03 July 2010


Jonathan Rauch is certainly on the progressive side of advocating for gay marriage (see his book, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America.”); but his comments in The New York Times on 3 July 2010 ("A 'Kagan Doctrine' on Gay Marriage,") contain a modest argument for a transitional arrangement on the matter. Essentially, he recognizes that majority preference may be a valid justification for the definition of marriage. Recently in California, that majority vote (in Proposition 8) overturned the allowance of same-sex marriage; and, of course, many states presently define marriage as the lifelong union between a man and a woman, not between two persons of the same sex.

But Rauch seems satisfied to let the debate continue and for one side to gather majority strength, not to have a decision or definition explicitly handed down from the courts. He has same-sex marriage in mind, when he so interprets Kagan's careful comments, which were: “The Supreme Court, of course, has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals. But the court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people.”

Rauch may, or may not, be accurately interpreting Elena Kagan's remarks before the Senate confirmation hearings (that is another matter). However, he does use his interpretation of her remarks to construct a modest proposal. The proposal, he acknowledges, will "sting" both sides of the absolutist debate. (says Rauch: "She [Kagan] seems to be saying that protecting minority rights is the Supreme Court’s job description, but also that a civil rights claim doesn’t automatically trump majority preferences. This is something absolutists on both sides of the gay marriage debate don’t like to hear, but it has the virtue of being right.")

Of course, it will sting advocates for same-sex marriage, because the present voting California majority voted against same-sex marriage. However, Rauch's argument has the feature of allowing some future majority to determine otherwise. Thus, another vote, at another time (as different states presently differ in their various definitions of marriage) could overturn that definition.

The Episcopal Church has taken some historic steps in recognizing lifelong commitments between persons of the same sex, but we are also part of a larger, cultural discussion. Any permanent sort of progress will take even more time than many of us have already consumed. Jonathan Rauch's remarks remind us that political progress takes time.

Says Rauch: "the gay-marriage debate, while assuredly a civil rights argument, is much more than that. It is also a debate about the meaning of marriage, about the pace of change in a conflicted society and about who gets to decide. Whatever the activists on both sides say, nothing in the Constitution requires the Supreme Court to short-circuit the country’s search for a new consensus, either by imposing gay marriage nationwide or by slamming the door on it with an aggressively dismissive ruling. Sometimes the right answer for the courts is to step aside and let politics do its job."

I would translate Rauch's perspective into Episcopal ecclesiology in this way: Some parishes have determined that same-sex relationships should be blessed in a way equal to the blessing of a heterosexual marrage. Some dioceses have made similar determinations. The General Convention of The Episcopal Church may soon also affirm an offical public liturgy for same-sex blessings. But it would not be prudent for a parish to force that determination upon all its members, nor for a diocese to force all its parishes into such an agreement, nor for General Convention to force all dioceses to conform to one definition.

The work of the Holy Spirit takes time if it is to be truly long lasting. Legislative victories and judicial judgements are gratifying and worth celebrating, but they do not completely determine a matter. Often those victories last only as long as a quick seed sprouts and then withers because it has no depth of soil. It is the Spirit that provides the good soil, the depth of soil, that can bear fruit a hundredfold.

In fact, the process is a bit like marriage itself. No wedding ever determines a real marriage. A pronouncement may make the arrangement legal, and a priest may even bless the relationship. But the real marriage occurs over time, as two parties learn to live and to love together. They disappoint and they thrill one another. They betray and they honor one another. Ultimately, if they are truly married, they bless one another. It is that blessing, ultimately, which comes from God. It is of the Spirit, and it takes holy time.


  1. Sam, Thank you for this. I think you are wise in advocating a gentle way forward -- allowing for a diversity of practice as it suits the congregation or diocese. Your last paragraph is particularly beautiful. Brian

  2. Hi, Brian!
    Grace and peace to you! Yes, I hope advocates see that one can work for same-sex marriage while also allowing diversity of practice. I would not want to hinder the Spirit! Blessings to you in California.

  3. Thank you, Sam, for once again highlighting the via media of theological and political debate which has been a strength of the Anglican tradition. There will always be those on the far right and left and in between on the topic of gay marriage. Via media requires we walk in the way of the Spirit which moves mysteriously between the two and brings about change, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly - but all in God's time. Likewise, I agree with Brian that your analogy to marriage is beautiful. Neil Christy