Monday, May 27, 2013

Shall We Discuss the Possibility of Discussing the Use of the Rite for Same-Sex Blessings?

[Postscript on May 30:  Dear readers: Since posting this initial piece four days ago, I have progressed very far in my thinking, with your help and with some good conversations in other venues. I came to realize that the announcement actually caused fear for me, though I articulated anger in this initial post. I now believe our rector and vestry has taken the correct step. Please read the full post here along with all the comments from me and other readers to see the evolution of my thinking. I had been tempted simply to delete this post, but I've decided not to; it may be helpful to see how I have moved from anger to fear to acceptance and hope on this "hot" issue of same-sex blessings.  I now wish I had not lashed out in such anger on Sunday.  But it is what it is.] 

Welcome to Orwell’s version of Episcopal Church polity in my little parish.
In case you haven’t been following along with the Episcopal Church move toward authorizing the blessing of same-sex unions, or in case you don’t know about my own parish and diocesan situation, I’m going to bore you for a while with background information.  Eventually, I’ll get to the point about the news I learned in my parish today.
My parish is a very diverse one out in mid-Missouri.  We’re not urban, and we’re not rural.  Our county is heavily Republican, but the parish is not.  As the only Episcopal parish in a 30-mile radius, we have learned to be tolerant of all perspectives. We do a great deal of worthwhile mission and ministry.  But – it seems to me – the great diversity of polico-theological views within the parish keeps us from having the Difficult Conversations that some others in the Episcopal Church have had.  We are very polite.  It seems to me that we have a “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” ethos within the parish.  We unite around the things that unite us, and I think that is a good thing.  On the other hand, I’m not so sure it’s such a good thing that we seem to dodge the tough “political” and “social” issues that have garnered headlines in the nation and the Episcopal Church over the past decade.   
One of those is the blessing of same-sex unions.  The General Convention authorized a liturgy of same-sex blessings [SSBs] in 2012.  The rite itself is available here.  The General Convention left it up to each Bishop as to whether s/he would allow SSBs in his/her diocese.  In December 2012, the Right Reverend George Wayne Smith, Bishop of Missouri, authorized the SSB rite for use in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.  His letter, and the guidelines he established, are available here
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I was part of the task force that worked with our bishop to develop those guidelines.  They weren’t entirely what I may have wanted, but I believed then and now that they were fair and judicious.
The guidelines require first that the clergy must support the move before “beginning a process of discernment in the congregation” and must notify the bishop that the congregation is entering the process of discernment about whether to perform SSB liturgies in the congregation.
Second, the guidelines require that the parish “will undertake a season of prayer and study, including as many parishioners as possible in this process, and taking into account especially whatever theological and social diversity there may be. That is, this process should be thoroughly inclusive.”
Our diocesan guidelines go on to outline what study/discernment resources might be helpful and the requirements for a vote by the vestry. 
You can read the rest of the requirements on our diocesan website.
I believe that is all well and good. 
OK.  That’s all background for you who have been following the developments in TEC and/or the Diocese of Missouri.  Now I get to the point.
After all the other routine notices/announcements today, our priest went to the lectern.  She gave a brief version of what I’ve said above.  I thought something BIG must be coming.  What she then announced is that a subcommittee of our vestry has been created and will hold “listening sessions” to determine whether our parish will begin the process of discernment to consider whether to allow same-sex blessings in our parish. 
Listen to that again: Our vestry is going to hold listening sessions not about whether we will hold SSBs in our parish, but about whether we will even discuss that prospect.
It would be too dramatic to say I was devastated.  But I certainly was disappointed. 
The diocesan guidelines envisioned that the clergy and vestry would choose to allow the conversation (or not), then it would move forward (or not).  Nowhere did the diocesan guidelines suggest a parish should hold a plebiscite about whether even to begin the conversation. The guidelines envisioned that the clergy and vestry would decide whether to begin the conversation. 
But my parish is going to have “listening sessions” to decide whether or not we should even begin the conversation.
Am I angry?  Yes, I am. 
Back in the early 1960s, our parish was in the process of calling a new rector.  Our parish was integrated, but all the black people were forced to sit in the back of the nave.  The priest whom they wanted to hire said he would come only on condition that that de facto segregation would end immediately.  The vestry agreed, the priest came here as rector, the parish was truly integrated, and that priest became one of the driving forces in integrating the downtown businesses. What a brave priest he was!  And how brave the vestry was!  
But what did I hear today?  My parish leadership is going to launch a conversation about whether we will even allow that conversation to take place.  We’re going to talk about whether we shall even talk about allowing same-sex blessings.  That seems a bit Orwellian to me. 
Let’s roll back the clock about 50 years.  Let’s say the vestry appointed a “listening committee” to decide whether to discuss the issue of racism in our parish.  Let’s say we talked about whether to discuss the injustice of telling African-Americans they had to sit in the back of the nave.  Would that not have been a profound injustice and a total failure of nerve on the part of our clergy and vestry?  I think it would have.  Fortunately, back then, there was a priest who said “THIS SHALL NOT STAND!”  He made it clear he would not come here while such injustice prevailed.
Our diocesan guidelines do not let a priest and vestry to take such a unilateral action today on the issue of same-sex blessings, and I understand that.  The guidelines require that the clergy support entering into conversation and that the vestry lead the conversation within the parish.
Instead, our parish is taking an even more backward, tentative step: They are going to ask the whether the conversation is even allowed to happen. Our bishop has not asked parishes to take that weenie step.  The guidelines assume that clergy and vestries would decide whether to launch the conversation.
Despite my anger and disappointment, I take this solace: Our parish under our current rector has a very good track record of having very productive and open “listening sessions.”  We took a very long time to talk about reconfiguring our worship space, and it came out very well, with all voices being heard.  The rector and vestry were highly attentive to all the voices from the parish.
If our vestry had followed the diocesan guidelines … If they had decided whether or not to begin the conversation about SSBs … I would be content. But they did not. Instead, they have decided to have a parish “vote” about whether we will even begin the conversation about SSBs.  And that makes me angry.  It won’t surprise me a bit if the parish decides the whole topic is just too divisive and therefore they don’t want to talk about it. After all, we’re a happy parish that ignores its differences.  Why introduce such a difficult topic of conversation? 
So we’re not going to have a conversation about same-sex blessings in my parish.  At least not yet.  Instead, we’re going to decide whether we’re even going to discuss the possibility of talking about SSBs.  No matter how that conversation ends, I am heartsick that our parish leadership has chosen this route.
African-Americans, you want equal treatment?  Let’s talk about whether we should discuss your appeal.  …  Women, you want equal treatment?  Let’s talk about whether we should discuss your appeal.  … Faithful gay men and lesbians, you want your covenants blessed in your Episcopal parish?  Let’s talk about whether we want to have that conversation in our comfy “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” parish. 
Even before the first “listening session” has convened, I am profoundly disappointed.  Dear parishioners: Would you want to have listening sessions about whether to consider your status in this parish?

