Gay marriage is a subject that seems to get talked about a lot but I rarely hear anyone propose a way forward. What follows is a way forward that I could live with;
- First, we need to separate civil marriage from covenant marriage. Civil marriage, in my view, is a legally binding contract between two people that gives them certain legal rights, benefits and responsibilities. These legal matters, in my opinion, are matters for the government and not the church or any religious body. The guiding principle is equal protection under the law and equal benefit afforded by the law. Civil Unions for both straight and gay couples are widely accepted by Americans. Eight states currently have civil union laws. Both gay and straight people enter into civil unions (that’s what we call it when people get married by the justice of the peace). Covenant marriage, in my view is a voluntary partnership whereby two people make a covenant to one another before God and family. The covenant, made explicit in marriage vows, consists of mutual promises made by both partners that are not legally binding. These covenantal matters, in my opinion, are matters for the church or other religious bodies, and not the government. They are influenced by tradition, religious teaching, sacred writings and other things which are kept by a particular community within which the couple wishes to be married. In current practice, religious officials (pastors) are able to act as agents of the government by performing covenant ceremonies that are also legally binding contracts. But current practices can change. By separating civil and covenant marriage, it allows greater freedom for couples. They can have a civil marriage, a covenant marriage, or both. The government would officiate over civil marriage and the church or religious body over covenant ceremonies. I would support the rights of all persons, gay and straight, to enter into civil marriage. I would also support the right of all churches and religious communities to discern the boundaries surrounding covenant ceremonies within their community.
- Second, we need to define healthy marriage apart from gender. I agree that marriage is being eroded in American cultural life. Yet, the thing that is causing all the trouble isn’t gay marriage. After all, how could it? It’s not happening. Straight folk need to take responsibility for the mess they have made of marriage. This is the problem; we’ve forgotten how to practice things like mutual love, mutual support, mutual accountability, loyalty, perseverance, fidelity, keeping one’s word, mutual respect, putting others first, and so on. Gay or straight, a good marriage contains all of those things and a bad one doesn’t. We need more good marriages. Sometimes I think gay marriage is a distraction that keeps straight folks from taking responsibility for the health of their own marriages. Straight marriage isn’t, by it’s nature, good. More goes in to making a good marriage than two straight people – there are other ingredients. The question is would the marriage between two gay people, who are doing all the right things in their marriage, by its very nature, be bad? That’s the burden of proof for those, who for non-religious reasons, would oppose gay marriage. I would contend that we, as a society need more good marriages and fewer bad marriages and the definition of such has nothing to do with the gender of the couple.
- Third, we need to allow religious freedom. I’m not optimistic that within my faith tradition, we will ever come to a consensus on gay relationships and gay marriage. Pervasive interpretive pluralism (many people reading the same Bible texts come up with many different interpretations) is…well…pervasive. The standard move is to state one’s position as “what the Bible says” and declare all those who disagree as misinformed, liberal/conservative, (un)educated, wrong, and so on and so forth. It’s not healthy. It’s unproductive. It stifles real discernment. It leaves little room for God to talk through the Spirit. It’s bad. Forgive me for this discouraging word, but it seems it’s also here to stay. So I am content to allow faith communities to discern this question for themselves without prejudice or judgement. I won’t stand in a picket line with the folks from Westboro Baptist Church and I won’t march in a gay pride parade. At the same time, I won’t try to limit someone’s right to free speech, and I also won’t stand idly by if people made in the image of God are being abused. If church A believes it is faithful to perform same-gender covenant marriages, agree or disagree, I believe they should have the right to do it. If church B believes it is unfaithful to perform same-gender covenant marriages, agree or disagree, I believe they should have the right not to. Then I will hold out hope that, through the Spirit, we can come together into unified practice on this (and many, many other things). In the end we’ll all answer to God and I think that will be equally shocking for one and all!
After weeks of trying to figure out how to weigh on this one, this is the best I can do. Let me know your thoughts!