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Initial Thoughts on Episcopal Church Proposed Liturgy for Same Gender Blessing

May 17, 2012

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity as a member of the Diocese of Pennsylvania to attend a lecture and discussion given by the Rev. Dr. Patrick Malloy on the topic of the proposed liturgy going to General Convention for Same Gender blessings.  At the time of the lecture, the Blue Book (book of agenda items and resolutions for General Convention) had not yet come out and thus, the liturgy was still shrouded in some secrecy.  Dr. Malloy was unable to break that secrecy but he was able to share with a little bit about their process, as he was on the consultation team that composed the liturgy.  He told us how as they began collecting texts already in use (whether canonically or legally or not didn’t matter) they needed to devise a way, a measuring stick if you will, to judge them all by the same standards.  This tool, he believes, will actually be a lasting work of the commission for revising and composing liturgies in the future and I have to say, it is an excellent tool.  Here they are, quoted from a document he handed us:

Nearly as important is that the proposed liturgical materials embody a classically Anglican liturgical ethos and style. Recognizing the varying notions of what makes public prayer recognizably Anglican, the task group identified these qualities:

• It resonates with Scripture.
• It has high literary value; is it beautiful according to accepted and respected standards.
• It uses the recurring structures, linguistic patterns, and metaphors of the 1979 BCP.
• It is formal, not casual, conversational, or colloquial.
• It is dense enough to bear the weight of the sacred purpose for which it is intended.
• It is metaphoric without being obtuse.
• It is performative., that is, it effects what it says.

I think that is an excellent place to begin and I commend the commission on coming up with a fine tool.  My prayer is that future liturgical compositions use it.

So, with that tool in hand I read the proposed liturgy in the Blue Book when it arrived and came up with some initial thoughts.  The Blue Book can be downloaded here, and the liturgy begins on page 241. First of all, I really appreciate how the liturgy takes the shape and form of other liturgies currently in the Book of Common Prayer.  Our current marriage liturgy does not begin the way our other liturgies do, nor does it follow the same pattern.  In writing this liturgy, it is clear the authors had a desire to conform to the current prayer book’s pattern, and that is a good thing.  There are various seasonally appropriate opening acclamations, according to BCP and EOW models followed by a dialogue taken from 1 John 4.  So far, the first four bullet points from above are being met in my estimation.

Then follows an address to the congregation by the Presider.  In the fourth line the word “union” is used – “…to bless their union…” – and I highlighted it only to keep an eye on this kind of language for the purposes of consistency.  Just below that the first paragraph of the opening address concludes with what I will say is the first problematic part of the liturgy.

It says, “holding one another in tenderness and respect, in strength and bravery, come what may, as long as they live.”  The last three clauses sound very ominous to me.  It seems to me that here the composers are walking on egg shells a bit and perhaps this language could be replaced with more joyful language.  There are dangers out there for all couples, hetero- and homosexual, but perhaps the blessing/marriage service isn’t the place for them?  Maybe that’s better suited to pre-marital/pre-blessing counseling? Also, where is the language in this opening address akin to “prosperity and adversity” and language about children, and their nurture and growth?

The next paragraph is really, really well-written.  I would add one word at the end of it, which is bolded below: “Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his life given/sacrificed for the sake of the world, a life in which Christ calls us all to share.”  I realize some of the composers of new liturgies shy away from sacrifice language, but I don’t.  I think this sentence needs a word there to really make it make sense and we might as well go ahead and name what Christ did for us.

Some on our Diocesan Liturgical Committee believed the word “generosity” where it appears in the next sentence (“…and that we will have the generosity to support them…”) was patronizing and a verbal meaningful glance at good old homophobic Aunt Elsa.  I contend that it is an intentional pairing with the word “generosity” above and that it is fine, but this was brought up.

The options for a Collect of the Day are well phrased and there are aspects of each that I really enjoyed, though the second one was my favorite.  The third option uses the phrase, “an grant us, with them, a dwelling place eternal in the heavens…” which caused a bit of mental whiplash as it sounded like a funerary prayer.  The fourth option is to be used if one or both of the couple have children .  It’s too bad language about children couldn’t optionally be added to any of the first three collects so that a couple with children wouldn’t be forced to use this collect.  Also, it makes an assumption, I think, that a couple would only have children via a prior relationship and not together through one of the myriad ways a gay couple might have children.

The Lesson options are many and varied, which is good.  But, is there room for a couple to select another reading not from this list if they had a personal favorite or something along those lines.  The current proposed rubrics do not permit this.

The Presentation, which would be optional, is missing the little “optional bar” down the side, so familiar to users of the 1979 BCP.

The Declaration of Consent bit that follows id well conceived and appropriately placed before the prayers of the people.

In the first prayer of the people, some on our committee wondered if the language of “seeking your blessing” might indicate that we think they do not already have it.  I disagreed and thought that was coming from too defensive of a reading of the liturgical text.  All couples having a service ion the church are doing so because they are seeking God’s blessing (or our affirmation of God’s blessing) upon them.

I miss the prayer from the ’79 marriage liturgy that says, “When they hurt each other…”  It is one of my favorites because it names the fact that we are broken and we will mess up.  I think it needs to be added to the petition for peace in their home and in their family.

