What Does the Church Bless When It Blesses Gay Couples?

by Juan Oliver

The question, "What does the church bless when it blesses same-sex couples?" might better be phrased, "Whom do we bless?" And the short answer is, "We bless God."

The two lovers, Jim and Peter, had asked me to dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant near San Francisco's Castro district. A mutual friend put us in touch, and it was not long before we were meeting and greeting over hummus and baba ganoush.

"We were wondering if we can get married," they asked. In my role as an Episcopal priest in California in the early 1990s, I had to tell them, "Well, no, I'm not allowed to do that.… But first,"

I went on quickly, "tell me about yourselves. How did you meet?" And they unraveled their story: tentative early dates followed by an intense mutual fascination, and now, three years later, a sense that they were in this for the long haul.

"But why a service?" I questioned them.

"We are finding that this stuff of loving each other is kind of holy, and we'd like our families and friends to witness and support it."

"Holy?" I pressed, and they proceeded to talk about learning to love each other; about how their home had become a focal point for a wide community of friends; how in their love for each other they had begun to discover God at work-a transcendence beyond themselves and their daily concerns.

By the time the baklava came, their hands had found one another's and they were staring longingly at each other. I cut to the chase, unable to say anything else: "Well, I would be honored to thank God for your relationship."

A long silence ensued as they fought back tears. They had not dared think that this would be possible: thanking God for their relationship. But we did just that several months later, in a park in San Francisco.

Scott as Kali, 2003. Collage on paper, 9 1/2" x 10".

Whom do we bless?

The question, "What does the church bless when it blesses same-sex couples?" might better be phrased, "Whom do we bless?" And the short answer is, "We bless God." But why bless God? Aren't we the ones in need of blessing? Isn't blessing something that comes down from God to us-a kind of metaphysical fairy dust?

What does it mean to bless?

Our idea of blessing originates in the Jewish tradition, where blessing is a prayer of thanks and praise that ascends to God. Jewish blessing (berakah) begins by praising God for what God has done: for example, the blessing at table over the bread simply says, "Blessed are you, our Lord, Ruler of the Universe, for you make grain to spring forth from the earth." A more complex blessing, over the fourth cup of wine at the Passover seder, blesses God for the fruit of the vine and the yield of the fields, and ends with: "Have pity…on Israel your people … and build Jerusalem, the city of holiness, in our days." This blessing exhibits two distinct parts: thanking and praising God, and invoking God's action (to build Jerusalem).

The same double structure of blessing is found in Christian worship, in prayers such as the Exultet at the Easter vigil, the blessing of water at baptism, and the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist. It is also present in the nuptial blessing in the marriage rite: "Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ.… By the power of your Holy Spirit, pour out the abundance of your blessing upon [this couple], …defend them, … lead them, …" etc. (Book of Common Prayer, page 430)

All of these Christian and Jewish blessings have a similar structure. First we bless God for being God, for creating and redeeming the world, and for the creature or relationship before us: bread, wine, light, water, a loving couple. Then we ask or invoke God's grace and blessing upon them. Thus blessing comes full circle: we praise God, and we ask God to shower us with grace. In the western Christian tradition we have often shortened the structure to include only the second part: "May Almighty God bless you, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"-forgetting to bless God first.

Why would we bless God for gay and lesbian couples?

It is clear from the nature of blessing that we cannot bless God for something that is awful, sinful, or degenerate. Our blessings acknowledge God's loving presence in creation and redemption, and so it is not surprising to discover that people who cannot accept same-sex love cannot then bend their minds around the idea of a "same-sex blessing." To them, such relationships, committed and faithful though they may be, cannot be a reason for praise and thanksgiving.

Is a same-sex blessing a marriage, ritually speaking? If in marriage we are blessing God for the heterosexuality of the couple, the answer must be no. If in marriage we are blessing God for the commitment of the couple in love and faithfulness, the answer might well be yes.

But in spite of the fact that some Christians feel this way, many Christian congregations have begun to thank God in public celebration for same-sex relationships. If you delve into their reasoning, it turns out that this is because they see all loving and faithful relationships as manifestations of the love and faithfulness of God.

And who blesses?

