The Nature of Blessing

The 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to collect and develop theological and liturgical resources for blessing same-sex relationships (Resolution C056). The Commission is eager to engage the wider church in theological conversation as one among many sources that will inform our work.

The reflection below was submitted by the Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., chair of the task group preparing theological resources.

Read more about this project.

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Prior to teaching in a seminary, I served as a parish priest in the suburbs of Chicago, where a good deal of my time each spring and summer was spent on weddings. Regardless of how active a given couple may have been in church life, the theological and spiritual portions of the pre-marital counseling sessions were usually the most challenging.

I always began the first of those sessions with what turned out to be a deceptively simple question: Why do you want to get married in a church? I can recall only one out of more than a dozen couples responding with anything like a theological or spiritual answer to that question. Only a few of them had considered the difference between a legal contract and a liturgical blessing. And none of the couples had pondered what role their invited guests would play during the service or in their relationship. All of this offered a rich opportunity for theological reflection in those preparatory sessions, which certainly enhanced the liturgical experience for the couple; I often wished all of the participants in those liturgies could have engaged in those sessions as well.

In my view, the work now underway by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in gathering resources for the blessing of same-sex unions offers a similarly rich opportunity for theological reflection from which the whole church can benefit. Not least, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature of liturgical blessing itself, as well as the spiritual character of committed or “covenantal” relationships. Why, for example, would a faith community wish to “bless” a couple in a committed relationship? What does such a liturgical blessing mean and signify? How does a committed relationship in turn offer a “blessing” to the faith community in which they participate?

A good way to begin addressing those questions is by reflecting on one’s own relational commitments. Have you discerned any spiritual gifts emerging from your relationship that you may not have recognized apart from that commitment? As you observe and interact with covenanted couples, have you noticed particular gifts that their relationship contributes to the wider community? How does the presence of committed relationships, in all their various forms, shape the spiritual character of your own congregational life?

Most congregations would likely find their shared faith deepened by engaging in this kind of theological reflection. It suggests, for example, ways of thinking about committed relationships in terms of vocation and ministry, and in at least two respects. First, how might we think about entering into covenantal relationships as a divine calling, as part of our larger vocation as Christian people? And second, how can the spiritual gifts of such relationships contribute to the church’s ongoing ministry and Gospel witness in the world?

Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D.
Chair, SCLM task group on theological resources

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We invite your participation in this dialogue about blessing same-sex relationships. Your responses and observations here will help inform the work of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in our work of developing theological and liturgical resources for such blessings. We hope that this conversation will also be a way to renew and enliven a shared vision of the church’s mission in the world.

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About Ruth Meyers
Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics, Church Divinity School of the Pacific; Chair, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

10 Responses to The Nature of Blessing

  1. I appreciate the language of “covenanted couples” and it reminds me that when I was a parish priest I used to begin with discussion on covenant and invited reflections with the couple on the baptismal covenant as preliminary to exploration of their own covenantal commitment to each other.

  2. David Miller says:

    In the church of my upbringing, I was taught that at marriage God is made the third partner in the relationship. This ties marriage in, to me, with the notion of sacrament: a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward grace. Something holy is going on; something embedded within the fabric of creation is manifesting in a particular way when love is sealed by covenant.
    “In Christ there is no male and female”, the apostle wrote, blatantly contradicting Genesis. In Christ something new is created. That is what happens in a ceremony of union, when the eyes are raised up to the Ultimate Love embracing all, yet revealed, here, in two specific people.
    This is what is being blessed in a marriage ceremony, ceremony of union, or whatever else you want to call it. Don’t let words get in the way of seeing the miracle: this is the very essence of holiness in our humanity. This is Love, and… after all…. God IS Love.

  3. Lowell Grisham says:

    Here’s a story that moved me, and my congregation, as we moved toward our decision to offer blessings to our committed same-gender couples. It was helpful to see how such a liturgical service looked in another Episcopal Church, as described in Nora Gallagher’s memoir “Practicing Resurrection.” Their first service of blessing was back in 1997 between Charles and Philip. The story begins with a conversation between Mark, the priest who would be presiding at that evening’s blessing, and Martha, the Altar Guild member preparing for the service. Earlier she had let them know, she would not attend.

    In the sacristy, Martha Smith was ironing the linens. Her hands moved across the old ironing board that flipped down from the wall next to the processional cross.

    “I will be coming to the, uh, ceremony,” she said to Mark as he wafted out of the inner sacristy. “But –” And she stopped.

    “But?” he said, turning, one hand on the ironing board.

