Monday, March 12, 2012

Blessing for Study Only II

In this installment I will consider the scripture lessons proposed of the same-sex blessing rite. Recall that one of the innovations of the 1979 marriage rite was the inclusion of a lesson section; the 1928 rite had no provision for this, and the 1662 had a rather tacked-on section at the end which was constructed more along the lines of a homily.

One thing is evident immediately: there are a lot of options. Six OT, eight epistle, and five gospel lessons are offered, and no less than ten psalms may be chosen from. Further investigation shows that there is a degree of overlap with the lessons prescribed for marriage. By contrast, through the SSB rite (as we said in part I) is strongly influenced by the baptismal rite, there is almost nothing shared in the scriptural material; a single epistle reading is shared, and that is all.

I'll begin by considering the psalms. Marriage suggests the use of Psalm 67, 127, or 128. All three of these have some reference to fertility, with 127 and 128 both talking about the having of children as a blessing; it's quite safe to say, however, that verse 3a-- "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house"-- is why 128 was not suggested for same-sex blessings. Psalm 65 is rather like 67, except longer and less felicitous; it's not obvious why it was added as a selection. Psalms 98, 100, 148 and 149 are generic in their thanksgiving and praise, and again it's not that clear why they should be suggested. They give an air of not being able to come up with something suitable. The excerpt from Psalm 85 perhaps has been chosen for verse 10 ("Mercy and truth have met together;/ righteousness and peace have kissed each other.") It is Psalm 133, however, which seems the most obvious choice:
Oh, how good and pleasant it is,* when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head* that runs down the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,* and runs down the collar of his robe.
It is like the dew of Hermon* that falls upon the hills of Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing:* life for evermore.
Though perhaps it is less than apt at the union of two women.


I'm afraid the issue of what is appropriate or tasteful or unintentionally humorous is going to keep popping out. For example, the only common OT lesson is that from the Song of Songs, which conjoins two passages, the second of which is the very familiar "Set me as a seal upon thine heart" verses which are most likely the most popular readings at Episcopal weddings. The first, however, is love poetry, pure and simple, emphasizing that this is a sexual relationship we're contemplating. It's abundantly clear why the two Genesis passages didn't make the cut, as they are the foundational scripture for Judaeo-Christian marriage, and they firmly set forth the complementarity of the sexes as marriage's basis. The passage from Tobit is just as problematic, as it cites the Genesis passages to that end. So what do we get to replace these? Well, for starters we have the most famous couplet from Ruth. And it sounds good until you remember that Ruth is saying this to her mother-in-law, which is not exactly what you want in a sexual union. So then we have two versions of readings from 1 Samuel concerning the covenant between David and Jonathan. Here again we have this tension over sexuality. John Boswell was not the only person to impose a homoerotic interpretation on this friendship, but he was the one who really pushed interpreting that into a rite. I'll bravely say, however, that this is all an insertion into the text. The passage from Ecclesiastes is interesting, with its rather neutral "two is better than one" message; the threefold cord of the last line, however, lends itself to unintended mirth. Finally, there is a passage from Micah that makes no sense whatsoever: beating swords into plowshares is all very noble, but I can see nothing in the passage that has anything specific to do with the matter at hand.

When we turn to the epistles, we see that a fair number of the lessons are shared between marriage and SSBs. Yet here we observe a different oddity: nearly all the shared lessons are extended for SSBs. One of the marriage lessons didn't make the cut, and after reading the latter part of Ephesians 5, with its disquisition about wives submitting to husbands, it's easy to see why it went unused; and for that matter, one suspects it is seldom used for Episcopal weddings. The only lesson that was kept without alteration is a passage from Colossians 3, which even in the marriage rite stops short of another "submission" passage; that excised, it's a fairly generic passage about how Christians must live in agape.

As to the other three retained lessons: The reading from 1 Corinthians is the famous "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels" paean to life in agape, for some reason they have felt the need to prefix this with the end of 12:31: "And I will show you a still more excellent way." This does not strike me as a meaningful improvement, much less one necessitated by the change of context. Another reading from Ephesians, this time in chapter 3, was extended to include the doxology which ends the chapter; again, this does not seems necessary to the sense of the thing. The last of our retained lessons comes from 1 John, in the fourth chapter; in this case they have skipped from verse 16, where the marital lesson ends, to verse 21: "And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also." (KJV: I note that this passage in the NRSV neuters the Greek by translating adelphon as "brothers and sisters"). But this verse is pulled out of context, for it is the answer to the rhetorical question posed in verse 20: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?"

Moving on to the new lessons: the Romans passage is sort of a Desiderata of the faith; it's generic but at least manages to fit in philadelphia. The Galatians passage is a puzzle because surely verse 24 is wont to prompt snickers: "And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." The other 1 John reading is sort of the little brother to the first: nothing bad about it, but there would seem to be no reason to prefer it over one of the other readings. And finally, we have the reading from 2 Corinthians, which is shared with the baptismal readings. Honestly I have no idea why they included this, as it is plainly most relevant to baptism.

