Who defines marriage for Christians?

o charles weddingWhat do liberal Episcopal bishops do when a local culture careens past their church in the debate about gay marriage? As the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe and The Washington Times have reported recently, some bishops choose a more cautious path than one would expect from their previous announcements and votes at their church's triennial General Convention. So, for instance, Bishop William Swing of the Diocese of California -- a longtime advocate of blessing gay couples -- revoked the license of his assisting bishop, Otis Charles, after Charles married his partner, Felipe Sanchez Paris, in late April.

And so Bishop Thomas Shaw of the Diocese of Massachusetts, joined by his two suffragan bishops, has forbidden clergy from functioning as agents of the state by participating in marriage ceremonies for gay couples. (The clergy remain free to bless gay couples in rites that do not make explicit connections to marriage.)

In varying degrees, all these reports note the tensions between the bishops' advocacy and their recent actions. Is there any way to make sense of these tensions? Here are a few possibilities:

Church law prevails. Both the Massachusetts bishops' public announcement and Bishop Shaw's more detailed letter to clergy acknowledge the untimely reality that the Episcopal Church's canons and The Book of Common Prayer continue to define marriage as involving a man and a woman. In a similar spirit, the Rev. Canon Michael K. Hansen, executive officer of the Diocese of California, told the Chronicle: "We will do a blessing of gay people, but it's not to look like a marriage. We're not in the (same-sex) marriage business."

How can bishops who draw the line at gay marriage also give approval for clergy to provide nonmarital blessings for gay couples? Simple: Episcopal canons do not prohibit such blessings, and successive General Conventions have moved those blessings ever closer to official approval.

Sending signals of moderation. Louie Crew, perhaps the best known gay man in the Episcopal Church expresses it this way on his website:

Why not say just that, 25 times at the blackboard if you like:

We like you but we will not solemnize your marriage.

. . .We will bless you, your dog, your cat, and your canary.

. . . and perhaps in small script, reveal why.....

We hope Archbishop Akinola is listening.... We hope Archbishop Akinola is listening.... We hope Archbishop Akinola is listening....

. . . We hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening.... We hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening.... We hope the Archbishop of Canterbury is listening....

But if American bishops think that the Archbishop of Nigeria will be impressed by such liturgical hair-splitting, they still do not understand him very well.

Leaving it to the state. As I've noted before in this space, a significant number of Episcopal clergy want to stop "functioning as agents of the state" by signing marriage certificates or reciting the familiar line of "By the authority vested in me." Some of these clergy propose that couples go first to the state to have their marriage made legal (and thus official) and then come to church for a pastoral blessing.

How well will this model work, however, among Christians who understand marriage as coming into existence at the very moment when a couple makes promises of lifelong commitment, before God and loved ones, in their place of worship? How many Christians, given a choice in the matter, would prefer that one of the most sacred rituals in their lives be performed by a justice of the peace?

The Rev. Carter Heyward already has promised the bishops of Massachusetts that she will disregard their order and preside at two lesbian weddings. Michael Paulson of the Globe captured the conflict perfectly in this quote:

"I have heard so many gays and lesbians tell me how profoundly disappointed they are in the Diocese of Massachusetts, and the bishops' responses, and they feel betrayed and really, really upset about it -- they are saying it seems to be OK for the church to bless our unions as long as nothing is at stake," Heyward said. "I was persuaded by those lamentations . . . so I would say my position is constructive disobedience."

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