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BRISBANE, Aust: It is time for churches to formally recognise same-sex relationships and marriages

BRISBANE, Aust: It is time for churches to formally recognise same-sex relationships and marriages

By Peter Catt
https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/
8 July 2018

The church communities of which I have had the privilege to be part, both as a lay and ordained person, have been blessing same-sex unions for years.

Rarely have these blessings been done in any formal or liturgical sense. But that is the overdue step that is now required.

The form of blessing we have been practising cannot be banned or outlawed by church authorities, except through dramatic action. These blessings have been conveyed by the people of faith communities through the offering of hospitality, the practice of inclusion and the celebrating of the life events of gender- and sexuality-diverse people.

The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Dr Peter Catt, believes churches should formally recognise same-sex unions.

So, I think of the talented young man I employed who brought his male partner into the life of the community. Within weeks, the members of the Women's Guild were referring to them as "the lovely new couple" and supplying their home with casseroles and cake.

I think, too, of the elderly woman who asked excitedly for details of the civil partnership ceremony that another couple had enjoyed with family and friends a few days before their first visit to our community. They joined largely because of her genuine interest and acceptance.

And I think of the same-sex couple who found each other in and through the life of our faith community.

There was one occasion when a same-sex relationship was blessed in a more liturgical way. On that occasion, the action of blessing simply bubbled up, a product of the context in which we found ourselves. A member of the couple had asked if I would bless the rings they were intending to give each other. I had assumed that he would take the rings home and exchange them in the presence of friends and family in some formalised setting. Instead, they both came to the church and proceeded to exchange the rings then and there, with just three of us standing by. Without hesitation I offered them a blessing; praying that their relationship might be nurturing and life-giving -- that it might be a gift to them and to others. And that God would bless them.

As I did, I had a powerful sense that I was doing no more than affirming in a symbolic way that which already was. They were already blessed: blessed by the love and nurture they were experiencing from each other; blessed through the recognition of their relationship by the faith community -- a community that saw their relationship as life-affirming, precious and wholesome; blessed by the community's love, concern and encouragement.

They already knew the sense of being blessed that flows when we find ourselves in a safe place and know ourselves to be accepted and encouraged. The community had already blessed. And because of the faith community's generosity, they already had a sense that God saw their relationship as good.

The hands of a priest simply acknowledged and celebrated these facts. I added nothing more than the recognition and the encouragement of that which already was. God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them.

That occasion reminded me that everything we do in the church is an attempt to catch up with where God is. In theological terms, we say that God exercises Prevenient (Going Before) Grace. God acts graciously towards us before we even think about looking for God. God's love is unconditional and undeserved.

In baptism we celebrate that God has loved us since before we were born and has called us to exercise our gifts. In confession we recognise the forgiveness that God extended to us long before we asked for it. And in marriage we celebrate that which has been developing for some time.

A marriage ceremony is not a beginning, but rather the recognition of that which already is. The couples who stand before me are already blessed by the relationship that has led them to the altar. The blessing of the church recognises, celebrates and enriches this. This is why the church has for many years felt able to bless civil marriages as well as church-based ones. We recognise the grace-filled experience that is a loving relationship, whether we "authorised" it or not.

It is something of a gift to be reminded that we clergy do not own or control blessings. We are called to embody, sacramentalise and affirm them. Sometimes God and the community can be way ahead of us. Blessing through their approach to living that which we are reluctant to bless.

The embracing of gender and sexuality diverse people and their relationships by the communities of which I have been a part is an example of the transformative, grace-filled action of the church that is known as the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful).

Sensus fidelium is a concept deeply enshrined in both the Catholic and Anglican understanding of the Church. It is a recognition that the Church as a whole, the faithful, often led by the laity, can develop a sense of what God is up to and then begin to live in ways that seek to respond to that divine initiative. This leads to the transformation of the life of the church from the roots up.

The Catholic church's understanding of the use of contraception, for example, has been recrafted by the laity, and by lay women in particular. Despite the official teachings, Catholic women are just as likely as non-Catholics to use contraception in countries such as Australia. Catholic lay people, in good conscience, have decided to live in a way that does not accord with the pronouncements about contraception that come from the top. A course of action that is encouraged by another teaching of the church that holds that an individual's conscience must be the prime informer of their actions and choices.

Last year's vote on marriage equality revealed the strength of the developing positive sensus fidelium in Australia around the formal blessing of the relationships and marriages of gender and sexually diverse people. In many faith communities the majority voted for the law change despite the strong, heavily financed messaging of the leaders of those communities against the change.

Churches, including the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, in Canada, Scotland, and the US have found ways to honour the emergence of this inclusive move within the faithful. The Church of England has been more cautious but is exploring the way forward. In this country, the Quakers have embraced marriage equality and the Uniting Church is considering a report that recommends that they follow suit. The Synod of The Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta recently encouraged its bishop to develop a liturgy of blessing, and the Anglican Cathedral Council in Grafton has encouraged the Dean to offer blessings to gender and sexuality diverse couples married by Civil Celebrants.

Many Churches, including the Anglican Church in Australia, have some difficult territory to negotiate at an official level over the next few years as they interact with the reality of marriage equality. Meanwhile, my sense is that even in some of the most conservative of places, the faithful will get on with giving their blessing to gender- and sexuality-diverse people by recognising, encouraging and celebrating their relationships as life-affirming, precious and wholesome.

(The Very Rev'd Dr) Peter Catt is the Dean of St John's Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane.

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