Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The sanctity of marriage

My congregation, like most other ELCA congregations at present, is reviewing the draft of the ELCA Social Statement on Sexuality. We got to the "same-sex relationships" part of the discussion on Sunday morning, and I've been ruminating about it since.

The Statement itself is a well-intentioned document. I really believe that. However, I think they might be trying too hard. It seems like a document that's genuinely trying to be sensitive to both the unity needs of the institution and the pastoral needs of its members. That's commendable, but it doesn't exactly SAY anything cohesive, at least in regard to the same-sex relationship question. Maybe that's where it should be right now; I dunno. Maybe it's a pretty accurate expression of where we are as a Lutheran body. Maybe this document is there primarily to spark conversation.

And I have to say, it did that on Sunday--with help from Wonderful Colleague's deft facilitation. There was a really interesting discussion. More on that in a bit.

Here's my problem: the Statement seems a bit condescending to the GLBT members of the Body of Christ. Sadly, that is only in keeping with the Church's position, even at its most open. It suggests that "all life-giving relationships...may be nurtured," (may?) and yet denies that "marriage" is open to everyone. Some would argue that it's a semantic question as long as there's an option for a Holy Union or something like it, and there's some truth in that: after all, the Church doesn't define the nature of my relationship with Beloved--she and I and God do that. In that light, the name of it doesn't really matter. However, the single substantive difference between my marriage and the straight marriages I've been privileged to witness among my family and friends is just this: anatomy. And so, to suggest that my marriage should be called something else rings hollow for me, because, in my mind, it is defined by its substance, not its outward appearance. I am married.

My marriage demands that I keep on trying to live with humility, integrity and generosity, with humor and with grace. It opens me to the presence of this beautiful, mysterious Other, lifting me out of myself and challenging me to grow into relationship with her and with God, every single day of my life. Beloved is my companion, my teacher, my friend, my love. Sex is one expression of that love, but my no means is it the only--or even the most important--expression.

And so, to define my relationship by something other than its central focus--well, to me that's a distortion of the relationship (and one that renders me other, to boot). That distortion then continues to warp the Church's conversation about the nature of the relationship. Circular problem, no?

My marriage asks me to be a follower of Christ in a deeper way than any other relationship of my life. Isn't that a concern of the Church? Shouldn't that be the focus of the Church's interest in that relationship?

Some people believe that GLBT types should try to follow the same path as our straight sisters and brothers: no sex outside of marriage, and marriage only to an opposite-sex partner. And I support the spirit of that demand, but there are two problems with it:
  • I believe, like Luther, that chastity is a charism, a gift, given to everyone for some period of time, and to a few for their whole lives. It's a tough place to live permanently, and not everyone is equipped for it. The consequences for those who are damaged by the unrealistic expectation of permanent chastity are often shattering--sometimes in the form of inappropriate sexual contact, of which examples abound; sometimes in the form of crippling loneliness. Some people do live it out well, and it's a commitment that demands just as much from a person as marriage does. However:
  • I believe that I am called to be a married person. I cannot, in good conscience, make that sacred commitment to a man, because I know that I can't offer my whole self to that commitment. Thus, the marriage would be over before it began. If I am to be the person I'm called to be, I must honor that commitment with everything I am. That can't happen with a man. I won't live a lie at his expense, in order to "save" myself, now that I understand what my makeup is. That would be dishonest and cowardly of me, at this stage of my life. Besides which, it usually doesn't work. Many of my friends have tried this avenue (with both good and fearful intentions), and a part of that result has been suffering for all concerned. I have at least a dozen friends who, trying to be their best Christian selves by conforming to what they thought God (and everyone else) wanted from them, got married...and eventually divorced. They discovered that there was pain and loneliness where there should have been communion, through the fault of neither party. Please understand that I'm not intending to imply that there wasn't value in those relationships, but I know that it's not where I'm called to be. It's just not in keeping with my understanding of the abundant love of God.
As a guy once said, after having wrestled with God, sin, heresy and Church doctrine...and having staked his own soul on his conviction:

Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.

