How churches can keep up with the evolving definition of marriage

Marriage is changing, and the Episcopal Church, unlike many other branches of Christianity, has awakened to the news and is thinking deeply about how to respond.

All of Christianity should do the same.

At its General Convention in 2012, the Episcopal Church created the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, asking it "to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage."

As the church worked on creating a ceremony through which to bless same-sex unions, lots of related questions arose. They were listed this way in the document that created the task force, which has just issued its report:

What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church's blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, "marriage" or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called "marriage"?

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For centuries, of course, the myth has been that marriage was only a church-blessed union between one man and one woman. Indeed, that has been the norm.

But there always have been unions that fell outside that norm.

Marriage, in fact, has been evolving for tens of thousands of years and has taken various forms in various cultures. As Steven Mintz, a Columbia University history professor, said in a 2012 piece about marriage in The Week: "Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands."

In almost any Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox congregation today, you'll find young couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, cohabitating. And you'll find older single people living together but not married for many reasons, including issues of taxes and inheritance laws.

Are all of these people -- often faithful church members -- "living in sin," as the old phrase so indelicately puts it? The Episcopal Church intends to speak to that matter.

When I spoke recently with the Rev. Brian C. Taylor, who chaired the Episcopal task force, he was blunt about the failure of the church universal to speak clearly about this:

I think the church has said nothing about adult intimate relationships or singleness outside of marriage. It's like we hold up marriage as this norm and this ideal, and meanwhile, in our congregations, half the people are single people long-term or they're living with somebody else and they're not married or some other variety. And we just kind of look the other way. We don't say anything about it.

The question for me is: What should our church be saying today about adult intimate relationships other than marriage?

I asked him if he'd settled that question in his own mind.

"No, not at all," he replied. "That's why I think another three years of study with some of these top-notch people would be very illuminating."

Taylor's task force is proposing exactly that to this year's General Convention. It's also asking the church to consider revising church law on marriage. Why? The report explains it this way:

This rewrite would make the canon:

• Ordered more practically in terms of pastoral practice;

• Focused on the actual vows made in The Book of Common Prayer marriage rite, rather than on the purposes of marriage in general;

• Reflective of the theological views expressed in the Task Force's study and essays; and

• By using gender-neutral language, responsive to [previous acts that] charge that the Task Force "address the pastoral need for priests to officiate at a civil marriage of a same-sex couple in states that authorize such."

The Christian church universal has been slow to respond to marriage's changing nature. It's another reason many people -- both young and old -- have abandoned the church. Its silence or its condemnation has made them feel rejected.

So cheers for this Episcopal effort. May it cause a thousand marriage flowers to bloom.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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