As access to the marriage rite continues to expand, practical resources to support clergy members who officiate at marriages and serve gay- and lesbian-led families during this window of great transition and change need to keep apace.
For example, several weeks ago I spoke with a fellow pastor who had been asked to officiate at a marriage for a gay couple. He said yes, knowing that his congregation supports same-sex unions, but then realized that he should probably alert the regional body of our denomination because even though our national church body affirms ordaining individuals living in same-sex committed relationships, they do not call them marriages.
When asked about presiding at a marriage, the regional minister responded, "I can neither encourage you to do so or encourage you not to." This response from the organized church abandons many pastors looking for guidance not only on how best to publicly conduct a wedding for a gay or lesbian couple but also on how best to fulfill the far more important task of a faith community: supporting the lifelong roller coaster of marriage that merely begins with the vows at a wedding.
As an ordained minister, I officiate at weddings and have been overwhelmed by each state's different demands of me as an authorized officiant, a confusion only compounded with the addition of same-sex unions.
For example, in my home state of Illinois, we have entered a new gray area where our state recognizes civil unions, our state legislature will soon vote on legalizing same-sex marriage, and, of course, this week the Supreme Court is considering challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act.
What does this all mean for conducting a wedding and supporting a married couple? From a liturgical perspective, few specific resources can be found. Belief.net offers a short list of informal liturgies that have been written and shared for blessing same-sex unions, members of the Metropolitan Community Churches could be a resource, and I did find a wedding-planner-type book, The Essential Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings, but essentially, many clergy members, myself included, simply choose to use the traditional marriage rite, even though the many churches do not call a same-sex union a marriage, because of its theological and historical solidity as an order for worship and, really, because marriage is marriage.
From an ethical standpoint, fellow pastors and I currently follow our conscience when asked to preside at a marriage for a same-sex couple, but are confused when our religious and state roles seem to conflict. Then, most importantly, from a pastoral perspective, we long to have better clarity on how best to support gay and lesbian couples and their families. For example, in terms of pre-marital counseling and long-term support of gay- and lesbian-led families, I wonder about what I need to know concerning the financial and emotional impact of DOMA on married couples in states that do or do not recognize same-sex marriage, civil unions and/or domestic partnerships.
In my quandary, I emailed John Culhane, a law professor and fellow blogger, because I had a hunch that he would be a patient teacher of all things DOMA and same-sex marriage. John also co-authored the Same-Sex Legal Kit for Dummies (there are a few other books on the legal ramifications of marriage for gays and lesbians), and talking with him personally reminds me that my ecclesial confusion concerning same-sex marriage is understandable since we find ourselves in a cultural sea change where state by state the legal understanding of how gay and lesbian persons publicly form families changes almost month to month.
John shared how in his law classes he speaks of how marriage is a "covenant, a status, a contract, and so much more..." The name "marriage" is important and conveys the multi-faceted relationship that weaves together a private and public relationship in ways that no other word really does. I was reminded of how in the wedding ceremonies I've performed, after the couple makes vows to each other the community gathered makes promises to the couple to care for and support them in their marriage. A public sign that we are held in relationship by the collective promises we make that can only truly be made and kept with the help and support of God.
I was reminded of the wedding I conducted for Mike, a hospice patient, who was held in love by the promises of support offered to him and to his wife by his neighbors, family and hospice team members surrounding his hospital bed. Before leaving the home ceremony, those promises became practical plans of support involving bringing meals and creating a respite schedule for this wife and husband, who would live only a few more weeks.
Moving beyond the wedding ceremony, pastors routinely support couples and families during times of economic hardship, make visits to hospitals or homes in times of illness, and shepherd a family after a death. Understanding the difficulties faced by married gays and lesbians when completing such mundane tasks as filing a joint state tax return with DOMA in place definitely opened my eyes. In terms of pastoral care, clergy need to be sensitive to the unique advanced care planning needs involved for when one or both spouses in a same-sex couple becomes incapacitated or terminally ill. Learning about the complications entailed in estate planning for same-sex couples who cannot be married helped me, as a heterosexual pastor, better understand the resources I need at my fingertips in order to best counsel and support families of gays and lesbians, especially in highly anxious and emotional times like death.
In close, John shared with me a powerful story about his life-long work championing and writing about same-sex marriage that brought home to me how important practical resources for clergy will be in the coming years as the conversation shifts from getting married to staying married:
"...I had written this 90-page article for a law review uprooting the arguments against same-sex marriage where I really deconstruct a lot of natural law arguments that were being deployed against same-sex marriage and really tried to deconstruct that and reconstruct an argument for same-sex marriage that was really the work of an analytical, still young law professor and I remember a colleague of mine who is very intuitive and empathic saying, 'You know, I read your article (which at first astonished me because it was so long!), but your article doesn't convince me as much as your life does.' I still recall that, that statement, because that's exactly right. People can hear that and they can see the way you live. You know you need to make the arguments and that's why we need these Prop. 8 and DOMA challenges, but [that statement points to how marriage] connects the law and the emotional, practical, and spiritual parts of life in ways that I think are the only possibility for getting to the bottom of all this."
His concluding remarks remind me that, in time, the public debate and spotlight on same-sex marriage will die down and fade, and what will remain will be our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends, and church members who need support to live their public promises to one another. Our work to support marriage and family will truly begin anew and we will need all the practical resources we can get to help support the marriages and families of all Americans.
Amy Ziettlow is a signatory of A Call to a New Conversation on Marriage. You can also read and sign A Call to a New Conversation on Marriage. To learn more about Amy Ziettlow, subscribe to FamilyScholars Conversations, visit www.familyscholars.org or follow her at @RevAmyZ.