Monday, March 9, 2009

seperation of church and state--sometimes

"Episcopal bishop forbids priests to obey speed limit when it is
35--must obey 65 mph limits"
"Episcopal bishop warns priests not to pay Ct income tax--federal
tax can be paid...."

Either of those headlines would be cause for great consternation and angry communications to the Bishop. However, I live under a prohibition not dissimilar to those. I can sign legal marriage licences for heterosexual couples, but not for same-sex couples: both are legal here in CT.

I recieved a call the other day that broke my heart and caused me to ponder, ever more profoundly, the way the church operates. I'm real clear that there is a constitutional separation of church and state. I not only accept that separation, I applaud it. I would no more try to tell members of the parish I serve who to vote for--though they know who I'm voting for--than I would advise them on which brand of coffee to drink or toilet tissue to use. I have my political views and do not try to disguise them, but I keep them out of the pulpit and out of my communication with the parish.

So a woman called asking about marriage at St. John's. Lots of people who aren't members of the parish call and ask that question. About half of them follow through and have their ceremony at the parish I serve. It is, for me, a form of evangelism. The church is beautiful--a wonderful space for a marriage--and if that's why they call, it is not a bad reason to me. I do make requests of non-members being married: they must come to premarital counseling or a class for couples and they must attend church with us as they prepare for marriage. About 1/3 of those who follow through stick around. Another 1/3 come back when they have children. The final 1/3 are never heard from again. Two out of three would win the batting championship every year. I like the odds. It works for me and, I believe, it works for the church.

But this woman wanted to know if we allowed same-sex marriages. She called, not because it is a beautiful church, but because she had learned from friends and from the media that St. John's was open and inclusive of GLBT folks. I'm glad that reputation is out there, but I had to explain to her that her marriage was like driving within the speed limit when it was 35 mph and my bishop wouldn't allow me to do that. Heterosexual couples are a 65 mph speed limit and I must obey that law. She was heartbroken and angry and so am I.

Now, ask my bishop and he'll give you a whole handful of reasons about why I can't drive under 35 but must drive under 65. They aren't bad reasons, by the way--they just make no sense to the woman who called or to me.

The separation of church and state doesn't mean the church can decide not to obey the laws and follow the constitutional guidelines of the state. The church exists within a framework of the state. I need not agree with the laws of the state, but merely being part of the church gives me no right to violate those laws. I pay my taxes and don't rob people or assault people--though my treatment of that woman who only wanted her marriage to be within the context of the Episcopal liturgy was "assaulted" in a meaningful way. Yet I am forbidden to do what is legally possible for me--to officiate at marriage in CT and sign marriage licences--if they two people being married are of the same sex.

Get this: I can "bless" the civil marriages of gay and lesbian couples! That I am permitted to do. But if a couple wants "benefit of clergy" at their marriage and are two men or two women, I can't say the vows with them or sign their perfectly legal license. I am forbidden by my bishop to "obey the law" of CT which gives me permission to officiate at all marriages.

I could do it once, I believe, and it would be legal. Then my bishop could formally 'inhibit' me--isn't that a wondrously old fashioned term?--and I couldn't do it again without suffering greater punishment. Well, the 'punishment' of denying couples longing for the church be where they come for their marriages is harsh enough.

Some priests I know have decided to refuse to marry anyone until we are allowed to marry everyone. I've really considered that option--but the truth is this: I can't oppress another 'innocent' group because I have to oppress one 'innocent' group. I know all the arguments for doing that as well as I know the bishop's arguments for my not paying state taxes but paying federal ones. And I simply can't make the church even more inhospitable than it already is. But I always tell the different sexed couples how conflicted I am and ask them to pray for their brothers and sisters who want only what they want but can't have it.

In June I'll be blessing the marriage of a gay couple--one of whom is a priest--and I offered them the option of my using my one 'wild card' to read them their vows and see what befell me. They didn't want to put me in that quandry. Amazingly, there are still gay and lesbian folks who are much more compassionate toward the church than the church has ever been toward them! God bless them for that. Yet that does not take away my guilt and shame for ignoring the law of the state to conform to the repression of the church.

I'm still pondering it all. It almost causes me to ask the question that I mostly find vain and frivilous and silly: "What would Jesus do?" And I do wonder why the church makes dogmatic distinctions that hurt and wound and drive away people who come to us in hope and expectation. Go figure....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.