It seems to me that, for these celebrations to take place, two different sets of people need to find reason to bless God. First, the couple must have a sense that this is "holy stuff" and move toward a decision to gather friends and family to celebrate it. They will be wanting, especially, to make a public celebration, since liturgy is by its nature social and public.

As an analysis of liturgical prayer quickly shows, the subject of the church is "us"-the congregation, as local instance of the church. The congregation, then, must also wish to bless God for this relationship, even when only a few congregants know the couple; that is, the congregation must in some way see the same-sex union as manifesting the love and faithfulness of God insofar as it is committed and faithful. We do not bless God for gayness any more (or less) than we bless God for straightness. We bless God for faithful love.

Is this marriage?

The history of the development of the marriage rite is fascinating and full of variations, from the ear-liest fertility prayer over a bride to prayers at the door of the church-and, eventually, when the rite took on legal import, declarations of free intent, vows, and the declaration by the minister that the couple is legally wedded. Anglican bishop and author Kenneth Stevenson has pointed out that the unchanging core running through the history of marriage as a rite is twofold: commitment and blessing. The couple in some way is understood to have made a commitment (vows or no vows), and therefore we bless God, invoking God's grace upon the couple to be able to live out that commitment.

Same-sex blessings can exist as a valid and significant church ritual, regardless of their legal import. Whether or not the union is legally recognized, the church must ask itself, "Is a same-sex blessing a marriage, ritually speaking?" If in marriage we are blessing God for the heterosexuality of the couple, the answer must be no. If in marriage we are blessing God for the commitment of the couple in love and faithfulness, the answer might well be yes.

Juan Oliver is an Episcopal priest and director of Mercer School of Theology in Garden City, New York.


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Comments

There are currently 13 comments.


So, the heterosexuality of married couples is not an occasion for the blessing of God? How then does the great blessing of children come from the, uh, union of same sex couples?

- Stan
July 22, 2005 at 1:44 PM


Children come to us in many ways. We bless God for them however they come to us, biologically or otherwise. This article is not about the blessing we receive when we care for children. It is about the blessing we give to God for the faithful and committed relationships in which we experience God's love. Those relationships make our love of God and each other real within our communities. Procreating and child rearing may or may not be part of those relationships.

- Anonymous
September 20, 2005 at 6:49 AM


The article made it clear that the sexuality of married couples did not really matter as long as they were committed and faithful. The madness of homosexual marriages is proved by its utter inability to continue the human race.

- Stan
September 24, 2005 at 9:21 PM


Yes, it's madness to continue the human race. But indeed we do it. So too must we support our brothers and sisters in Christ, gay or straight, jew or greek, slave or free, muslim or christian, ... we must love and find the capacity in our hearts to support families and communities that are different from our own. There is no one that is saying that the human race will depend on the gay population to continue, it seems we need to take care of the human race with our approach to the environment, diplomacy, and our governing body first... God has given us many gifts and many things with which to concern ourselves first... this just isn't one of them.

- Anonymous
October 7, 2005 at 10:16 PM


I do not know what you are agreeing to, since I did say that. But since you said that, do you consider your life madness?

And, if it is a matter of simple comprehension, comprehend this: Like all humans, homosexuals are products of heterosexual unions. You are a product of heterosexual union. No human exists as a result of homosexual union. You do not exist as a result of homosexual union. So, why should their "marriages" be blessed by the church, society or governing bodies?

- Stan
October 13, 2005 at 5:34 PM


The first sentence in my last post should read: "I do not know what you are agreeing to, since I did not say that." (In response to the first sentence of your October 7th post)

- Stan
October 14, 2005 at 11:00 AM


I do not know what you are agreeing to, since I did say that. But since you said that, do you consider your life madness?

And, if it is a matter of simple comprehension, comprehend this: Like all humans, homosexuals are products of heterosexual unions. You are a product of heterosexual union. No human exists as a result of homosexual union. You do not exist as a result of homosexual union. So, why should their "marriages" be blessed by the church, society or governing bodies?

- Stan
October 15, 2005 at 4:29 PM


I do not know what you are agreeing to, since I did say that. But since you said that, do you consider your life madness?

And, if it is a matter of simple comprehension, comprehend this: Like all humans, homosexuals are products of heterosexual unions. You are a product of heterosexual union. No human exists as a result of homosexual union. You do not exist as a result of homosexual union. So, why should their "marriages" be blessed by the church, society or governing bodies?