In the Commitment portion of the service, the “I give myself to you…” part, some wondered if husband/wife language was needed.  I thought the reason it probably wasn’t included is this is technically not a marriage service, and husband and wife language carries with it, currently, the force of law.  If this develops into a marriage liturgy I highly recommend (as if my opinion matters) that husband/wife language be included.

The giving of the rings portion of the service absolutely, positively, can’t do it without it, needs “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” added on to the end of it.  It needs to read, “N., receive this ring as a symbol of my abiding love, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.  I love the use of the word “abiding” there, so crucial.  But we are Episcopalian and it is very important to me, in this prayer, that we end it with a Trinitarian formula.

The actual blessing of the couple is pretty good, though it lacks some of the language and the grace of the first Nuptial Blessing in the ’79 BCP.  “A seal upon their hearts…”  “Bless them in their companionship…”  That kind of language is missing and would serve to fill out an underwhelming prayer.  This is THE culmination point, and the language used needs to be full, powerful, effective, and performative.  Most everywhere else, I think that it is, but this prayer sounded a bit anemic to me.  However, that is coming from someone who always chooses the first nuptial blessing prayer for weddings, rather than the much shorter second one.

The service concludes either with the Peace, or more properly with the Eucharist, for which a well-written proper preface and post-communion prayer are provided.

As I read this liturgy, somewhere towards the middle of it a strange thing happened to me.  I realized I had stopped reading it as the proposed liturgy for same gender blessing services, and had started reading it as a prototype liturgy for a new and revised marriage liturgy that would be used by all couples, gay and straight.  The critiques I made were from the perspective of, if this were my wedding service I would want it to say this or that.  And that’s when I realized that this is an important document, not because it is what it says it is, but because, I believe, this will be a transitional document into a new marriage liturgy for all persons.

I think, for the most part, this document reflects those seven bullet points with which I began, though there are some weak parts easy to argue.

I invite your comments or feedback, but I reserve the right to delete comments containing vitriolic speech not conducive to discussion.  Contrary opinions, thoughtfully and sensitively expressed are most welcome.

Fr. Ryan+

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Black permalink
    May 17, 2012 2:34 pm

    Great thoughts, thanks for sharing. I think there are some great elements in this liturgy, but my first response is other than correcting for a few instances of gendered language in the 79 Marriage liturgy, why do we need a separate service. I thought that we, as a people, figured out that separate but equal is not equal at all. If there is a desire to amend the 79 version of the Marriage service, then let’s do that. Some elements of this new liturgy I think are preferable to the 79 version, but I don’t see why we need another liturgy to accomplish the same task.

  2. Betsy Delaney permalink
    May 17, 2012 3:44 pm

    Thank you for giving this so much thought Ryan. I now admire and respect
    you EVEN MORE.

  3. Kurt Ellison permalink
    May 17, 2012 4:22 pm

    I would have to agree with Robert. Let’s expand the sacrament we have and not invent a “new” one.

  4. May 17, 2012 5:42 pm

    Robert and Kurt, this was something we talked about at our Liturgical Commission meetings. On the surface, to some, it may seem like a great idea. However, from a process point of view, it is not what the Church has asked for. The Church, through Convention asked for this work, and so, it is this work that I am evaluating. To say, let’s not worry about this and instead just expand the Sacrament we have is contrary to what the church has called for, right or wrong. I think it’ll get there, I really do. But for now, these are the parameters under which we’ll work and so let’s get them, at least, as right as we can.

  5. Ken Grabach permalink
    September 23, 2013 2:12 pm

    My encounter with this liturgy was for the blessing ceremony for great friends of ours. My thoughts are these, and they are simple. First, the liturgy is beautiful. One gets a different feel for liturgy when it is encountered in worship as distinct from encountering it only in reading, whether aloud or silently. And when one is at a blessing ceremony for two men who have been together for more than 12 years, and one of whom has been our (my wife’s and my) friend for more than 30 years, that liturgy took on new symbolism. They wee married in a civil ceremony in another state where it is legal. The blessing was available then to provide a holy sanction, to give them access to a sacrament that the state they live in says is illegal, no matter the views of their bishop. In fact, their bishop and diocese do not allow it, either. So they went to a neighboring state, where it is possible they were either the first or second blessing in that diocese.

    This brings me to one of the comments above. Why not make this the liturgy for marriages? Two reasons: First in some states, same sex couples cannot marry, still more than where they can. Is it not a place for the church to provide sanctuary to bless a union the state does not recognize? Second, the Book of Common Prayer provides a blessing service for civil unions. I believe much from that liturgy got incorporated into the new one.

    But for many years, I think, there will be a need for this liturgy as distinct from other unions of couples. And there will still be dangers that same-sex couples will encounter. That is actually what the Westboro folk of Topeka are protesting against. These two men, our friends, have had to be wary of who knew of the nature of their relationship. One is a civilian employee of the Army. Until very recently, he had to be quite wary in his work place. So those references in the liturgy to dangers resonated and was a very meaningful part of the blessing. It was anacknowledgement by The Church that this could exist, and you have a place with us. In practice, this was important to include in the service. We thought it was truly a beautiful service, in part because the liturgy worked so well and conveyed so much of the right symbolism.

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