Theological Principles for C056 Work

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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During the recent House of Bishops meeting in Phoenix, the C056 Task Group chairs had the opportunity to present our work and to solicit feedback from the bishops. As part of that presentation, I had the privilege of presenting our work-in-process concerning the theological principles that have been guiding our work so far. I’m eager to hear from others—both clergy and lay—about these principles and how they resonate with your own pastoral and liturgical ministries!

From the beginning, the Commission has understood the blessing of committed relationships in faith communities as a blessing not only for the couple but also for the wider community. The Commission then reflected on how the work of collecting and developing resources for such blessings offers an opportunity to retrieve key Christian insights concerning these relationships and to renew the church’s theological reflection on them.

More specifically, this project presents an opportunity to retrieve at least two key touchstones in historical Christian approaches to committed relationships, which helps to frame why such relationships deserve a liturgical blessing in Christian faith communities. Those touchstones are: the sacramental character of covenantal relationships (committed relationships make God’s presence and divine grace visible); and the eschatological vision inspired and evoked by covenantal relationship (the desire that leads us to commit ourselves to another person reflects the human desire and hope for union with God-in-Christ).

Even more particularly, as the Commission reflected on these two touchstones, several theological principles emerged that seemed fruitful for guiding the work moving forward. We’re eager to learn how these principles are already at work in our congregations and how they might enliven our shared reflection on committed relationships.

Those principles are, in brief:

  • Vocation: While people may “fall” in love, people are by contrast called into long-term committed relationships, as a vocation;
  • Spiritual Discipline: The vocational aspect of committed relationship requires ongoing spiritual discipline, sustained in part by regular participation in a faith community;
  • Covenant: Rather than “contracts,” biblical traditions turn often to the spiritual significance of “covenants” for committed relationships, which reflects God’s own covenantal relationship with God’s creation;
  • Household: Biblical traditions likewise emphasize households (often multi-generational) that are established by covenantal commitment and are rooted in a larger community;
  • Fruitfulness: Faithful love in relationship overflows into countless gifts offered well beyond the couple, including lives of service, compassion, generosity, and hospitality.

I have already written briefly about some of these principles in previous blog posts, which could be summarized in the following way. Much like ordination and other forms of ministry, human beings are called into covenantal relationships as a divine vocation. These covenants are sustained by spiritual disciplines, not contracts, and the divine grace in these relationships is discerned by the fruits of fidelity it yields (not least among them are households marked by compassion, generosity, and hospitality). For that reason, covenantal relationships rightly belong to the mission of the Church in its ongoing witness to the good news of the Gospel; these relationships thus point beyond themselves to the Christian hope of union with God.

Where and how do these principles resonate with your own life and ministry and what kind of questions do they raise for you? Let us know!

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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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4 Responses to Theological Principles for C056 Work

  1. Beore submitting my comment, I woule like to introduce myself. I am a layman, a cradle Episcopalian who wandered into fundamentalism, and then into Orthodoxy, and then cam back home to the Episcopal Church several years ago. I am a gay man who has worked in various gay advocacy groups for the last decade. On January 1, 2010, my civil union became a marriage by operation of law in New Hampshire, and on July 31 my spouse and I had our Church Ceremony in St. James in Keene, NH. A year of planning went into this ceremony: it was a fairly high-church ceremony with some personalized elements (a Celtic handfasting spoken in Gaelic) included, but wa otherwise quite traditional, within the standard Eucharistic Worship service context.

    Having said that, I have been eager to particpate in the collecting of ideas and resources for same-sex blessings in ECUSA, and I would like to take part in this discussion. I have two reactions to the post to which I am replying.

    First…part of me honestly questions why this subject is being revisited anew. The purposes and blessings of marriage are not new to the Episcopal church: they are as old as the Church herself. Those of us entering into same-sex unions are not looking to redefine marriage, or to look at marriage in new, exciting, and different ways (as we are often accused by our detractors). Rather, we are looking to appropriate the traditional blessings of marriage to our own committe relationships. from that perspective, I gues I am a little queasy about needing to ‘reinvent the wheel’ insofar as ‘what it is that we’re doing.’ What we’re doing is getting married!

