Encountering the Holy Spirit in Marriage Liturgy Debates

Patrick Keyser

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By Patrick Keyser
Staff Writer

The unexciting name of Committee 13 in no way reflects the importance of the work that was placed before it at this General Convention: revising the 1979 Prayer Book. I was especially interested in the discussions of marriage liturgies. Given the diverse views on marriage within the Episcopal Church and the division that has plagued our Church in recent years, I expected the discussions to be acrimonious. Yet, as I sat through the many hours of testimony and committee deliberations, I was surprised to find something completely different.

The leadership of Committee 13 played a major role in setting the tone for the conversations. Bishop Jeffrey Lee of Chicago began every open hearing by inviting all assembled to join in song. It was marvelous to see a large group of Episcopalians who hold a range of views on contentious issues standing together singing, “Glory to God, glory to God, glory in the highest!” and “Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ under our feet.” Opening the hearings with song and prayer created an atmosphere in which all assembled were reminded that they were standing before God as they passionately debated the pressing issues before our Church.

When the time came for Committee 13 to hear testimony on resolutions related to marriage liturgies, people came to the microphones and spoke their truth, often with boldness and profound vulnerability, and always with conviction. Some rose to speak of how meaningful it had been for the Church finally to recognize and to bless their relationships. Others rose to express their concern about the impact on ecumenical dialogue that could result from defining marriage as a covenant between two people.  Several of the bishops who have not authorized use of the trial liturgies for marriage in their dioceses rose to offer their views. Still others who view marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman expressed their fear of exclusion and marginalization within the Episcopal Church.BCP Rings

The atmosphere was not overly deferential or lacking in authenticity, nor did it reflect the acrimony I so feared. No, the conversations were conducted in a spirit of genuine love and care, borne out of a desire to seek reconciliation and relationship in the face of difficulty and division. It was a witness, in my view, to the work of the Spirit among us. I admittedly have a respect and appreciation for bureaucracy, but even I wouldn’t expect a committee meeting to be a particularly powerful place for encountering the Spirit.

In a time when most discourse seems to be aimed at producing winners and losers at the expense of genuine dialogue, the Episcopal Church has the opportunity at this Convention to show the world that there is a different way to discuss issues and to disagree. Vehement disagreement need not end relationship. Relationship does not require agreement on all issues. But it does require that we hold each other in love, especially in contentious and painful moments.

The final decision of this Convention on marriage liturgies remains undetermined, as resolutions move through both Houses. Whatever emerges, I am humbled and grateful for the movement of the Spirit within our Church that is calling us to discern difficult questions together in love.

Patrick Keyser is a seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. During his time serving with the Episcopal Service Corps in Richmond, Va., he was awarded a grant to start a program that helps low-literacy adults who want to learn to read the Bible. He loves Italy more than most Italians.

Photo credit: Celal Kamran