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Gay marriage: untying the ‘not’


You could be forgiven for thinking of Galileo in the dock.

            Up in Ontario this June, perceptions of the universe changed radically when a provincial court legalized gay marriage. But in September, Bishop Ralph Spence of the Anglican Diocese of Niagara effectively declared his solar system would continue to operate by previously accepted moral laws.

            According to an Anglican Church of Canada newsletter, the bishop "suspended a priest's license to perform marriages after the [unnamed] priest presided over the wedding of a gay couple." The publication reminded the faithful that "religious denominations are allowed to maintain their own standards for marriage, and currently the canons, or church laws, of the Anglican Church of Canada restrict marriage to male-female couples."

            This showed the complexities of a conflict that's personal, social, political, and institutional. But the ground is ever-shifting. (At this writing, the Anglican Diocese of Niagara was addressing the subject in an unusual closed-door session in Hamilton). And it's certain that a new ecclesiastical conflict is headed our way.

            In fact, there have been related conflicts --- and more important, conciliations --- here for a long time already.

The Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, part of the larger Anglican tradition, has been a national leader on gay issues. So it's natural that local Episcopalians would focus on the November 2 "consecration" of a gay man, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire.

            Robinson, who was once married to a woman and has grown children, is in a committed relationship with partner Mark Andrews. But recent news reports have focused on another kind of divorce. Many observers have feared the consecration might cause a schism in the worldwide Anglican community --- especially between socially conservative church bodies in the Third World and progressive ones in North America.

            The potential for a clean break was evident within the US, too. For example, while many entities within the church welcomed the news, the conservative American Anglican Council threw words like "heresy" and "blasphemy" at the New Hampshire event. But the language from elsewhere was worse: The UK Guardian noted the Archbishop of Nigeria and others of his ilk "believe that homosexuals are worse than beasts and say they could not sit in the same room with them."

            Robinson himself makes no grand claims, as indicated by what he told the BBC: "I'm neither the devil that one side would make me out to be, nor the angel that the other side would make me out to be." In any case, Robinson has been a rising star in the church. In 1999, he sought election as bishop of the Rochester diocese and came in second, says the Rev. Canon Carolyn Lumbard, head of diocesan communications. "This diocese," she says, "is interested in gifts and talents."

            "It's going to be an interesting time in the Episcopal Church," says Neil Houghton, a local Episcopalian who attended Robinson's consecration.

Houghton is active in the church in several ways. He's the senior warden at the church where he's worshipped with for 20-plus years, St. John's of Honeoye Falls. And he's the Northeast Regional vice president of Integrity USA, a national not-for-profit group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons that has organizational counterparts in Canada, Australia, and Uganda.

            Armed with this experience, Houghton brought back some indelible impressions from New Hampshire. The consecration, he says, was "a holy sacrament, but also a celebration." He acknowledges the event drew protesters and advocates. But he says "there were also everyday people from New Hampshire, kids and families." He saw around 250 students from the University of New Hampshire there, with T-shirts reading, "Gay? Fine With Me!" On the other hand, he watched a tiny group --- followers of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas --- proclaiming "Sodomites Die in Hell."

            "I hate that [the consecration] will cause grief and pain to some, but it was an absolutely glorious experience," says Houghton. But how is this playing in Honeoye Falls? Houghton says the congregation at St. John's recently met to discuss the issue. "There was almost unanimous support for what the church is doing," he says. "This," he says, "is a very liberal, tolerant area in the Episcopal Church, and even the Roman Catholic Church." (Local members of Integrity share weekly services at St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church downtown with Catholics who belong to Dignity, a similar religious support group.)

            According to Houghton, there have been "blessings" of gay unions in the local diocese for around 30 years. Indeed, says the Rev. J. Brad Benson, chair of the diocesan Committee for Gay and Lesbian Ministry, the diocese has had a gay ministry "for education and to dispel harmful stereotypes" for more than 20 years. Benson notes that some local Episcopalians are "concerned" about what's happening in their church. But that's nothing new, he says in effect. Some people, he says, left the church during the civil rights era --- "because they didn't want to share a pew with a person of a different color."

            Rites are central to the Anglican tradition, of course. So are local Episcopal churches developing liturgies for blessing gay relationships? "Officially," says Neil Houghton, "there is no adopted liturgy in the Episcopal Church."

            Spokesperson Lumbard says the diocese will be looking at what to offer as "resources" in this regard. "It's coming," she says, without giving a timeframe. Bishop McKelvey, she says, "would support the blessing of lifelong, monogamous, committed [same-sex] relationships."

            But she emphasizes that what's under discussion here is not gay marriage.

Meanwhile in the secular world

With its strong gay community and active organizations like the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, the Rochester area outperforms most mid-sized urban areas on these issues. Yet it's still exceptional when groups that are not expressly gay-oriented get into the thick of it.

            In early November, the University of Rochester chapter of Amnesty International did just that with a panel on gay marriage. The panelists --- a UR Roman Catholic chaplain and two professors --- put the issue squarely in the context of human rights.

            The group is no stranger to gay rights struggles. UR chapter president Jennifer Smith notes AI's international "OUTfront!" campaign, which is now focused on severe governmental oppression of gays in Egypt and Malaysia. The UR chapter has been involved with gay issues before, says Smith; she points to a recent "safe zone" training the chapter conducted, as well as a collaborative gay-rights event with the UR Pride Network.

            Nonetheless, Smith says AI has no official position on gay marriage, simply because the issue is not covered by AI's guiding document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

            What's the mood on campus? "Most of the people are 100 percent supportive of gay marriage," she says. But she admits there's also talk of how "homosexuality destroys lives," and so forth.

            The UR panel took it as a given that gay rights are protected. But the discussion also explored things well beyond the immediate issue.

            Panelist Karen Beckman, a professor of English and Film Studies, says she was interested in exploring "a number of economic and social benefits that gay and lesbian people shouldn't be excluded from." But she also believes the marriage debate implies "a rethinking of what sexual relationships and community might be about."

            Beckman notes "anxiety" in gay circles on one significant point: In the past, she says, gay people often sought alternative sexual arrangements, quite outside the limits of traditional monogamous marriage. And some people, she says, still "are reluctant to move into a marriage structure that would potentially destroy that [alternative] system."

            Gay sexual experimentation took a back seat as the AIDS pandemic hit its apogee years ago. And since then, much of queer nation has retreated into a "Just Say No" approach toward public health. This in turn has allowed a cadre of conservative gay spokespeople to steer the discussion --- like gay writer-editor Andrew Sullivan, whom Beckman cites as a key proponent of a traditionalist form of gay marriage.

            Indeed, Sullivan has argued for this in conservative political forums like the Wall Street Journal. He's also had his differences with rightwingers opposed to gay marriage --- like ex-Torontonian and former White House speechwriter David Frum, who considers gay marriage a "slippery slope" that will lead to the destruction of marriage as we know it. (By the way, Sullivan, the slave of tradition, was "outed" a few years back for seeking hirsute partners on an Internet site devoted to "bare-backing," i.e. unprotected anal sex.)

            Beckman says the preference for traditional marriage --- and thus traditional divorces --- carries "the potential for shame and failure." She also sheds light on a subtext that conservative and progressive writers and religionists are not spending much time on. "Pleasure is something that's missing from this debate," she says.

            But perhaps more important, Beckman sees a pitfall ahead: The prominence of a traditional form of marriage in current discussions, she says, is "shifting the emphasis away from collective social responsibility to individual behavior."