Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Marriage Rite Exhortation is "A Dumb Prayer Based on Prejudice”

A few years ago I subscribed to the House of Bishops and Deputies email list. Dr. Louie Crew established it back in 1996 to provide a means for bishops and deputies to General Convention to stay in conversation on issues affecting the common life of the Episcopal Church. It is a lively and active forum. On some days, I would receive well over 100 messages in my inbox.

After a few months, I unsubscribed to the email list. Besides the fact that there were simply too many messages to keep up with (who in the world can possibly read and respond to all of this stuff?!), the tone of the exchanges often lapsed into some of the worst forms of incivility imaginable. Spiteful and ad hominem attacks on others were not uncommon, and the theological reasoning used to justify positions was often puddle-deep. It was disheartening to know that these are some of the people who gather every three years at General Convention to make important decisions that affect all Episcopalians and that help chart the direction for our church.

In light of my previous experience with this email list, a recent posting at Stand Firm caught my eye. Greg Griffith has taken the liberty of sharing some recent exchanges on this email list concerning the sacrament of marriage and the marriage rite in The Book of Common Prayer. It makes for depressing reading. I don’t want to rehearse all of it here (and actually, to be fair, there are a couple of comments cited that are quite reasonable and that raise important questions). Nor do I want to get into a debate about the meaning of marriage (perhaps another time and another posting). I do, however, want to cite what one priest on the email list said about the opening exhortation in the marriage rite.

But first, here’s what that exhortation from The Book of Common Prayer actually says:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God (BCP, p. 423).

Now here’s what an Episcopal priest who also serves as a deputy to General Convention has to say about this opening exhortation:

It is a dumb prayer that is based on prejudice not Bible IMO – God did not establish a bond and covenant or marriage in Creation. The story has nothing to do with marriage – it has to do with procreation – which we no longer support with abandon. As to Jesus attending a wedding as a basis for holding marriage in esteem – also not much of a reason. I hope someday we have an opening to the marriage ceremony that is not so laughable.

Wow, what a sweeping, dismissive judgment to make! And it’s a particularly serious judgment to make for someone who, as an ordained person, has solemnly vowed on two separate occasions to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church – doctrine, discipline, and worship which is here openly scorned as “dumb,” prejudiced, and “laughable.” It seems to me that if this priest is right, then no ordained person with any self-respect should stand in front of God and a gathered assembly and say these words.

So what’s this priest’s warrant for making such claims about the opening exhortation to the marriage rite?


Personal opinion!!!

Never mind the authority of scripture or tradition. Never mind the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Prayer Book to which one has vowed to conform. Personal opinion trumps all.

Elevating personal opinion to such an authoritative status reminds me of what I wrote in a blog posting just the other day in which I noted:

… tendencies within the broader Church (and within the Episcopal Church in particular) to downplay the authority of scripture and tradition in favor of untethered reason and/or subjective experience. The door is wide open for cherry-picking what each individual likes from scripture and tradition, or simply ignoring those classical sources of authority altogether when they become inconvenient.

That cherry-picking extends beyond scripture and tradition to the liturgies of the Prayer Book, as evidenced not only by clergy picking and choosing which parts of the Prayer Book are authoritative, but also in some of the illegal liturgical revision that goes on in the Episcopal Church.

It's one thing to argue on substantive theological grounds for liturgical revision or that we need to think through our Church's theology of marriage. It's quite another thing to simply dismiss what one doesn't like about the Church's liturgy and teaching as though personal opinion or subjective preference is a sufficient warrant for changing common prayer.


Bill Carroll said...

I would note that we drew heavily on this very portion of the Prayer Book rite in developing the theological rationale for same sex blessings in Southern Ohio.

Bryan Owen said...

That's a very interesting point, Bill. I think it speaks to the reality of Christians in the Episcopal Church who want to be faithful to the theology we have received via our liturgies while simultaneously extending the scope of who (in the case of the marriage rite) gets included. That's a very different agenda from utterly rejecting the theology of this exhortation.

While both the extension-agenda and the rejection-agenda are repudiated by "traditionalists" as unacceptably "revisionist," the latter agenda pours fuel on the fires of conservative suspicion that "progressives" are intent on attacking the institution of marriage per se for the sake of revising its meaning beyond anything recognizably Christian.

hawk said...

I agree that flippant disregard for the prayerbook is problematic, and I have never felt comfortable "coloring outside the lines." Some might attribute this to my lack of liturgical creativity. The interim liturgics professor at Sewanee gave me a C on my senior project because the funeral I planned for the project adhered too closely to the burial office in the BCP. When I asked her what in the hell the prayerbook was for, she responded that it was a guide.

For me the church and our prayerbook tradition is a bulwark against my propensity to undermine authority and go my own way. By vowing to conform to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church I have agreed to conform to particular rules and boundaries. There are times when I cringe at some of the language in the prayerbook and I do think the exhortation at the beginning of the wedding rite presents some challenges both scripturally and theologically, but I do not believe I have the right to alter or change or leave out the passages and phrases I find problematic. The operative word here is "I".

Bryan Owen said...

Very well said, hawk. IMO, the implications of the comment from your liturgics professor in response to your question sums up the core of what's awry in the Episcopal Church. All one has to do is extend the same idea to scripture, the creeds, the sacraments, etc., and basically it affirms that the individual self is the sovereign authority in all things. I am Lord!!!

plsdeacon said...

When I point out that blessing same sex unions is not part of the "Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of Christ as this Church has received them." I am called a hate monger.

The problem is that very few (if any) clergy have been disciplined for substituting personal preference for the Received Tradition. Functionally, many clergy in TEC no longer have a Received Tradition, they only have IMO.

It is both our task and our solemn vow, as clergy, to conform to the Tradition, not to make the tradition conform to us.

If you no longer believe the Faith as expoused in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Creeds, then why are you engaged in leading the Church that proclaims that faith? Wouldn't "authenticity" and "integrity" demand that you step aside to follow your heart?

Phil Snyder

JC Fremont said...

The elevation of personal opinion to authoritative status is one of the hallmarks of postmodernism. Just more evidence of the nihilism that has taken hold of many people who should know better.