I was a member of the Religion Colloquy panel for Equality Forum in Philadelphia on May 2. Here is the text of my remarks. (Of course, I don't read my addresses, and so this is only an approximation -- I know I added several off-the-cuff humorous remarks that got laughs.)
I am the presiding bishop of the Independent Catholic Christian Church, which is one of a number of small Independent Catholic communities. Independent Catholics began in the Netherlands in the early 1700’s, with apostolic succession provided through the years by renegade Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox bishops. The first female bishop, Isabel Wilucka, was consecrated in 1929. On Christmas Day, 1946, Father (later Bishop) George Hyde celebrated Mass for an openly gay congregation at the Cotton Blossom Room, a gay bar in Atlanta – this is one of the first, perhaps the very first, religious service held for openly lgbt folk in modern times. Michael Itkin, a gay activist, was ordained as an Independent Catholic priest in 1957. Our movement is decentralized, and today, many Independent Catholic communities, including ours, are fully inclusive of lgbt folk, offering the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples and ordination to lgbt people.
I lived in New York until about a year ago, and it was my privilege to serve on the board of Marriage Equality New York for five years and, in the summer of 2004, I was blessed to be able to officiate at same-sex weddings in New Paltz to continue the heroic work of Mayor Jason West. Over the years, I’ve done many same-sex weddings, but no opposite-sex ones – not that there’s anything wrong with that! The first few same-sex weddings were difficult to get through because I kept weeping because of the profound joy I felt. I always enjoy meeting with the couples ahead of time to prepare for the wedding, because I get to hear amazing stories of the extraordinary love two people express toward one another when they share their lives.
Same-sex marriages are an expression of God’s holiness in the world. Let me repeat that – same-sex marriages are an expression of God’s holiness in the world. I once rode to Albany to testify in favor of same-sex marriage before the state legislature with a gay couple who had been together for 60 years, and let me tell you that this was one of the profound religious experiences of my life. Any couple who has maintained their love and commitment for one another in the face of the extreme hatred of gay relationships that has existed in this society for the past half century is manifesting the glory of God in a very tangible way. And the marriages are valid regardless of whether or not the state or any particular religious organization recognizes them, or whether there has been a ceremony – it’s the love and commitment that matter. In the Catholic tradition, every sacrament has a proper minister who is empowered to perform it, and in the case of marriage, the ministers of the sacrament are the couple being married – the priest is only there to witness it on behalf of the church and pronounce God’s blessing on the marriage. Same-sex marriages are valid even when churches refuse to recognize them – because it is the two spouses who are ministering the sacrament of marriage to each other, not the clergy.
Many lgbt rights groups are organizing progressive religious groups to express their support for same-sex marriage to counter the loud voices of anti-gay religious groups and to dispel the notion that to be religious is to be anti-gay. And this is a very important task that must be done in order to gain civil marriage equality, and I am grateful to both our civil rights leaders and pro-gay religious leaders for doing this work. But as a person of faith and as a clergyperson, it is even more important to me that religious communities recognize same-sex marriages for reasons of their own spiritual health. To deny or to fail to recognize God’s glory as expressed in same-sex marriages is to commit HERESY – refusing to accept God’s gift of these marriages to the church and to the world is a SIN. If one cannot recognize God’s work, how can one come to know enough about God to teach the truth about God to others?
God created human beings first and foremost for the purpose of loving – loving one another, loving God, loving God’s creation. God did not create us in order to follow a lot of rules – rules of morality exist not as arbitrary laws handed down from on high – rather, they are the rules that enable us to live more fully human lives and to love more completely. Certainly, there is such a thing as sexual immorality – any time one person abuses another sexually, or any time one person uses another person solely for their own sexual gratification and not as an expression of love toward that person, that act is sexually immoral. But whenever two people commit their lives to one another, and remain as an anchor for the other person through times of joy and sorrow, times of health and sickness, times of success and failure – then, the glory of God is present, and it is a marriage. This is just as true of same-sex couples as it is of opposite-sex couples.
Religious groups that recognize this are bearing witness to the truth about God. Religious groups that do not are giving a distorted view of God. And if they get this part wrong, can we really trust that they’ve gotten everything else right? But praise be to God, an increasing number of religious communities ARE recognizing this work of God – Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, Unitarian Universalists, Ethical Culture, the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, Quaker meetings, many Independent Catholic churches, and many Pagan communities. And many members of other religious groups, both clergy and laity, are working to get their communities to recognize same-sex marriage as well.
Those of you who are in same-sex marriages, whether or not you’ve had the wedding (and I’d be happy to help you with that, if you’d like!), recognize that every day that you are together, the glory of God is present. Your relationship is a religious act. Let all of us who are part of religious communities who already recognize same-sex marriage work tirelessly for civil marriage as well, and do our part to help same-sex couple recognize the holiness of their marriages. Let those of us in religious communities which do not yet recognize our marriages work for them to recognize this manifestation of God’s glory in their midst. And let all of us work together and pray for the universal recognition of same-sex civil marriages.
Thank you, and God bless you."