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Today the U.S. Supreme Court received friend-of-the-court briefs arguing in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples in two historic cases challenging California’s Proposition 8 and the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” or DOMA. As the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of California I signed on to briefs for religious organizations and leaders opposing both Proposition 8 and DOMA. At my invitation more than two dozen Episcopal bishops across the country did so as well. I’d like to tell you why.
First, The Episcopal Church has always seen itself as existing in our culture, not outside or above or in opposition to our culture. For over a century, Episcopalians look to the model of Christ transforming culture, rather than, say, Christ against culture. Even the idea of Christ transforming culture has evolved, so today many Episcopalians look for the divine at work far beyond the reaches of our church buildings, and beyond those who identify as Episcopalians or even as Christians.
On marriage equality, our church has traveled on pilgrimage with our culture. Sometimes we have led in advocacy for marriage equality, and sometimes we have learned from the culture and from leaders outside the church. We have developed rites for blessing and marriage for all, and we have extended the support of the church to LGBT people in the form of premarital counseling and the integration of same-sex couples into loving communities of faith. The historic social prominence of The Episcopal Church lays some extra responsibility on us to use our influence for good. Thus we have advocated with courts and lawmakers at every level of government to promote marriage equality.
What about the charge that we have thrown away tradition? Over and over I’ve heard people jokingly (mostly) call our church, “Catholic light,” and claim (this, almost always derogatorily) that The Episcopal Church has no clear moral standards. It is easy for such a church, the argument goes, to irresponsibly accept culturally-led innovations like marriage equality.
The second thing about Episcopalians and marriage equality, then, that is important to say at this moment is that we are a church that believes Christ continues to be with the world, moving with us, helping us find meaning in moments of joy and also loss and pain. The Christ whom we recognize is the one who speaks in John’s Gospel, saying, “There are many things I would teach you but you cannot bear them now … the Sprit will lead you into all truth.” For Episcopalians, tradition is a moving force that is not only dynamic but that changes quality over time, and we might liken the change to be one of more light being cast into the world.
We overturned nearly two millennia of set tradition when we began ordaining women 34 years ago. We repudiated the traditional tolerance of slavery and racial prejudice in the mid-20th century. We traded our cultural privilege and hegemony as a largely Anglo denomination for the wealthy and have deliberately become more and more consciously a church for all. In all these things we have prayed and thought and been in earnest conversation in and out of the church, and believed that in the end we have discerned better the mind of Christ than we had in the past.
It can definitely be unsettling to find that some structures and beliefs are not fixed and unchanging. Add to that the fact that the Episcopal Church has no doctrine of infallibility, of anybody, and one can understand those who prefer more predictability. For me, I hope to stay open to divine surprise.
Marc Handley Andrus is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California.