    “I will not come to communion.”

    “How come?” he said gently.

    “Because I don’t believe in this,” she said softly, tilting the iron back to rest on its heel and smoothing the fair linen with her hands and then smoothing it again.

    “That’s okay,” Mark said, putting a hand lightly on her shoulder. “Thank you for telling me. Just promise me one thing.”

    Martha nodded.

    “Promise me you will come.”

    “I will,” she said, and took the iron back into her hand.

    Nora’s narrative then describes the opening of the service, observing, “I think probably each one of us was asking whether we felt, well, different, at this wedding than at other weddings. I felt the same tears coming as I always do when two people walk down an aisle with so much hope and promise in their hearts, engendering so much renewal of hope for others. These two were, like others I had seen before them, proclaiming the human gift of making a promise.”

    After the declarations of consent, the preacher Anne Howard began her sermon.

    “We stand today on new ground,” she began. “It is a new day. We have never been here before, and it’s a little scary.”

    Then she told a story. She told of her family’s visit to the ancient shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham, England. A beautiful, massive Norman cathedral.

    And then I looked down at the floor. . . . I looked down and saw a long, wide black marble line inlaid in the stone floor. It stretched across the entire width of the nave, across the back end, the west end. I had never seen anything like it. And then I looked up and saw a framed sign posted on the column, explaining the line. The sign said the marble was laid there in the 1100’s, when the cathedral was built, to keep the women back, to keep the women away from the main part of the church. It was a protective barrier, to keep the altar and St. Cuthbert’s holy shrine pure and free from the corrupting power of women….

    It hurt to see that line. It hurts to remember it even now — that barrier established in the name of purity. That day, as I stood there, surrounded by the power and might of the church, I thought of the men who had laid that marble and all the women who had stayed behind the line…. We all know about lines….

    That line on the floor of Durham Cathedral serves no purpose anymore. It is a relic from the past. I believe that the day that marble was laid, God wept. And I believe that every time we cross a line like that, God dances.

    Today, we cross the line. Today, old barriers lose their power, old wounds can lose their sting. Today, as we gather our collective courage and our good will, healing is possible because we gather to celebrate something larger than ourselves.

    Today we celebrate not only the love of these two men but the love of a God that invites us all to cross the line, to stay back no longer, to step into healing, and into hope and into joy.

    Today, we cross that line. And so today, God is dancing. Amen.

    She sat down. The church was as quiet as a deep forest. We sat there, in the quiet, and then Charles and Philip stood up and exchanged their vows….

    [A]fter I had taken communion, and sat back down, something made me look up. And down the aisle in the communion line came Martha Smith, solemn, quiet, measured.

    She crossed herself and reached her hands up when she arrived in front of Mark and opened her palms like a crane coming to rest in water.

    “The Body of Christ,” Mark said, placing the bread on her uplifted palm.

    “Amen,” she replied…

    Afterward, in the sacristy, Martha Smith was cleaning the chalices and placing the linen in the laundry bag handing by a hook near the door.

    Mark came in from the church, and he saw her there, going about her Altar Guild business, matter-of-factly, solemnly. She looked up at him and he looked at her.

    “May I ask you, Martha, why did you come to communion?” Mark asked. “If it is any of my business at all.”

    “Because I’ve drawn too many lines in my life,” she replied and held his gaze for a second or two, and then she reached down and picked up another chalice to wash.

    In the parish hall for many hours, we danced.”
    (Nora Gallagher, Practicing Resurrection, 120-124)

    from Lowell Grisham, St. Paul’s, Fayetteville, AR

  4. Bill Eadie says:

    A task force in the Diocese of San Diego has written a report on holiness in relationships and the blessing of same-sex relationships. The report may be downloaded from the link included in this message.

  5. Dr.D says:

    Lowell Grisham has told a very compelling story just above, one that really tugs at the heart strings. One of the key lines was, “Today, we cross that line. And so today, God is dancing. Amen.” followed by, “In the parish hall for many hours, we danced.” This seems to affirm that everyone is clear that this is right an good, everyone is dancing for joy because they know that all they are doing is right with God.

    One of the things we know about God is that God does not change; God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What God clearly condemned in His Holy Word remains condemned, and we have no power to change that. God’s word said nothing about keeping women behind a line in the cathedral, and we can certainly change that. But God Himself defined what marriage is to be, one man and one woman for the primary purpose of procreation. He did not ask what we thought about the idea, what our evolving concepts of marriage might lead to, and He really does not care. God makes the rules because He is the creator and we are the creatures, the created beings. We often puzzle, “why did He do it that way?” but that does not change the rule at all.

    God does not dance when we defy Him. He is not delighted with our outrageous since of self importance that presumes to think we can change His eternal will for mankind. We should reconsider such grievous affronts to His divine majesty in which we presume to call a blessing that which He has clearly said is sin. Please think again.

    Dr.D: next time we need your first and last name. Thank you.
    Ruth Meyers, SCLM Chair

  6. LisaDrew says:

    “Whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am with you…” A couple in a committed, covenanted relationship are instantly church, both to each other and to the community around them. The individual gifts that each one has can be complimented, nurtured, and validated by the partner in the relationship. Love strengthens each partner’s desire to compliment, nurture, and validate their partner’s gifts. The visible fruits of such relationships include the respect, patience, and forbearance shown toward each other in public that guides others in their own relationships, parenting that demonstrates sharing of responsibility and unity of response to those in their care, and meaningful gifts of time, talent, and treasure to the church community. These fruits are visible regardless of the genders involved, as long as the love between partners is genuine and rooted in Christ’s love for each and for both.

  7. Thom Simmons says:

    As an Episcopalian who will be entering into a same-sex marriage in three weeks, I would like SO MUCH to participate in this ‘invitation’ to discuss/collect liturgies for same-sex marriages…but I must admit that inspite my regular use and involvement in multiple blogs….the process on THIS one completely eludes me! How does one add information, or create a post? Is one only allowed to respond as a ‘comment?’ How do I submit what we have created for our ceremony?!

    • Ruth Meyers says:

      You have successfully posted a comment here. This blog is set up to require a moderator to approve each person’s first comment; thereafter your comments will appear automatically. The only way to add information is as a comment.

      The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music is working toward posting liturgical and theological resources that we receive, but we’re not there yet! Please send files to this email address: sclm@episcopalchurch.org and let us know whether you’re willing to have your file shared publicly. Right now, materials that we receive are very helpful to the task groups who are charged with developing resources.

      Equally important to the commission is reflection on your experience. Please tell us what it means to you to be married, and to be married in the church. What spiritual gifts has your relationship helped you recognize? In what ways to you experience your relationship as a vocation, that is, as a call from God? Conversation about these and similar questions will enrich the theological resources we develop.

      Thanks for being part of this conversation.

      Ruth Meyers
      Chair, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

  8. Lowell Grisham says:

    When our congregation discussed whether we would offer blessings for our committed gay couples, we talked about the nature of blessings. What is a blessing?

    This is part of a short piece I wrote. I borrowed (hopefully accurately) from friends Paul Marshall, Neil Alexander and Scott Benhase.

    The late liturgical scholar Thomas Talley had a gift for getting to the center of things. “To bless something is to say something nice to God about it,” he said simply.

    Historically the church has blessed people (soldiers going to war, sailors going to sea, newborn babies, adopted children, birthday anniversaries). The church has also blessed things (houses, animals, ships, fields, hunts, liturgical appointments).

    Blessings are part of the church’s non-sacramental rites of pastoral care. Unlike the Prayer Book sacraments, their use often has a local flavor. A farming community might have a blessing of the fields; a fishing community, the blessing of the fleet; the British gentry the blessing of the hunt. Blessings often occur in the context of family or personal pastoral needs.

    When the church chooses to bless it is doing several things.
     Whenever we bless anything we begin with thanksgiving.
     We are saying this person or thing is a gift and blessing from God.
     We are saying that blessing assists us in our living in a covenant relationship with God and all creation; our living in covenant is to bless God in return.
     To pronounce God’s blessing is to say that something is to function for the good.
     To bless is to make something “holy,” which means “set apart” / devoted to God.
     Blessing asks God’s protection and favor.

    In summary: To bless a union is to ask God to make it an experience of Christ’s love, both for the couple and also for all who are touched by their life together. It is to wish good for this union and to give thanks for it. Most especially, it is to set aside this union for a holy use, to see it to be grace-bearing, and to expect God to use it.

  9. Jimmy Buccini says:

    I highly recommend drawing upon the word done by the United Church of Christ. http://www.ucc.org/lgbt/issues/marriage-equality/#Resources_

    One thing that is especially meaningful in their inclusive language Order for Marriage (available in PDF through the link above) does not distinguish between a same-sex/gender marriage and a different-gender/sex marriage. It is thus a resources that brings gender inclusive language, themes and stories to ALL celebrations of Christian Marriage.

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