Same Sex Marriage I: Anxiety and Perspective

May 29, 2016         Second Sunday after Pentecost

You will have noticed over the past year and a half that I do not often preach directly on “issues” – I prefer to preach on the Scriptures of the day, and let those topics arise that the Holy Spirit seems to want to address in the Biblical passages. Today I will make an exception.

Most of you know by now, I’m sure, that General Synod will be voting this summer on a motion to amend the Marriage Canon to permit the marriage of same-sex couples. This is still a question that can generate considerable emotion in our church, and as the date draws closer, the anxiety level around this vote increases. I know that many, probably most of you, are in favour with this measure, indeed may think it is high time: here there is anxiety over the recent House of Bishops statement that they do not think the motion will pass, anxiety that our church may once again fail to rise to the occasion, may once again not have the courage to take a gospel stand. But I also know that for some of you this is still very difficult; you cannot see how something you were taught was wrong can now be right – and so there is anxiety, if this passes, that you will find yourselves gravely out of step with your church.

I do not think it is necessarily my job to try to change anyone’s mind – if minds or hearts need changing, it is only the Holy Spirit who can do that. But I can perhaps explain what I see is at stake here – and as most of you know, this is a question I have had to think about a fair bit over the past couple of years. Perhaps we can reduce the anxiety a little bit. I don’t think we can make it go away – these are anxious times. A little anxiety is not a bad thing – it shows we care. We care enough to make ourselves vulnerable. And that is usually a place where we can find the gospel – a place where we are willing to let ourselves be vulnerable; a place where we are willing to try to understand other people’s feelings of anxiety and vulnerability.

First off, let us remember what is at stake in this summer’s vote. It is a motion to amend the marriage canon. This is about marriage. It is not a vote on what our church thinks about homosexuality, or gay people, or same-sex couples. Our church has already spoken on that subject. It was the General Synod of 2004 that recognised “the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.” For the past twelve years our church has affirmed that same-sex couples may exhibit the same grace as heterosexual couples: tenderness and compassion, forgiveness and friendship, joy and faith. We live out this conviction by welcoming same-sex couples into our midst, and by blessing their civil marriages: that is, by recognising and affirming that God has blessed their relationship. None of this is up for debate this summer.

It is perhaps worthwhile to remember how we got here. Because we have come a long way in our lifetimes. I am younger than many of you here today – though a good deal older than others. For me growing up in suburban Toronto, homosexuality was so distant it wasn’t even quite real: my only exposure was the sniggering jokes and homophobic slurs with which adolescent boys try to cover up their own uncertainty. I think I was in my mid-twenties before I first got to know an openly gay person. It seems so inconceivable now, when I think of how many of my friends and acquaintances identify as lesbian or gay, bisexual or “gender-queer” – some single, some married; some unchurched, but many deeply Christian, many ordained. I think that is the journey we have all made, in different ways, over the past few decades. What was once taboo – and for that reason seemed shady and strange and dirty – is now perfectly normal, part of the normal spectrum of human experience we see among our friends.

This is a journey our society has made, and we the church have made it along with everyone else. As we try to make sense of it theologically, three factors in particular have led us to change our mind. The first is that we have come to realise that homosexuality is simply a fact of life: that is to say, we have come to understand the idea of sexual orientation. Before we understood this, we just assumed everyone was basically the same, and so of course we thought as homosexuality as a sin – that gay people were being inexplicably wilful in behaving in a way that the heterosexual majority thought of as strange and disturbing. Now it has become clear that sexual orientation is not a choice, that it is part of who we are long before we start making conscious choices about our sexual identity. And so it is inappropriate, indeed cruel, to think about some people’s sexual orientation as being a sin. It is a fact. And we are a church that is not afraid of facts, because our faith is oriented to reality and not fantasy. We accept that evolution is real, that the universe is not 6000 years old but 14 billion years; and we accept that homosexuality is real, part of the world we believe is God’s creation. You may have heard the slogan, a staple of anti-gay protest signs: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Cute. Well, that’s a theory about reality that has proved a little too simplistic: sure God created Adam and Eve, but also Adam and Steve; they exist too, and Annie and Eve, they are also part of God’s creation. This we have come to accept; this is no longer up for debate.