- Stan
October 15, 2005 at 4:30 PM


why would the ability to procreate be in any way related to whether or not a marriage should be blessed by God? Does that mean couples that are infertile shouldn't marry either? Is it wrong for old people to marry? Should a man divorce his wife once she hits menopause? The argument that the ability to make babies is the foundation of a good marriage is just silly.

The love of a human for another human is a blessing because it helps us to better understand God's love for us, which we can never completely comprehend. It teaches us a little bit of the way we should love and be devoted to God. It doesnt matter whether or not the lovers have matching genitals or can make babies.

- liz
October 18, 2005 at 1:40 AM


"It teaches us a little bit of the way we should love and be devoted to God. It doesnt matter whether or not the lovers have matching genitals or can make babies."

Your philosophy is meaningless. God (the one you are invoking for support) has already settled the matter in His Word.

Genesis 1:27-28 "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth . . ." Sounds like multiplying is part of the blessing of the male and female, doesn't it?

Old Testament law about homosexuality: Leviticus 18:22 "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination." Abomination means, "exceedingly disgusting" as opposed to the "blessing" you imply.

And, to show that the New Testament teaching does not overturn the Old on this issue: Romans 1:26-27 "For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error."

The problem I have with this article is that it purports to come from a "priest of the Episopal church." He is supposed to speak for God. On what grounds does an Episcopal priest contradict the Word of God?

How has this minister acted in the love of God by not warning Jim and Peter of God's wrath on sin? If he wanted to express the love of God, he would have told them they need to repent of their sins (not just homosexuality) and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ that he is supposed to serve.

- Stan
December 14, 2005 at 12:53 PM


We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Not look on our faces, O God, but look on the face of Jesus. We are perfect only in Christ's name. In the second creation story in Genesis 2, God made Eve as a helper to Adam, not because she could bear children but because he was alone and God said it wasn't good for man to be alone and He made him a companion.

- Grace Sharon
June 12, 2006 at 5:16 AM


After much contemplation, I would like to add some things to my last posting. It may be misconstrued by some people and not wanting God's love to be misconstrued, I have decided to look foolish and add another one. Firstly, "helper" should read "helpmeet" and Stan, I must say that I was angry with you over the fact that the cross is for everyone. Everyone is redeemed through it. I could think of nothing else yesterday but to feel angry with you and I ask your forgiveness for same. However, the message for all of us as human beings is God's mercy is better than judgement. Jesus loves all men and women equally, He died for all of us. Not just some. May the blessing this congregation of Christ gives to all human beings, be the oneness of the blessing our true Lord Jesus received from the Father. "May they be one as we are one" was Jesus' prayer and I think this congregation of Christ is showing that oneness and love to everybody not just some who think they may be outside of God's judgment. Mercy! Love and true peace so we may all live as human beings were created to, in the love of Christ for every one, not just for some. May the Lord truly bless you and all that you do, Stan and Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church. Grace.

- Grace Sharon
June 12, 2006 at 5:15 PM


I am not offended at you, Grace. I was not aware of your anger toward me, so there is nothing to forgive. Examine your anger, though. Anger can come from different sources: righteous indignation, hurt pride or from defending an irrational position. That is how I have found my own faulty positions on occasion. Yes, we are all human.

"Firstly, "helper" should read "helpmeet."" I stand corrected.

Perhaps you believe that all men will be saved regardless if they repent or not; regardless if they embrace the Gospel or not. If so, I think you are in opposition to your own church's doctrine. Check with them about that.

God's mercy is not God turning a blind eye to sin. In Proverbs it says, "he that covers his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy."

God's mercy does not come to a person unless he repents. And, repentance cannot come unless sinners know their true condition, which is eternal judgment if they die in their sins. Otherwise, if there is only mercy and no wrath, Christ would not have had to die! But Christ died to bear the wrath due to us.

I hope you understand that my statements were not directed at Peter or Jim, who like any other sinners need Christ's help. I am upset with the priest who confirmed them in their sin instead of calling them to repentance and faith in Christ and the work of the cross. He smoothed their descent into hades with the implied blessing of Christ. I think your anger would be better served against such lies as that.

- Stan
June 16, 2006 at 11:13 PM