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Blogger Wormwood's Doxy said...

I REALLY hope you share this post with your rector and the vestry. Hell, I hope you print it out and shove a copy in the Sunday bulletin!

Cowardice is not a Gospel value.


5/27/2013 9:08 AM  
Blogger Pfalz prophet said...

I agree with Doxy, share your post with your rector and then sit down with him and listen to him. What does he fear most?

5/27/2013 3:07 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Doxy & Pfalz Prophet, I did indeed do as you suggested. As soon as I wrote this blog post last night, I sent an e-mail to our rector and Senior Warden with a link to this post and more personal comments about the process.

But there is more to say.

First, I realized this evening that my dominant emotion is not really anger. It is fear. A deep fear about the things I may hear from some parishioners in these "listening sessions." I know there are folks who still use the KJV as the Authorized Version. And I sat in one Sunday Forum here, during our bishop's visitation soon after the Gene Robinson vote, where a couple of folks said things that had tears flowing down my cheeks.

What I masked as anger last night isn't really anger. It is fear. I feel a sense of acceptance and affection from this parish. I fear that when the question is placed in the center of conversation, I will hear dark things that will utterly undermine the sense of acceptance, affection, and inclusion that I have experienced here. ... I have in mind a visual image, which Maria Evans might appreciate: I imagine a surgeon doing an operation on a healthy-looking person and discovering a vile tumor inside. I pray that is not the case here. But I fear it. And it's important that I have come to realize today that it's not anger, but fear that is driving my reaction to this process in the parish.

5/27/2013 9:05 PM  
Blogger Kelbe said...

I think your vestry has misidentified the topic of discussion. If you're already talking about talking about it, you're talking about it whether you like it or not. FYI, my parish came out with some LOVELY curriculum about covenant & blessings which has been used in the area with success.

5/27/2013 9:20 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

That's true, Kelbe, but that's also what has me frightened. The diocesan guidelines offer a couple of very fine resources for organizing the conversation. I fear these "listening sessions" -- because they lack that structure -- could result in conversations that I may find very painful.

Kelbe, you have my e-address, I think. Is your parish curriculum available in a form you could share with me? I'd be grateful to receive it.

5/27/2013 9:26 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

So sorry about this crap Lisa. Our Oregon bishop's process assumes that churches will have blessings for all couples and canons will be followed - the priest makes the decisions (as per all couples). In Wyoming it is so byzantine as to be ridiculous - the church has to have conversations and a demo rite of blessing - then votes, priest and congregation can each veto it, then the couple and the priest have to go meet with the bishop. Then maybe the blessing can take place.

