Go gently in victory – and in defeat

Northern Indiana bishop responds to ENS article

By Edward S. Little II
Posted Jul 5, 2013

[Diocese of Northern Indiana] “Celebrations of marriage equality, court rulings continue across church,” the ENS headline of July 1 reads.  “From Los Angeles to New York,” the article tells us, “worshippers gathered across the church to celebrate in very public and very personal ways, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ruled California’s ban on gay marriage (Proposition 8) unconstitutional.”  The article goes on to cite example after example of Episcopalians rejoicing at the Court’s decision.  Photos – some of beloved friends – accompany the article and illustrate their joy.

The article appeared in a wider context.  In the days following the Supreme Court’s decision, countless Episcopal Church leaders on a diocesan, parochial, and national level issued statements supporting the ruling.  My Facebook “news feed” brought dozens of those statements to my attention.  Their content included oft-repeated elements:  the Supreme Court’s decision respects the dignity of every human being; the Episcopal Church has worked tirelessly for the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our church and in national life; it’s time for the Episcopal Church, now that the Supreme Court has acted, to move from blessings to same-sex marriage.

Reading the ENS article and many of these statements, one would conclude that the Episcopal Church is a DOMA- and Proposition 8-opposing church; that contrary convictions do not exist in our church; and that there is no longer a place in our church for Christians who affirm a traditional understanding of marriage as the life-long union of husband and wife in both civil and Christian context.

There are a few exceptions to this general tendency.  To her great credit, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori, while welcoming the Supreme Court’s ruling, adds:  “I am deeply aware that faithful Americans find themselves on all sides of these issues, including those who have not yet clearly discerned an effective or appropriate response.”  Her caveat is rare among the many statements issued by Episcopal Church leaders.  Bishop Katharine, of course, is addressing the question of same-sex marriage in its civil expression; but her words are clearly applicable within the church as well.  I am grateful for her generosity of spirit, and that of other leaders whose celebratory statements include a recognition that not all are rejoicing.

As a matter of full disclosure:  I do not support either the move toward same-sex blessings and marriage in the church or the transformation of marriage in its legal context.  I can affirm, and even encourage, some version of civil unions as a matter of law, but am unable to support the change in the sacramental or the legal definition of marriage.  Both the sacrament and the civil institution are so deeply rooted in church and society (and, in a Christian setting, so deeply rooted in Scripture and in the Great Tradition) that such a change is, from my perspective, theologically and legally untenable.

But my purpose is not to argue the merits of the case.  Faithful Christians find themselves on both sides of the issue, and many within our church and beyond it would take exception to the preceding paragraph.  They too are disciples of Jesus and are thus my brothers and sisters.  My purpose, instead, is to raise a hand of caution in the wake of the one-sided celebrations that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Are we solely a DOMA- and Proposition 8-opposing church?  Is it true that contrary convictions no longer exist in our church?  Is there a place in our church for those who affirm a more traditional understanding of marriage?  Reading the ENS article and the many statements from around the church, one would deduce that the answer to those questions are Yes, Yes, and No.

Those conclusions are, in fact, false.  While people who share my perspective are in a minority within the Episcopal Church, and while many have simply become silent in the face of such overwhelming numbers on the other side of these difficult issues, the Episcopal Church is far from monochrome.  And so it is essential that church leaders – and the church’s own news service – honestly recognize this diversity when they respond to an event such as the Supreme Court’s ruling.  To fail to do so is, effectively, to “un-church” a theological minority and to treat them as though they do not exist.

In other words:  Go gently in victory – and in defeat.

Here is my own commitment:

  • I will recognize and honor the presence of brothers and sisters within my own diocese who conscientiously disagree with me.
  • I will do all that I can to be in relationship with them, and to seek honest and open conversation.  That includes creating diocesan policies that honor their consciences as well as my own.
  • I will recognize that I might be wrong, and will continue to search the Scriptures.

And I urge my fellow leaders in the Episcopal Church – and the Episcopal News Service – to make a similar undertaking:

  • Recognize that there are faithful brothers and sisters in your diocese, in your parish, and in your ecclesisial institutions, who do not agree with you – even if they are silent.  Recognize and celebrate their presence.  Never speak or act as though they do not exist.
  • Do all that you can to be in relationship with them.  Talk with them.  Make sure that their consciences are honored.
  • Recognize that you might be wrong.  Continue to search the Scriptures.

The ENS article of July 1 and many statements issued immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling profoundly disturbed me.  They felt at best dismissive and at worst triumphalist.  St. Paul’s counsel provides a wise counterpoint and a reminder that the way of humility honors the Gospel of Jesus Christ:  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Romans 12:15-16).

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana