We Have Been Here Before

by The Rev. Sam Buice

Clergy Deputy from the Diocese of Atlanta

The most often cited argument against the sanctioning or blessing of homosexual relationships is that it “goes against God’s will as revealed in the scriptures.” While I have read some excellent material dealing with what the Bible says about homosexuality, essentially arguing that the Bible does not forbid the kind of relationships we are now talking about, I will not go there for now. For right now, I will accept that the Bible says “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Lev 20:13) 1

There have been many times, in our history as a church, when we have come to the communal decision that specific words of scripture were written to make a specific point, at a specific time, and that there might be strong biblical reasons for reinterpreting the meaning of the scriptures for our time. I could use several examples, but for the sake of this discussion, I want to look at our church’s history and present practice concerning remarriage.

Twenty to twenty-five years ago, the Episcopal clergy were not allowed to perform weddings for people who were divorced. The issue involved here was not divorce, it was remarriage. While there are many scriptural references “forbidding the remarriage of divorced persons,” the clearest is found in the gospel of Luke, which reads, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Lest we forget, Leviticus 20: 10 says, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”) 2

Other gospels make an exception when the one being divorced has been involved in adultery, but Luke is most clear and mentions no exceptions. What’s more, in the gospel, these are not Luke’s words. They are not Moses’ words, or Peter’s or Paul’ s. These words are attributed straight to the mouth of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Hence, the church did not perform remarriages, because we believed that to do so would be to bless a union that Jesus himself describes as adulterous.

Now we do remarriages in the Episcopal Church. I have performed several myself, and many members of this parish are in marriages that are not their first. Some of our members are Episcopalian today, in part, because of their former denomination’s refusal to allow them to remarry, and the acceptance they have found in the Episcopal Church

In the gospel of Luke, however, Jesus still says what he says. So what happened?

Our culture changed. While divorce was rare when I was growing up in Gainesville, Georgia, it is no longer rare anywhere. I am not writing about the causes of the increase of divorce- but it is the increase in divorce that has led to a larger number of people getting remarried. As more people sought to be remarried, they turned to their church to pronounce God’s blessing on their union. And more and more people found themselves having to go outside their churches to be remarried, which they did. Remarriage was not, however, in most cases cause for someone to have to leave their church. The result is that our pews began to be populated by couples in second marriages- good people, with marvelous, healing, wholesome marriages. We began to see these marriages as something other than sinful relationships. Then, our church changed.

We came to a biblically based understanding and theology of forgiveness, grace, and redemption. And our church- that is we, through our General Convention- passed canons through which our clergy began to be allowed to perform remarriages. THIS church, out of our biblically based understanding of forgiveness, grace, and redemption, started blessing unions that Jesus himself, according to Luke, defined as adulterous. I ask you, did we do the right thing?

Our culture has continued to change. No one woke up one day and said “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if the Episcopal Church blessed the union of gay and lesbian couples!” What happened is that in some places it became safe for people to be honest and open about their homosexuality. Gay and lesbian couples, who were already vital members of parishes (some of whom were ordained) began to be honest about who they were, and how they were living. Because these people are caring members of our church, and many of us have seen, through knowing them, that their relationships are healthy, wholesome, healing, and redemptive, we are wanting to apply the same biblically based theology of forgiveness, grace, and redemption to gay and lesbian couples that we apply to people who come to us for second and even third marriages.

What has changed has changed because of relationships. The change has not been universal, I think, because our culture is not universally safe for people who are homosexual. In essence, not all of us have had or been open to the opportunity to know openly homosexual persons, and learn of their faith, and of their relationships. I am thankful that I have. I am very grateful to those brave souls who have stayed among us and been willing to share themselves, in spite of our fear, prejudice, and judgment. They have been a blessing to me. Their relationships with me, and with one another, have enriched my life and my faith.

I believe that simply to look at faithful gay and lesbian couples and refuse them our blessing on biblical grounds is the equivalent of turning to those among us who are in second (third, fourth…) marriages and saying, “Go home and put your spouse aside! If you can, you must reconcile with your first spouse. If you cannot, the church expects you to live the rest of your life in celibacy.” This would be biblically consistent with what we say to gay and lesbian couples today.

I would expect those of us who are in healthy, loving, healing, redemptive second or third marriages would be willing to testify to the gift our church has been to them. I know many are grateful for our willingness to dig deeper than a literal understanding of the scriptures, in ways that made it possible for them to feel a fully loved and accepted member of the body of Christ. I do not understand how we can look at gay men and lesbian women and tell them that our ability to do so stops just short of them.

Any decision our church makes about the blessing of same-sex unions will not require that clergy perform them. (Presently, no priest can be required to perform a wedding he or she does not feel good about.) They may, however, one day be officially allowed. This means that a priest in a church that is open to the presence and ministry of gay and lesbian couples, and has benefited from their sharing of themselves and their faith, could, within the context of that community, bless their union.

Getting from here to there will continue to be a difficult and painful transition. I believe it will, in the end, be another case where the culture will lead the church. Homosexuality will continue to become more socially acceptable, and homosexual persons will begin to feel safer about revealing more of who they are. God bless them, they will continue to come to church, and to be as much a part of the body as they are allowed. We will come to know them, as individuals and as couples. We will experience the growth, joy, shared pain, and healing that is part of their relationships- we will discover the holiness of their unions. Then, our church will change, and we will bless that which we have discovered God is already blessing- just like we now do for people who are experiencing new life in marriages that are not their first.

This will not happen all at once. It will happen faster in cities than it will in small towns. Faithful Christians will work for a smooth loving transition, and faithful Christians will work to resist such acceptance. There will be dominations that do not make the transition, just as there are some now who do not accept remarriages. This church may be one of the ones that leads the way, just like we have been when it comes accepting and performing remarriages. It will not be easy, but it does help to remember that we have been here before- and we became a more accepting church that better reflects the love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption that fills the pages of gospels, and our lives with Jesus Christ.