That is the change on a theoretical level, but the second and more important factor that has changed our minds has a human face: simply the presence of gay people, and gay couples, in our midst. As long as homosexuality was secret and anonymous, as it was when I was growing up, then we could imagine all kinds of things about what terrible people these must be. They were the other. But now we know them as our friend, our dentist, our brother or son or grand-daugther, our layreader or priest, our curling buddy – perhaps ourselves. Not “other”, not “them”, but us, part of the body of Christ. And we have seen relationships – fresh young love, but also relationships that have stood strong for 30 and 40 years, many of those years difficult times of prejudice, relationships that are a model to us all.

There is a simple Biblical principle here. Jesus said: “By their fruits you shall know them. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” The fruits we look for in Christian lives and relationships are what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” And, as Paul finishes his list, “There is no law against such things.” As we see same-sex relationships exhibit these qualities, we recognise the Spirit at work. When we bless these relationships, we are simply recognising that God has visibly blessed them. This is not up for debate either.

The third factor that continues to challenge us to change our minds and hearts – remember, that is the root meaning of the Biblical word “repent” – is the ongoing prejudice and social stigmatization of LGBT people, particularly youth, in our society. Homophobia, real hatred, is still rampant in our society. High school can be hell. When I was in school, a homophobic slur was considered the worst insult to throw at someone, and I’m sure it still is. Now adolescence is not an easy time for any of us, as we struggle with our sexual nature. How difficult it is for those who are taught by their peers, but also perhaps their parents and their churches, that their sexual feelings are shameful, sinful, disgusting. No wonder LGBT youth attempt suicide at four times the average rate; up to 40% of LGBT youth attempt suicide. No wonder LGBT youth are hugely overrepresented among homeless youth. And the attitudes which lead to this heart-breaking reality have been fed by the church’s teachings; indeed, you can still hear them preached from many pulpits. Is this a factor in what will be discussed at General Synod this year? Well, I guess it should be, as we continue to explore how to reach out to these young people who are hurting so badly, how to repent of our past intolerance, how to help them find models of how to live out this orientation that God has given them in holy and life-giving ways.

Well, so far today I have talked about things that are not really up for debate this summer – and I have pretty well used up my time. But I think it is important to put this summer’s vote into perspective. If the motion is defeated, there will be many across the country, and some in this parish, who will be bitterly disappointed. Some will probably leave the Anglican church, feeling that this is one set-back too many, and that is heart-breaking. As I said at the beginning, we all need to understand and embrace their anxiety and their vulnerability around this – because that’s what we do here, we bear each other’s burdens. But a defeated motion does not mean that the church has turned its back on gays and lesbians. We continue to recognise and affirm the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relations. We will continue to bless them, and that practice will doubtless continue to grow.

Those who vote against the motion may want to affirm and support same-sex relationships – they may simply believe that it is most appropriately done by another form of blessing. It was a position I considered myself, before my work with the Marriage Canon Commission led me to believe that marriage is the most appropriate category. One of the ironies of the situation: many of the people arguing today that we perform blessings rather than marriages are the same people who were arguing against blessings ten years ago. That can be infuriating, but we can also see it as a sign that the Spirit is at work changing hearts and minds.

And if the motion passes? Well, then too there will be many in the wider church and some in this parish who will feel hurt and confused. Some will leave the Anglican Church, and that is heart-breaking. Here too, we are all called to try to understand and embrace their anxiety and vulnerability. It’s what we do, we bear one another’s burdens.

But we should remember too that passing this motion is not a change in our attitude towards gays and lesbians. It is simply another step – a step too far for some, perhaps – in a process we have already long since committed ourselves to: the process of welcoming and supporting them, of hearing their stories and celebrating their gifts, of seeking with them an understanding of the relationships they are being called to, relationships that are healthy and Christ-like.

As I said at the beginning, what is up for debate this summer is the marriage canon. That discussion involves the nature of marriage, how we understand it theologically, what it means to us as people of faith. I believe that a good deal of the anxiety of those opposed to this change is rooted in their belief that we are changing the nature of marriage itself. That anxiety asks serious and important questions, and needs to be taken seriously. Obviously I don’t have time to talk about it today. So I will take it up next week, which will give me the opportunity to talk about marriage, that beautiful and sacred mystery, that holy estate.