California’s Episcopal Bishops yesterday issued a joint statement supporting the right of same-sex couples to full human rights and equality under law – including the right to marry:
"We believe that continued access to civil marriage for all, regardless of sexual orientation, is consistent with the best principles of our constitutional rights. We believe that this continued access promotes Jesus' ethic of love, giving, and hope.”
The California Bishops’ statement cites Resolution A095 from the Episcopal Church’s 75th General Convention in 2006, in which their denomination resolved to “reaffirm the Episcopal Church's historical support of gay and lesbian persons as children of God and entitled to full civil rights,” and to oppose “any state or federal constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex civil marriage or civil unions.”
Today’s statement from California’s Episcopal Bishops acknowledges some controversy within the Episcopal communion regarding whether same-sex couples are entitled to marry in their churches:
“As bishops, we are not of one mind regarding how our Church’s clergy should participate with the State in same-sex marriage. Some of us believe it is appropriate to permit our clergy to officiate at such marriages and pronounce blessings over the union; others of us believe that we should await consent of our General Convention before permitting such actions.”
“Nevertheless,” the Bishops continue, “we are adamant that justice demands that same-sex civil marriage continue in our state and advocate voting ‘No’ on Proposition 8,” a ballot measure that would deprive California’s gay and lesbian citizens of civil rights, by revoking their legal right to marry.
It should be apparent that there’s an important distinction to be drawn here, between civil marriage and religious marriage. America’s Episcopalians recognize that even if same-sex couples cannot yet marry in Episcopal churches, their own denomination’s rules regarding religious marriage should not be imposed by law on the rest of us. That is the kind of advanced thinking reflected in the First Amendment’s religion clauses.
I think it’s fair to say that America’s “founding faiths” are coming to agree that legal discrimination against that gay and lesbian couples is wrong, and that that marriage is a fundamental civil right that cannot in good conscience be withheld from them on the basis of any denomination’s religious rules regarding marriage.
Readers of this blog know, of course, that Episcopal churches represented the dominant faith in America’s founding era only in the Southern colonies, from Virginia down. What about the Standing Order of Congregationalist churches in New England?
New England’s oldest Protestant churches today stand firmly on the side of legal equality for gay and lesbian couples – including their right to marry. The 1996 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, whose membership includes the First Parish Church in Plymouth (gathered 1606), the First Church in Salem (gathered 1629), the First Church in Boston (gathered 1630), and the United First Parish Church in Quincy (gathered 1636), declared its unequivocal “support of legal recognition for marriage between members of the same sex.” Thus, the Quincy church, where President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams, President John Quincy Adams, and First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams worshipped – and where they rest in peace to this day – has declared the congregation’s support for “the right of same-sex couples to marry and to receive all the rights and benefits of that civil institution under the laws of the Commonwealth.”
These are churches where gay and lesbian couples may marry in a religious ceremony.
Readers of this blog know too, though, that New England’s Congregationalist churches suffered a schism in the early 1800s, dividing by 1820 between the liberal Unitarian churches, on the one hand, and the orthodox Trinitarian Congregationalists, on the other. Thus, in 1801 the theologically conservative members of the First Church in Plymouth left that congregation to form the Church of the Pilgrimage next door (or across the street, depending on how you look at it). Today it’s a member of the United Church of Christ, as are most of the Congregationalist churches that stood on the “orthodox” side of the great Unitarian controversy.
What about those orthodox churches? In 2005 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ resolved “that the Twenty-fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
I’ve spoken with the minister of the Church of the Pilgrimage in Plymouth. He assures me that same-sex couples are welcome to marry in his church.
Nor are Episcopalians and Congregationalists alone. Quakers too have spoken strongly in favor of marriage equality. When I helped to file a brief in the California Supreme Court’s, Marriage Cases, the Executive Committee of the American Friends Service Committee joined the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, and the Union for Reform Judaism (the largest movement in American Judaism), in supporting legal recognition of same-sex couples’ right to marry.
None of this is intended to suggest that gay or lesbian couples could marry in any of these churches in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Rather, the relatively recent movement of America’s founding faiths to recognize gay and lesbian couples’ right to marry is part of the overall progressive character of American religion.
As the United First Parish Church of Quincy, in its 2004 resolution opposing efforts to amend the Massachusetts constitution explained:
“This historic church, the congregation of John Adams, author of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has a tradition of concern for individual rights and protection of the minority, extending from the early days of the Commonwealth through John Adams to the present day. Thus, while we cannot know Adams' opinion on the present matters, we are moved from that tradition to speak publicly on present efforts to amend the Constitution of the Commonwealth.”