Unions Are Not Marriages
I head across country in a few days to be present at the church trial of my friend and colleague, Honorably Retired Rev. Janie Spahr, who is being tried for presiding at the weddings of same-gender couples in California in 2008. As I think back on Janie’s long ministry, I recall the recent news that the Episcopal Church is beginning the process to create liturgies specifically for same-gender unions, which might eventually become services authorized by the bishops for use in Episcopal parishes. Similarly, the PCUSA has encouraged blessing of two men or two women in union ceremonies since 1991.
So why didn’t Janie Spahr just bless the union of these couples who wanted to be married in 2008?
Janie Spahr has been a respected pastor throughout the long journey among LGBT people of seeking to have our lifelong commitments blessed among our faith communities and friends. And in that role, she has led many union services. Her practice is to follow the lead of each couple as they make the very personal decision to join their lives together. She customarily meets with each couple for a year to talk through all manner of things including what type of ceremony they want. Some want a union; some, a marriage. Different couples want different things, and the variety of possibilities available is a good thing.
But in the end, a union — civil or church — is not a marriage.
The Majority Report of the Civil Union and Marriage Special Committee that is being sent out to the whole PCUSA for study concludes, “We find the compromise suggestion of civil unions/domestic partnerships offers no true solution to the struggle around same-gender partnerships. Civil unions/domestic partnerships provide neither the state-sanctioned benefits nor the societal acceptance that marriage (redefined or not) offers.” I agree.
For many couples, nothing can replace the knowledge that their relationship is a marriage that has been rightly marked by a wedding. As, my friend, Brenda — now married to Nancy for five years — says, “No one goes out to tell the world, ‘I’m being unioned next Saturday.’ No one would understand such a thing. We all understand, ‘I’m getting married!’”
When I was preparing to be tried in church court as Janie will be next week, I met a couple, two men retired now, who had been married in 1969 by the Presbyterian chaplain at Colorado University. In the summer of the Stonewall Uprising, union never occurred to them. Their love and commitment was, and continues to be, what we all recognize as marriage.