There must be a provision made for GLBT people to live in committed relationships. In the short term, if it saves the "unity" of the church (on the most superficial of levels), I can live with a term like "holy union," and with a "local option" as a first step. But in the end, it's a sweet-sounding avoidance of the truth of the matter, and so we'll be condemned to keep coming back to this tiresome discussion until we finally get it right--because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it's bent toward justice.

One gracious, struggling, straight member of the Body expressed on Sunday that, while she loves her gay friends and has actively advocated on their behalf within the legal system for non-discrimination concerns, she also struggles with the placement of God's line in the sand beyond which our behavior must not stray. She's trying to balance the demands of the Law with the demands of Love, and it's confusing. I have great respect for her wrestling with this very important question. It's one we all share, if we're honest about it. At the end of the day, she wants to know that God does expect something of us, after all.

So do I. And I want my Church to expect something of me, as well. I want my Church to ask me to be Christ's follower with as much honesty, integrity, and grace as I can. And so, I want my Church to ask the same thing of me that it asks of my straight sisters and brothers: be honest about who you are, be chaste until marriage, and then live out your marriage commitment as fully and lovingly as you are able.

THAT'S the kind of pastoral care that I need, as a lesbian. Not "special" rights. Not a pat on the shoulder signifying that my Church wants to love me but can't quite manage it because unity must be maintained as a higher value. I dream of a Church with the courage to truly ask ALL of us to be our best, fullest, bravest Christian selves for the sake of the Gospel...which is not necessarily synonymous with the safety and comfort of the institutional Church.


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

You have beautifully articulated the reasons that led me to change my views—which not all that long ago were close to the standard Evangelical views of homosexuality—to the inclusive position I currently hold. I do not believe orientation is chosen or can be changed, and if that is a given, then in love I must embrace the cause that my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters must have the same options for living a holy life that I do. And that means that they must be free to marry.

aka The Swandive said...

Stunning my friend. I need to chew on the chaste bit a little further, but once again, I am so grateful for your words.

Songbird said...

I love the way you put this, although I am not sure asking people of any orientation to be chaste is a standard that is likely to hold. As a pastor I have yet to do a wedding for a couple that was not already living together. In this culture, where puberty is early and marriage comes late, chastity is a lot to ask. It worked in cultures where you stayed married no matter what. But in our world, where we are encouraged to consider sexual satisfaction as a pinnacle, it sounds like a pretty big risk to wait for marriage, no matter who you're marrying. And of course it's a trick bag when applied to people who aren't allowed to be legally married in the first place. That's on my mind.

Choralgirl said...

Swan & Songbird--yeah, actually. :-)

I guess what I'm REALLY saying is "hold me to the same standard as anyone else; no more, no less."

Thanks for clarifying that for me!

Choralgirl said...

Still thinking; want to amend my last comment a bit.

I don't think it's a bad thing to shoot for--chastity until marriage, I mean. Having the standard there may not be the point.

Creating a healthier cultural perspective on sexuality would be great, tho, huh?

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

What an incredible post - one everyone should read. I already agreed with you but I 've never seen it put so eloquently.

FranIAm said...

Oh my- this is nothing short of extraordinary.

Talk about living with humility and generosity and so forth - you have done that here beautifully.

These words will sit on my heart for a long time. Thank you for this tremendous expression of who you are and what you believe.

I stand with you always.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Choralgirl, wonderful post. Like you, I have problems with the ELCA's "may be nurtured" in the statement, too, but what I have a REAL problem with is one person laying the burden of celibacy on another person. In my humble opinion, celibacy is a call from God to a way of life. For anyone to ask that from another calls to mind the hypocritical Pharisees in the Gospel, whom Jesus called to account for laying heavy burdens on others, without lifting a finger to help.

Fran sent me here to read this post, and I'm glad she did.

Catrina said...

Beautifully stated, as always, CG.

I hope you send this in to the Task Force writing the final draft of the statement.

The Mad Preacher