In light of today’s Supreme Court decision to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lisa and Fiona. In the days before gay marriage was a viable option for same-sex couples, clergy were occasionally asked to perform “blessings.” Sometime these were even done in the context of a house blessing since many weren’t ready to bless these couples inside the four walls of a church.
These issues sound almost quaint in light of the recent progress toward marriage equality but these were high stakes, emotionally-charged times. I officiated at a same-sex blessing while a priest in New York and, with the couple’s “blessing,” I wrote an article about the experience that appeared in the Episcopal New Yorker. I share it with you here as I rejoice with the many gays and lesbians who simply want respect, dignity, equality, and perhaps an over-the-top wedding cake.
A More Perfect Union
One priest’s encounter with a same-sex blessing
“You two are nothing if not liturgically challenging,” I commented to Lisa and Fiona as we met to plan the blessing of their union. An interfaith same-sex blessing is not in the Book of Common Prayer. I looked.
Fiona, South African by birth, is a lifelong Anglican and a member of the All Saints’ vestry. Lisa is a self-described “Jewish Episcopalian.” Though she has not converted to Christianity, she and Fiona attend church together each week, pledge, and take their turn hosting coffee hour. Fiona’s daughter enthusiastically participates in our Sunday School program.
When they first approached me about performing a blessing, I admit I was slightly taken aback. Theological considerations in the abstract often have little relationship to concrete situations. I presumed such a request was inevitable and had formulated various responses, but the hypothetical never included faces. Suddenly this was more about two faithful parishioners than any General Convention debate. And it is why, after much prayer, consultation with the bishop, and conversation with my wardens, I agreed to conduct the service. Knowing Fiona and Lisa, praying with them, serving God with them, I became increasingly convinced that no other pastoral response was possible.
The service itself was not a political statement. It wasn’t about two women who had a tangential relationship with the parish. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. I didn’t call the press for “look-at-how-progressive-we-are” coverage. Lisa and Fiona didn’t send an announcement to the Style Section of the Sunday New York Times. Rather, it was a bold statement of love and commitment. A statement of Fiona and Lisa’s love for one another and a statement of Christ’s love for us all.
Fiona and Lisa could have made this statement in a variety of locales: a garden, a gazebo, a beach, or a courthouse. But they wanted to make this statement of love in their spiritual home. They wanted to share the moment with their friends and family, with their community of faith, in the place that has played such an integral role in their individual and collective spiritual journeys. And I couldn’t imagine denying them this simple yet profound request.
The liturgy evolved over time. And I was pleased at how much care and attention Lisa and Fiona paid to the ceremony. It was a carefully planned liturgy. Several resources for same-sex blessings exist; some are helpful, some are miserable. But none of them include the breaking of the glass. With input from the rabbi who assisted at the service, we put together a unique liturgy. One with dignity and joy, but above all one that sought to capture the abiding love of God for two faithful people seeking God’s blessing upon their union.
I’m not sure how the issue of same-sex blessings and even gay marriage will be resolved within the wider Church. All will be revealed in time. But I do know that I stared blankly at the parish register for quite some time following the service. It was not a “marriage.” Civil law and Church canons make this clear. But this liturgy was much too meaningful for Lisa and Fiona and all who witnessed this celebration to be classified under “Other Services.” There was nothing “other” about it.
Later that evening at the reception, as my wife and I danced the night away at Lyndhurst’s carriage house, I had the overwhelming conviction that God’s presence had hovered over the entire evening. There was a transcendent holiness that seemed to stop time and rest, if ever fleetingly, over those who had gathered in the presence of God to witness and bless this union. This was a celebration of love, commitment, and faith. And as a priest, it was a privilege to participate in a seminal moment in the lives of two wonderful and faithful people.