Saturday, June 19, 2004

Episcopal Diocese of Vermont issues guidelines for civil-union sacrament.

As reported in today's Washington Post, a task force of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont issued a report on June 8 setting out the guidelines for ceremonies that recognize same-sex civil unions. The document itself includes a thoughtful analysis of the scriptural and theological underpinnings of the blessing of same-sex relationships. Vermont isn't the only diocese to take this step, but it is the only diocese in which the state recognizes same-sex civil unions, and the combination of sacramental recognition and governmental recognition has conservatives within the Episcopal Church USA upset -- as does the striking similarities between the marriage sacrament and the civil-union sacrament.

Of course, the real cause for the conservatives' concern is not Vermont, it is their own General Convention, which in 2003 adopted a resolution that stopped short of authorizing an official liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships but did recognize that "local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions." This all traces back to the controversial resolution adopted at the 2000 General Convention that, in the words of the Vermont task force's report,
that couples “in the Body of Christ and in this Church” are living both in marriage and in “other life-long committed relationships.” The resolution stated the expectation that “such relationships will be characterized by 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.” The resolution further said that “this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values and will provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them.”
The Vermont task force's report is a strong and even inspirational document. Pages 9 to 15 summarize the Anglican case for sacramental recognition of same-sex relationships, and it includes -- of special interest to lawyers, I suppose -- a statement of principles of interpretation of scripture.

The parallels are striking between (i) the current debate over the immutability of the Constitution as a text with permanent and unchanging meaning handed down from divinely inspired authors, and (ii) the Anglican debate over the immutability of scripture as a text with permanent and unchanging meaning handed down from divinely inspired authors. The tensions -- between constitutional and scriptural faith, reason, and experience -- are age-old, both within the body politic of the United States and within the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Vermont report strikes an admirable balance that embraces experience and reason within a faith tradition:
Putting it perhaps too simply, one strand of Anglicanism -— the evangelical tradition —- has emphasized the authority of scripture, and some, but not all, among them have insisted on a more literalist reading of the Bible. Another strand -— the Anglo-Catholic tradition -— has emphasized the authority of the early church, and some, but not all, of them have resisted subsequent development of doctrine and practice. Many other strands lying between these two have looked to reason -— including to a greater or lesser extent, experience —- to mediate scripture and the tradition in light of the learning of science and culture.

All these strands, or traditions, of Christian living and believing have been embraced within Anglicanism, and they have remained in a lively tension, informing, enriching, and sometimes conflicting with one another. Each has had times or places in which it held greater influence than the others, but none has been able to claim that it was the tradition, exclusive of the others. We speak of “Anglican comprehensiveness,” or Anglicanism as the “via media,” not because we are wishy-washy or overly inclined to compromise basic principles, but because we value the ultimate goal of Christian unity and St. Paul’s understanding of the Body of Christ, in which no part may say to the other, “I have no need of you.”

“Doing” Anglican theology means taking Holy Scripture seriously as the primary source of our understanding of Christian faith. It means being consistent with the major creedal and doctrinal conclusions of the early church. It means honoring our liturgical tradition. And it means using our human capacity to learn about our world and to bring that learning into conversation with scripture and theological and liturgical tradition. We believe this is a dynamic and ongoing process in which we must always seek to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Apart from the wise discussion of interpretations of authoritative texts, the Vermont report has at least one other thing to offer the current debate over the legal status of same-sex relationships: "One reality we want to highlight is the fact that many people often have a visceral response to same-gender relationships but cloak that response with intellectual or sentimental language. 'Head' and 'heart' language attempts to disguise what the 'gut' is saying." The report continues:
Let us be honest about our gut reactions. Ours is a culture in which people have widely divergent views about human sexuality and human intimacy. Mixed messages are common, and we internalize these mixed messages in varying degrees as we grow up. The culture both glorifies sexuality and conditions us to see sexual activity as “unclean” unless confined to particular circumstances. For some, any sexual intimacy evokes an “ick response.” For many, sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender evokes an “ick response.” However, there are some among us who find their most essential, God-given identities fulfilled in an intimate relationship with a person of the same gender. The “ick response” to sexual intimacy comes less from the head and heart and more from the gut; it involuntarily occurs within us. . . .

Another reality is that the Bible has been commonly understood to be unrelentingly opposed to same-sex sexual activity. We acknowledge that today there is genuine disagreement on these matters among faithful Christians who hold scripture in the highest regard. Our Anglican reliance on tradition and reason as means of informing our interpretation of scripture offers a way to bring head, heart and gut into fruitful and respectful conversation.
Would that our policy-makers on courts and in legislatures could learn from this report's wise words.

posted by tommayo, 9:04 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter