Blessings & Same-Sex Relationships

by the Revd Dr Andrew Knight, Vicar of St Mary’s, Diocese of Chester

It was the conversation I had been anticipating with some trepidation since beginning my ordained ministry. Two young Christian men, long-term partners, enquiring as to whether the vicar of their welcoming local church, would marry them, or at least bless a civil marriage. By virtue of their ordination, priests are enabled in their ministry to invite God’s blessing upon people, places and objects… from new vocations to homes, bibles to boats, the baptised and bereaved. Yet, the Church of England ties the priest’s hands preventing in any meaningful sense them being able to bless a permanent, faithful and fruitful same-sex relationship. Having negotiated the uncomfortable conversation, where issues of theology and legality sat uneasily alongside the Gospel of love, welcome and reconciliation, this incongruity was amplified days later when a clergy colleague shared how he had joyfully responded to the request to bless a couple of guinea pigs in a pet service… I didn’t ask if they were the same gender?!

As priests we pray God’s blessing upon the church to enable it to be a blessing to the world, opening opportunities for divine intimacy and fruitfulness. Withholding blessing has therefore significant consequences for priests, church and community.  The crux of the issue is what we believe to be the nature and purpose of ‘blessing’?  I believe there are several dimensions to priestly blessing, which I’ll summarise here:

Blessing is firstly a prayer. The US Episcopal Church understands the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships as a prayer: to thank God for the grace discerned in the couple’s lives; to ask for God’s continual favour; to manifest the fruits of the Spirit in their lives; and to commission the couple to bear witness to the Gospel.

Blessing is also a commissioning: the invocation of the Holy Spirit to guide, empower and enable flourishing in a person’s life and ministry. For example, marriage is a new vocation to a permanent, faithful relationship where a deeper companionship and fruitfulness is commissioned.

The Hebrew word for blessing berakhah is thanksgiving, our frequent response to receiving God’s blessing. This celebratory blessing is present in any marriage rite in response to the good gift of relationships.

Blessing is pastoral care, originating in domestic settings where the covenantal relationship with God brought wholeness, peace and wellbeing to home and community.  The Church in Wales in proposing new blessing liturgy recognised it was “pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.

Blessing is a witness, allowing people to connect faith to their everyday lives. Same-sex couples who seek God’s blessing do not generally do so in order that a relationship can take place, or so they can have sex. Rather it is for them to bear public witness to the gift of their companionship in order to both ask for the community’s support and to seal their commitment under God.

Blessings are exhortation – words of power that can elevate and encourage.  They, thus are cries of liberation, bringing light, truth and justice into dark places where suffering and discrimination has been hidden.

Henri Nouwen’s concept of blessing is generous hospitality, allowing outsiders to connect with and enrich a worshipping community. This blessing requires vulnerability, empathy, authenticity and openness to the Holy Spirit in healing fragmented communities.

Blessing as sanctification calls upon the Holy Spirit to transform us, such that we grow into the fullness of the redeemed life. Both heterosexual and homosexual Christian couples recognise the grace of God in their lives, in their mutual joy, love and companionship.

As with the eucharistic bread and wine, blessing as consecration establishes a new reality and divine purpose. Through marriage the couple’s lives have a new trajectory and vocation, setting them apart to bear the fruits of, and be a witness to, God’s grace in the world.

The language of ‘blessing’, however, becomes highly emotive when used in conjunction with ministry to gay and lesbian couples. In everyday language if someone ‘gives their blessing’ to something, the sense is they ‘approve’. Many may perceive that blessing a same-sex couple is simply public pronouncement of the Church’s approval of a way of life or sexual practice about which they are personally uncertain or reject. The Church communicates its beliefs through its liturgy, and the priest has a liturgical blessing role, encouraging, or essentially giving permission for, a specific movement in mission or ministry. Yet if blessing is withheld from same-sex couples because of a narrower perspective of blessing as ‘expression of doctrine’, we negate its multifaceted richness as I’ve described, and perhaps forget it is not us but Christ that is the source of all blessing.

God’s desire to bless is not limited by our human boundaries of sacred and secular.  Nevertheless, the Church should recognise there are things we may not bless, such as weapons of war. It is perhaps easier to exclude blessing things which may cause harm, or destroy, or divide, but this is far from the nature of a loving, faithful relationship. A church may teach what kind of relationships might be considered worthy of blessing and which may not. Yet, the question is how do we draw the line, especially when there is limited theological consensus on same-sex unions?

We may choose then to bless those things in which we either recognise God’s goodness and potential for fruitfulness, or that can be orientated towards God’s purposes for redemption. If so, by denying a blessing for a same-sex relationship do we suggest that there is no goodness or hope to be found in it? Many heterosexual marriages are far from what we might call ‘good’.  Whilst some see the blessing of same-sex couples as abandoning traditional biblical theology of sex and marriage, others would extend it, to include same-sex couples, as a matter of justice, generosity and mercy. Meanwhile, when same-sex couples approach a church, they are not looking for a judgement or teaching document but an empathetic welcome from a church with a human face. The Methodist Church recently asserted “There is a strong case that, if marriage is what the Methodist Church says it is, and is as wonderful as it says it is, this Church cannot remain true to the God of justice and love by continuing to deny it to those same-sex couples who desire it so deeply”.

Several churches have moved to introduce permissive blessing rites for same-sex couples as a matter of theological and pastoral conscience for priests. I pray that we may not lose the opportunity to be the instruments of God’s blessing, and encourage LGBT Christians to capture the spirit of Jacob, who despite his difficult circumstances and against the odds, hangs on in there, wrestling with the angel until daybreak saying “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

 

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8 Responses to Blessings & Same-Sex Relationships

  1. Ian Stubbs says:

    So how did you respond, Andrew, to your two young Christian men?

    • Andrew Knight says:

      … with compassion, encouragement, pastoral care, prayer… and, sadly, signposting to other denominations.

  2. Julie says:

    Excellent points, well made, thank you Andrew

  3. Janette says:

    Sorry if I am showing my ignorance and happy to be corrected. At this time when the discussion is on the table, surely Andrew’s dilemmas should be presented to
    parishioners from the pulpit?
    How else will we all be aware of the current situation in the C of E and feel motivated to respond?
    I have been informed that clergy are being discouraged from joining local LLF courses … that is, if they decide to offer a course to their parishioners on the grounds that they, as someone who is known and trusted, may inhibit conversations (what does that say?).

    This premis doesn’t seem to me to be a very good way of facilitating conversations on difficult issues at all levels with transparency, an ethos of learning together and demonstrating a degree of bravery and openness.
    This willingness to have such discussions with parishioners should be lead by the church’s clergy at all levels.
    Have all clergy completed the course as part of their professional development? Have they held theological debates and listened to each other?

  4. Thank you for this Andrew. Very thoughtful, and supportive of my viewpoint.

  5. Christopher Shell says:

    On the couple of guinea pigs, the situation is not analogous, since they are being blessed as individuals not as a pair.

  6. mikethecanon says:

    Andrew your piece is excellent and I truly hope, prophetic. For 40 years – a biblical wilderness – I have watched the Church of England grow in meanness and duplicity where gay and transgender believers (as well as those beyond church) are concerned. This is no longer sustainable if we claim to have anything to offer to a world which has already moved on. Who wants to seek a God who will only accept them as 2nd-class citizens? Who wants to belong to a church which proclaims that everyone else – apart from you – is unconditionally loved? This is such a scandal to the gospel. But complacency and ‘righteousness’ do not see it that way. I’m retired now but my long-postponed ‘spiritual divorce’ from the C of E (excruciatingly painful at the time) took place earlier this year. My fear is that the LLF process will see yet another generation fobbed off with platitudes and delays. I sincerely hope I shall be proved wrong. But ecclesiastical politics has a reputation for being harsh and chewing up the core of people’s worth and humanity. Jesus would have none of it. We should be thoroughly ashamed of it now.

  7. Bruce Bryant-Scott says:

    I would argue that a blessing is also apocalyptic, in the literal Greek sense that it unveils God’s action in the world. When I bless a couple I am not adding anything that is not already there, as if it was something magical. No, I am confirming, on behalf of the church, that God’s loving movement is already present in the union of the two people. There may be a change in legal status for the couple, but that that is more of a secular thing that may or may not be true of a religious rite of matrimony.

Any thoughts?