenant with each other, and how each promises “I will support and care for you by the grace of God: in times of sickness, in times of health. I will hold and cherish you in the love of Christ: in times of plenty, in times of want. I will honor and love you with the Spirit’s help: in times of anguish, in times of joy.”
Both rites are about how two people make promises and vows to each other to let their love become a living icon of God’s love, and how God blesses them to keep those promises and vows. But both do it with different language and slightly different theological emphasis.
The actions that General Convention has taken on marriage broaden and deepen our understanding of what marriage is all about. This is not without controversy. Some people will think we’ve made marriage too broad. Some people will think this is the very least we can do for marriage equality. Some people will find this deepening a way to think anew about their own marriage, and to see the gifts of marriage at work in people where, perhaps, they had not seen them before.
I think we are following a prompting of the Holy Spirit. And time and generosity and experience and grace will tell us if this bears the fruits of the Spirit’s work.