So then we move on to the five gospel readings. The first lesson, from Matthew, is the Beatitudes, and it conflates two of the marital readings. The first marriage passage stops at verse 10 ("Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"), and the second resumes at verse 13 and continues to verse 16, but SSB stops at verse 14 ("Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid"). Neither of these commends itself as a natural stopping point, because verses 11 and 12 continue the thought of verse 10, and the passage that begins at verse 14 has its conclusion at verse 16: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." The other point is that this passage is a prophecy of the kingdom, not so much an instruction of how to live; it's not that clear why it's an option for marriage, much less SSBs. On the other hand, as a marital passage which doesn't mention matrimony, it is I suppose an obvious candidate to be retained.

Marriage offers a third Matthew reading, one that is a bit puzzling and which SSBs chose not to use: the parable of the house built on rock. I suppose the analogy is of the house to the marriage, but it's a bit thin. Other than that there's no obvious reason why this reading couldn't have been retained.

It's obvious, though, why the passage from Mark wasn't retained: it refers directly back into Genesis 2. But it is far from clear why a section of the sermon of the plain from Luke 6 was added.

Moving on to John: the reading from the final discourse is retained and, once again, lengthened. In the marriage rite it ends at verse 12: "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you." But now it continues on for five more verses, including Jesus telling the disciples that he now calls the not servants, but friends. Once again I do not see the added value of the longer reading, nor do I see in being somehow more relevant to this context than to marriage.

A second reading from John is taken from the final prayer, particularly the section in which Jesus prays for the unity of the disciples in love. Now it think most people would read this as a prayer for the unity of the church, for it speaks of love within and encompassing the whole.

So if you've made it this far, you may have noticed a threefold pattern. Any passage that explicitly refers to marriage has been scrupulously avoided, because all of them set marriage in the context of the Genesis complementarity of the sexes. In the epistles and the gospels, this has meant use of passages which talk about love in a general way, or even talk about Christian life in very general terms. In the Old Testament, certain passages on specific friendship or kinship relationships are appealed to, but the interpretation needed to make these passages relevant is either a distortion of the text (Ruth, and to a lesser degree, the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes) or hotly contested (1 Samuel). The liturgists have run up against a very real problem: not only is there no scriptural warrant for what they want to do, but every passage that justifies a sexual relationship presupposes a marriage between a man and a woman.


Bill Dilworth said...

When I read your opening paragraph and realized that the topic was the scripture readings appointed for SSBs, my first thought wass, "Gee, I hope the SCLM didn't suggest those goofy Ruth/Naomi David/Jonathan passages." Alas! Of course, even if the SCLM had not suggested them they would probably still be used, owing to their great popularity.

You're correct that the '28 Marriage service does not provide for readings if it is held by itself.. However, there are an Epistle and a Gospel appointed for use at a celebration of the Eucharist at a Marriage, so the '79 BCP provision for readings is not completely without precedent. Most Episcopal weddings I've been to have included a Mass.

References to children in the readings seem unremarkable to me, seeing that more and more gay and lesbian couples either have children or are planning them. One of the prayers in the rite explicitly refers to existing children.

I don't understand your objection to the selection from Songs. Yes, the text as a whole is about a heterosexual union. But the section suggested for the rite does not (at least in English). Love poetry is love poetry; when I am moved by a love poem or song my first thought is not to verify that the details of the original fit seamlessly into my circumstances. Most love songs and poetry beloved by gay men and lesbians were originally about relationships between a man and a woman (and, to be be fair, some works beloved by straight people were written about same-sex relationships). The important thing about love poetry would seem to be the love (and not the lovin', if you will).

Perhaps the reading from Micah is included for the rather domestic imagery of everyone sitting under their own vine and fig tree towards the end?

Your objection to the second reading from Gospel of John would also apply to most of the NT readings for marriage. They, like the passage from Our Lord's prayer for the Church, are not about romantic or matrimonial love at all, but are about Christian love in general. That doesn't seem to have invalidated them for use at heterosexual weddings. They are examples of creative editing that apply a broader text to a narrower circumstance, and they seem to work just fine. I don't see why the same principle would not work for the reading for John in an SSB rite.

Is the "threefold cord" verse in the Ecclesiastes reading really that funny? You'll have to explain it to me sometime, I suppose. If it truly is bound to raise eyebrows, it comes conveniently at the end of the passage and can be omitted with little damage to the reading. By the way, I can't see that the fact that this is not a passage that, in its original context, refers to a partnership of any kind disqualifies it for use in this rite, any more than the NT Marriage readings referred to above disqualify them; I understand even less how rises to the level of a a "distortion of the text."

Of course, the entire problem of readings is avoided if the service is appended to the Sunday Eucharist, because the regularly I appointed readings would be used. I think that this would have been the case in the Adelphopoiesis rite in any case.

C. Wingate said...

I seem to have given the wrong impression about the Song of Songs reading, through omission. The point really is that of all the OT readings, it is the only one that doesn't present some sort of problem (and maybe I'm the only one who sees the Ecclesiastes reading as suggesting a threesome, but I suspect that I'm not).

And I don't mean to sound as if I'm criticizing the use of these more general passages in the epistles and gospels. There's nothing wrong with them, though I'm puzzled by the pattern of extensions to the readings. But the thing is that these are readings that apply to family/household life because they apply to life, period. They aren't specifically marital/covenantal passages; they can be made to look as if they are because "love" in English means eros and philia as well as agape. But they apply to one's relationship even to people one might pass on the street, as to someone with whom one might have a sexual relationship.