5/27/2013 10:13 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Oh, Ann. Oregon is so much more progressive than Missouri. Did you follow the link to our diocesan guidelines? Here, it will be made on a parish-by-parish basis. I was on our bishop's council of advice about the guidelines for this diocese, and I think they make sense. Though I wish it were a non-issue. I wish Missouri were a better place to be a gay Episcopalian. But at least it seems we're not quite as bad as Wyoming. :)

5/27/2013 10:53 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

This study examined the serious physical and psychological toll that occurs among many of our gay brethren when we debate the validity of same sex marriage. The process of having to listen to our friends and church family judge the right to marry and voice their assumptions and values about a orientation that they can never fully understand is insensitive and hurtful. The fact that it leads to such large negative health impacts should give congregations pause when they consider "listening campaigns". I fully agree that bold action to simply DO what is right is what is needed.

5/27/2013 10:56 PM  
Blogger JCF said...

Feh, Lisa I suggest you IGNORE the "discerning to discern" part of the framing, and just treat the sessions as "discernment to bless". "Act Up, Fight Back", and all that good pro-active stuff. All you need is ONE solid instigator, and discernment-to-bless WILL happen. So, you be that instigator?

God bless!

5/27/2013 11:23 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you for that link, Steve. I heard it on NPR, but you remind me of its relevance to my life and my life in my parish.

5/27/2013 11:47 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, JCF. But I doubt I can be that one voice. When folks start quoting Leviticus, I just get too angry and heart-broken to speak. I doubt that I will have the heart to speak in these sessions in my parish. I pray others will speak.
But perhaps I will surprise myself. I hope I will.

5/27/2013 11:51 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Leviticus, you say? You might remind them not to base their arguments on verses from Leviticus while eating shrimp and barbecued pork in their polyester and cotton clothes...

5/28/2013 7:31 AM  
Blogger Wormwood's Doxy said...

I recognized that you were afraid--and, sadly, I think you have every reason to be. :-(

And this is why I am angry at your rector. What she did is not leadership--and it opens the door to the potential for great spiritual abuse of you and any other LGBT person in your parish. (Not to mention your allies, who will also be pained and disillusioned--not that I'm comparing our feelings to yours....)

She had an obligation to LEAD. This is what the Bishop said:

"The Rector, Vicar, or Priest-in-Charge must support the move to use the rites and contact the Bishop before beginning a process of discernment in the congregation." [emphasis mine]

First, if your rector does NOT support the use of the rites, she had no business starting the discussion in the first place.

But if she does, she should have said as much and gone about having the conversation in the way the Bishop directs.

I'd love to know if she asked him whether or not it was acceptable to have a conversation about whether or not to have The Conversation? I can't imagine that he would have allowed it had he been asked. Surely he's smart enough to see the potential for abuse in such a situation?


5/28/2013 10:09 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

My dear Doxy, you know I love you and your passion, and I deeply appreciate your support. But please back off on our rector. She is a strong ally and a very wise, spiritually sensitive person. The depth of her spirituality and kindness is awesome to me.

Let me tell you this: I was on vestry during our search process. When we got the names of the finalists, I (of course) Googled them. Her name kept coming up on gay travel sites around Cape Cod. When I opened them up, I discovered she was rector in Provincetown, and was the "go-to" priest for gay couples wanting a [blessing or marriage; I can't remember which was "legal" in the state of Massachusetts back then.] So, Doxy, do not doubt that she is on our side. But she's also rector of a very challenging parish, and I now realize she has chosen a very wise course.

And to all of you:

I don't want to be mean, but I will delete further comments that attack our rector.

In the past day or so, I have had very warm, open responses from our parish leadership. I do now understand why they have chosen to interject the "listening sessions" in between the two steps outlined in the diocesan guidelines, and I support them.

The "listening sessions" will not be free-for-alls, but will be carefully designed to elicit thoughtful and prayerful comments so that we can truly hear each other's stories and concerns. I think this may be a helpful step in "setting the state" for the discernment process.

We had similar sessions a few years back, when it became clear we needed to reconfigure our chancel space. As you Episco-Geeks know, that can be a very hot issue. We had a far-back, "high" altar, and needed to consider the possibility of lowering it and moving it closer to the nave. The listening sessions were well organized, leading to thoughtful and truly charitable conversation. In a parish with many strongly-held views, the result was a beautiful new chancel that we all now love. I now understand that's the model that the vestry will be using, and I am pleased with what I have heard.

Also, know this: Our parish is one of the most diverse I know (at least within this diocese). Because we are not in an urban area, we have a wide diversity in race, liturgical preferences, secular and ecclesial politics, and more. I have come to understand that this "intermediate step" will be an important way to be sure all "positions" feel heard and it will be an important way to build consensus if (as I hope) we do embark on the discernment process outlined in the diocesan guidelines. I believe our rector and vestry was right to insert this step, as it has served us well in other issues that could have torn apart this fragile diversity we maintain.

