Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gay Marriage is The Future

Rev. Robert L Powers (far right) singing with his fellow clergy in Selma Alabama, showing their support for Martin Luther King (1965)
  Three years ago, almost to the day, I posted a text my father, the Rev. Robert L Powers, wrote based on a homily he delivered at a wedding he presided over (and which I attended as his assistant - in full alter boy drag) early that year. As the Supreme Court hears arguments for, and against, gay marriage, I felt it was important to repost my father's thoughts (this time in their entirety). My Father went on to practice psychology, so besides my sister's wedding, this was one of the few occasions I saw him marry anyone. It was the wedding of a young man to a young woman. I am not sure why he decided to speak to them, their frat-boy and sorority-girl friends, and their somewhat bewildered families, about gay marriage - but I am very proud he did. I am aware that most of the religious voices we hear in the debate over gay marriage are those that preach hate and fear in the name of tradition. There was no place for marriages of any any kind in the early church, because as my father explains, “'The future' did not exist in the devout imagination" of those times. But over the millennia the future has seeped into the deepest corners of the "devout imagination" (and sex with it). As my father makes clear, those who oppose gay marriage are on the wrong side of history - the traditions they cling to aren't timeless, and there is no place for them in any future - no matter how devout.

Here is Bob in his own words:
There is so much goofiness in the world that trying to say something sensible, either as clinical psychologist or as ordained priest, is a challenge.  
Priest has a longer history, so I’ll start there: In the First Century after the Resurrection there was no context in which to raise the question of same-sex marriage. The customs guiding families, whether Roman or Jewish, had to do with parental ceremonies granting approval to the sexual partnership of someone’s son to someone’s daughter. The implications were social: even in today’s “Eastern” churches, the children of a married couple were not allowed to marry the children of the man and woman who accompanied them to the ceremony, the so-called “best man” and his wife or the “maid of honor” and her husband. This cumbaro system, still a part of Greek and Italian custom, helped to expand the incest taboo, and to drive the extension of affection and loyalty toward the larger community, with uneven success.  
There is no record known to me of married couples in those times presenting themselves to anyone for a further “church” blessing. The parents’ approval conveyed that. There was usually a record made with some version of the county clerk, all having to do with property, rights of inheritance, and so on. “The” church did not yet exist, and “the holy churches of God” (to use an old liturgical phrase) did not show any interest in the matter, or pretend to any authority. On the one hand, there was then a very lively expectation that the whole of human history was about to be wrapped up in a dramatic way. “The future” did not exist in the devout imagination, which could not easily picture either a continuation of the cruel, brutal, military rule of life or the orgiastic and frantic efforts to escape the hold of the cultural values of this rule on the mind. So, what was the point in marrying? The whole thing is coming to an End, suddenly, and possibly very soon. Further, sexual union is so marked by cruelty and notions of possession, that the only really holy way to think about it is to avoid it. Devout women began to dress as widows; men put on the burial shrouds used for corpses, which became the models for a monk’s robes.  
There are plenty of signs of patchwork efforts to reconcile biology and apocalyptic expectations, but nowhere are there any indications of church “blessings” of sexual unions – of any kind, never mind same-sex. Other-sex is not necessarily better, may be more troublesome, and leads to all kinds of new questions. It might be fun to ask the fundamentalists what they make of Paul’s (that’s Saint Paul’s) warning that a man who resorts to a prostitute for sexual union becomes “one flesh” with her.  
Somewhere in the 10th or 11th century – at least one thousand years into this so-called Common Era some newly-married couples began a custom of presenting themselves in the “porch'’ of a church, where, at the end of the Liturgy, the presiding and assisting Clergy came, from the altar, said some prayers and sprinkled them with water of blessing, then leading them back up to the altar rail to make their communion. (Still, the blood runs thicker than the Holy Water, was the cynic’s way of assessing the value of these rites.) “Not that there’s anything wrong with this” was the message (to anticipate Seinfeld), even though monasticism is still better and a way of gaining credit on the divine ledgers.  
Now, another thousand years have passed. Old ideas about marriage, its nature, its social purpose, its stability, and its sanctity have been steadily questioned ever since the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the discovery of reliable birth-control. This has occasioned a great deal of uneasiness, as any disruption of custom and expectation is bound to do, and with this comes viewing with alarm, denunciations, and rear-guard efforts to paste up the shreds of patriarchal history. 
Knowing this, there is certainly a touching confidence revealed in the continuing idea that sacred ceremony can serve to safeguard any personal (and commonly all-too-often impermanent) efforts at fidelity and solemn covenant. When same-sexed couples who treasure each other’s being in the world want to present themselves somewhere regarded as sacred space, and to act in what they want to be a sacred way in declaring their desire to love and to cherish each other throughout the vicissitudes of mortal life, it seems grudging to argue that they must be refused whatever strength and consolation may come through a priest’s prayers and acts of blessing. We can only hope that now, in a turbulent time of change, it may help them, when they encounter refusal, to remember that for one thousand or more years any sexual union of any kind was refused this blessing.  
To shift to my Clinical Psychology position, I can only add that it is crazy to oppose the actions of people who mean no harm to you, and do no harm to you. The less sympathy you are able to have for people unlike you the more vulnerable you are to mental illness and every other self-crippling limitation. The less you are able to treasure the variant on the human possibilities of loyalty and mutual care represented by those whose experiences of life are and have been, often painfully, unlike yours, and the more hostile and antagonistic your feelings are with respect to them, the greater the danger, to you and to the rest of us, that you will be inclined to do harm. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself has nothing to do with religious customs and ceremony. It is the formula for the common life of humankind, and of all life, and of all being, to receive, to pass on, and to bestow the happiness that is at the heart of every Blessing. 
Robert Leonard Powers 
Port Townsend, Washington 
February 2010

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