    Second…I do not have the words to convey how important our church cermeony was to us. We will be celebrating our anniversary not on the day we partnered, not on the day of our civil union, not on the day of our civil marriage – but on our Church wedding day. THIS was the day our family and friens came to support us and celebrate. THIS was the day we stood before the world and exhanged our love and commitment publicly. THIS was the day we asked our Church to bless our partnership, share the Eucharistm and impart a sacramental blessing to our new family. Both of us *felt,* in the deepest parts of our souls, that something was *different* after that day. I believe deeply that the sacraments are not just a philosophical concpet, but an actual infusion of God’s grace into our physical nature, and I am aware of that grace each and every day. At the end of our ceremony, my husband Scott and I both changed our names: Scott chose “Seamus” (the Gaelic version of James) after our parich church’s patron Saint, St. James, and I chose “Tully,” (familiar form of Tuathal), my patron saint chosen from my days in Orthodoxy. We are new creatures, in a new relationship, as sent forth and blessed by the apostlic church and her members!

  2. Steve De Muth says:

    Reading a portion of Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson’s reflection on preparing theological resources for C056 , “the divine grace in these relationships is discerned by the fruits of fidelity it yields (not least among them are households marked by compassion, generosity, and hospitality)” brings to mind a recent experience.

    My partner and I had left church and were looking for a quick and easy lunch. As we were about to enter a fast food restaurant we were approached by a young man who asked us for help. The young man wanted to know if we would get him something to eat. We looked at each other for guidance and I suggested that he follow us inside. Food was purchased, we sat down together, listened to his story and treated him as an honored guest and friend. Now, if asked for money I would normally say “no”, but since this person asked for food it was easier to accomodate the request.

    What was surprising was that my partner volunteered to pay the bill. He acted on an impulse that has grown into action over time. He later stated that he hasn’t always thought in terms of hospitality to strangers. Our relationship continues to inform both our actions in private and public. I’m constantly amazed at the changes in each of us that recognize the importance of fidelity and honesty to one another and how his strengths inform my behavior and vice versa.

    It is a beautiful thing to see growth in compassion and generosity and the candor familiarity breeds to call each other out when we fall short.

  3. Peter Carlson says:

    I find Dr. Johnson’s comments helpful in that they frame the discussion in theological terms that are applicable to all committed, Christian relationships. Perhaps an additional avenue for discussion (either within a relationship or in the broader community) might include the question of religiously plural covenant relationships. Certainly I hope for union with G-d in Christ, but my husband, who is Jewish, would not be able to articulate his relationship with G-d in the same way. Nonetheless, we both are convinced that increased closeness between us produces greater closeness for each of us with G-d, and that as we individually work on our relationship with G-d, our mutual relationship with G-d and with each other reveals new blessings.

    I must also confess my opinion that perhaps we should emphasize more strongly the contractual nature of covenant relationships; in doing so we might provide a deeper understanding of their importance and the consequences of dissolving them without due consideration!

  4. Philip Wainwright says:

    It would appear that the work of ‘retrieving at least two key touchstones in historical Christian approaches to committed relationships’ has obscured a third, even more important one—Holy Scripture. When I first began preparing couples for marriage, I tried to stress both word and sacrament with them, but found that the scripture passages suggested by the Prayer Book for the service got far more traction with most of them than the sacramental nature of the service. Discussion of these passages often led to a deeper understanding of their relationship with each other as well as with Jesus Christ, whereas discussion of their role as the ministers of this sacrament just made their eyes glaze over.

    I don’t doubt that Scripture has informed some of what is said here, but that should be made more explicit if you want to involve the whole church.

    And is ‘retrieve’ the right word to use for an idea like ‘the desire that leads us to commit ourselves to another person reflects the human desire and hope for union with God-in-Christ’? That seems like something quite new, and perhaps ought to be argued for as such. Jesus’s words in Matthew 22.30 would have to be acknowledged in that argument.

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