A new realization I had today: While I was livid Sunday at what I perceived to be foot-dragging by our leadership, I now also realize it probably caused panic and anger by those on "the other side of the issue." But they can be brought along, too. And we all must be brought along together, if we are to be the church that Christ and the Gospels envision.

I have been tempted to delete this blog post, because I believe my initial, hot-headed post was not well informed or well thought out. For now, I am choosing to leave it online, for it may show -- particularly in the comments -- my own progression of thought and feelings through this difficult issue.

5/28/2013 11:57 PM  
Blogger IT said...

Good luck. I will hope for the best.

But it will come down to this: those opposed will not be persuaded of the integrity of LGBT couples, because they will not be able to make the leap that being gay is not a sin. They will not change their minds, any more than those on the pro-blessing side will change theirs. And those in the middle will struggle to keep both sides on board.

There isn't a compromise possible here, because these are mutually exclusive. And that means someone will lose. once you "tell", and step out of the closet, you can't go back in to the way it was.

It will be a challenge on all sides to keep the community intact when one side or the other will feel deeply hurt by the decision (whichever decision it is).

Your rector is brave to bring it up.

5/29/2013 11:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, IT, for your good wishes. We can use them. And please add whatever passes for prayer for you.

Yes, I have come to see this is an act of courage on the part of our rector and vestry. We all know the worst that can happen. I know hope this process will help us avoid the fractioning that could take place on such a "hot" issue.

I agree: the stakes are very high. If our parish says "no" to SSBs, I recognize it would be very difficult for me stay here. It would feel too much like a personal rejection. ... On the other hand, I realize there are also people here (maybe 10%) in the parish who would find it hard to stay here if we say "yes" to SSBs. I realize they hold their positions as firmly as I hold mine. And they believe they are being faithful to Scripture and tradition. ... But as I have reflected more calmly, I have come to believe that the vast majority of the parish is either (a) fully supportive of SSBs or (b) willing to live with it even if they have reservations. If I were a betting person, I'd bet there are about 10% who consider this a do-or-die issue on the left or right, and that probably about 80% will be strongly/mildly supportive or at least willing to let it happen.

Back when I served on the task force to help the Bishop come up with guidelines for the diocese, I was utterly convinced our parish would never even take up this question. The fact that they are doing so is amazing! Utterly amazing! I have realized I should feel grateful that at least we are discussing this topic, and I do feel grateful ... no matter what verbal mud may be slung in the process.

Of course, I could be wrong. If the parish is more strongly and sharply divided than I think it is, I suppose the "listening sessions" might result in the vestry deciding not to move into the official discernment process. And I could live with that, I now realize.

I agree: "It will be a challenge on all sides to keep the community intact when one side or the other will feel deeply hurt by the decision." And some of us will find it difficult if the vestry decides not to proceed at this time.

5/30/2013 9:15 PM  
Blogger IT said...

It will depend heavily on how the out LGBT people in your parish are viewed--and how they participate in the process. It is much harder to view a loved member of a community as a "them" to be feared.

You may be interested in my reflections after our blessing, here, as a statement of what it can mean to the couple.

(We were married civilly in 2008, just before Prop8 passed in CA (and remain, with 18,000 other same sex couples, legally married.) In 2010, the Bishop of San Diego released a process for SSB, and the Cathedral was the first parish to go through it. Once SSBs were approved, BP and I were one of the first couples to have a blessing. In our case, of course, it was the blessing of a civil marriage, and so different from our wedding. I actually think that separating the two events--wedding and blessing--in an intentional way has much merit. But I digress.)

6/02/2013 10:38 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thank you, IT, for the link to this post. I don't think I had seen it before. Your reflections remind me of the Episcopal Church's title for its study of SSBs: "I will bless you, and you will be a blessing." That's the part of your reflection that I particularly like: that the blessing moves both ways -- the community blessing your covenant, and your faithful lives together being a blessing to your parish.

Thank you for linking to that account of your blessing liturgy, which you told so beautifully.

6/02/2013 11:22 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

BTW, IT, as far as I know, there are only three gay/lesbian people in our parish, and I'm the only who is "out." I'm quite visible, since I so often serve around the altar as crucifer or LEM and in other ministries. I think the other two are well loved in the parish, even if folks don't know they're gay.

I agree with your comment about us not being a "them" to be feared. I pray the parishioners will know us by name as they talk about The Issue. Unfortunately, none of us comes to the parish with a partner, so the parish hasn't had a chance to see that sort of "marriage" that the heterosexuals exhibit.

6/02/2013 11:41 PM  

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