The Virginia Same-Sex Blessing Liturgy

A few days ago, Stand Firm covered the story that the Diocese of Virginia had voted to introduce a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. This is the text of the specific resolution:

R-4a Integrity of Committing Relationships

RESOLVED, that the Diocese of Virginia recognizes our responsibility to respond to the pastoral needs of our faithful gay and lesbian members in a spirit of love, compassion and respect, and in doing so seek to fulfill our baptismal commitment to respect the dignity of every human being; and be it further

RESOLVED, that accordingly the 214th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia affirms the inherent integrity of and blessededness of committed Christian relationships between two adult persons, when those relationships are “characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.” (Resolution 2000-D039 of the 73rd General Convention of the Episcopal Church).

and this is the comment from Greg Griffith:

The significance of this resolution cannot easily be overstated, because not only does it affirm same-sex behavior, not only does it effectively nullify the significance of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, but it comes out of what has thus far thought to be a moderate-to-conservative diocese, institutionalist though it has behaved for the last few years.

The passage of this resolution, and the diocese’s plans to introduce same-sex liturgies, is a huge victory for the opposition, and obviously raises a number of important questions.

This is not California, or El Camino Real, or even North Carolina. Virginia has long defined the “moderate middle” of the Episcopal Church, and for that reason among others I believe the passage of this resolution will send shockwaves through the entire church. I also have to believe that if this is what has happened in Virginia in January, we’re in for a real circus come July in Anaheim.

I think Greg has highlighted, inadvertently, a key feature of the new liturgy and while it’s true that what is presented means that “We ain’t in Kansas anymore”, it is also different to what we have seen in California.

Let me explain.

The liturgy that is proposed is a series of prayers and petitions that, while offensive to some, do not attempt to entirely ape the normal wedding service from the 1979 BCP. Compare this to the liturgy presided over by Martin Dudley last Spring and you’ll see that we’re not quite in the same ball park. We are playing the same ball game though.

The things which are obviously missing are the vows and the declarations. The new liturgy begins with a collect that echoes the beginning of the petitions in the 1979 Prayer Book.

1979 BCP Marriage Service – from here
Proposed Virginia Liturgyfrom here
Eternal God, creator and preserver of all life, author of salvation, and giver of all grace: Look with favor upon the world you have made, and for which your Son gave his life, and especially upon this man and this woman whom you make one flesh in Holy Matrimony. Amen. Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is
governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, especially N. and N., that in their lives and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus
Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.

While there isa clear reference to the same-sex couple in parallel to the newly married couple in the 1979 service, there is absolutely no attempt to claim any of the marriage theology (eg “one flesh”). This is because the liturgy is based around concepts of friendship rather than sexual union. You might view this is as being a bit disingenuous, or you might view it as deliberately steering clear of making this a “gay marriage” liturgy.

1979 BCP Marriage Service – from here
Proposed Virginia Liturgyfrom here
Let us pray for N. and N. who come before this community today to give thanks for the grace of companionship and to make a covenant to live together in faithfulness and love.
Grant, O Lord, that N. and N. be sheltered under your wing, welcomed as your own flock, and serve the Church together to your glory.
Bestow on N. and N. the grace to be faithful to each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health that they might love and cherish each other until they are parted by death.
Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy. Grant them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.
Grant that their wills may be so knit together in your will, and their spirits in your Spirit, that they may grow in love and peace with you and one another all the days of their life. Absent
Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours. Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours.
Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.Bestow on them, if it is your will, the gift and heritage of children, and the grace to bring them up to know you, to love you, and to serve you. Absent
Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others. Make their home a place of refuge for those in fear, a place of hospitality for those in need, and a place of renewal for those who are weary.May their lives together be lives of service and prayer for their neighbors, their nation, and the world that their ministry may be a sign of God’s mercy in this troubled world.
Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed. Absent
Grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace, that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; where, O Father, with your Son and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign in perfect unity, now and for ever. Grant that the bonds of our common humanity, by which all your children are united one to another, and the living to the dead, may be so transformed by your grace, that your will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; where, O Father, with your Son and the Holy Spirit, you live and reign in perfect unity, now and forever.

What can we surmise from this table? The petitions are in some places identical and in some cases different. Key petitions from the marriage service are ommitted. The main points to note are:

  • The vows are removed from being said by the partners to being petitioned by the president. Theologically, this means that the liturgy does not look to the couple to fulfil the vows, rather places the obligation for the fulfilment of those vows upo God.
  • This is then echoed by the absence of a petition to knit the wills of the couple together. This makes sense if the couple have not had to personally express the intent of their will.
  • The couple are not prayed for to be a “sign of Christ’s love”. This once again is a steering clear of the “one flesh” language of Ephesians 5 which pervades the normal marriage service.
  • There is no petition for those who have witnessed the liturgy to be inspired by it and renewed in their marital commitments.

What are we left with? Well the Diocese of Virginia has presented us with a liturgy that on the one hand steers clear of the more controversial annexations of marriage services that have been seen in recent year in same-sex blessings (eg the use of “one flash” imagery), but in doing so has created a service that begs questions around the issue of commitment. The couple need to make no public statements of fidelity, though the rubric allows for other gestures to be made, so their is the possibility of an exchange of rings or personal prayers of commitment.

This though strikes me as rather dangerous, for if the personal prayers are at the discretion of the President, then that which the Virginia liturgy has been so careful to avoid (a direct equivalencing with marriage) could easily be achieved by a petition such as “Grant that we may be bonded together as one flesh”. One is left wondering whether those who framed the liturgy have permitted such actions as an oversight or as a deliberate act to avoid charges of mimicking marriage while still allowing couples using the liturgy to so do.

So, it’s not California, but it ain’t Kansas. While some theological thought has gone into it, there also seems to be some scope for abuse of a well-intentioned liturgy.

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