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
"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
"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
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
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
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.