Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Category: culture (Page 1 of 29)

Lenten Music Mix #1

A friend on social media asked for suggestions for a Lenten playlist. The intent was, I think, for more traditional and spiritual music, but some folks shared popular music that they thought of as appropriately penitential or somehow related to the spirit of the season. With that in mind, I present my own Americana Lenten Playlist, chosen with an eye toward inspiring self-reflection, not necessarily theological accuracy or purity. I will probably do a separate list of overtly spiritual songs from popular artists–there may be some overlap.

Why 12? It just seemed better than 10:

  1. God’s Gonna Cut you Down, by Johnny Cash:
  1. No Hard Feelings, The Avett Brothers
  1. The Man Comes Around, By Johnny Cash (really more fitting for early Advent, but nevertheless):
  1. Firewater, Old Crow Medicine Show
  1. Hey Stranger, Mandolin Orange
  1. Tell the Truth, The Avett Brothers
  1. Watertown, Nathan Hamilton and No Deal
  1. I Hung My Head, Johnny Cash
  1. Hurt, Johnny Cash
  1. Ill with Want, The Avett Brothers
  1. Psalms of War, Ben Arthur
  1. Masters of War, Bob Dylan

The Lord Watch Between You and Me. (Because someone has to keep us honest).

Last week I had the opportunity to go on our Diocesan clergy silent retreat. This is only my second time participating in this particular retreat and I’ve enjoyed both gatherings very much.

One of the key points made early in the series of five reflections (delivered this year by our Bishop, John Bauerschmidt) was the way in which memory breaks in during times of silence and we may find ourselves enjoying pleasant memories, or confronting awkward or even negative ones. Silence allows things to bubble to the surface that often don’t have the opportunity. Part of this means that we might be surprised by the memories that come to the fore.

One of the memories that came to mind for me was only partial, and it wasn’t particularly positive or negative–though it was humorous. It came to mind during Morning Prayer on Wednesday, when the first lesson was from Genesis (I’ll share the reference later). the reading brought to mind the vague memory of an event I attended at some point–maybe a youth retreat, or some other function. I don’t recall much, but I do recall the ending of our time together. One of the leaders spent a fair amount of time–and maybe there was a prayer or a song related to the same theme–talking about how the Lord would protect us when we were absent from one another, and quoting the passage from Genesis, that is rendered in the King James version, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (Genesis 31:49).By the time I heard this I’d been doing morning prayer long enough that the reference tickled my awareness and I looked it up. In context I couldn’t imagine why this phrase would ever acquire the use and meaning it had.  “How in the world could someone use this in a positive way at the end of an event.” What is recounted is Jacob’s surreptitious departure, at God’s command, from the territory of his father-in-law Laban, and their subsequent meeting after Laban follows.The meeting is not a positive one, but while bitter, it does not fall into violence.  Nevertheless, one of the few things that Laban and Jacob agree on, is that they do not trust each other, and therefore they asking God to keep watch because the people aren’t trustworthy to each other after a bitter argument.  As Robert Alter pointed out in his commentary, this exchange even stands in the background of the establishment of an international border.  That is, a boundary between people groups: 

Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.  If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me.  This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.  May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac,  and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country (Genesis 31:48-54).

Of course, I thought this was hilarious at the time, but I’d forgotten it.  The combination of reading the passage at Morning Prayer (Gen. 31:25-50) and thinking about past experiences brought it back to mind. Because I happen to be reading Robert Alter’s newly published translation of the Hebrew Bible now, I looked over the passage in his translation which makes the conflict even more clear in some ways.  For example, Alter translates part of the exchange as “May the Lord look out between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. Should you abuse my daughters, and should you take wives besides my daughters though no one else is present, see, God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:49-50, Alter’s translation). Alter’s version highlights the loss of trust between the two men, and how God is being called on to keep each of them on the straight and narrow, and to bear witness should either of them violate their agreement.

This background makes the presence of paired pendants with this phrase on it, marketed to friends, family members, and sweethearts all the more ironic.  It’s about separation, and God’s attention, of that there’s no doubt.  But it’s a divine attention prayed for–and threatened–because there’s no trust between the two people in question.  And I have to wonder–is this the sentiment you really want to invoke when you’re going to be separated from a loved one for some period of time?

Bonus content:
Here’s a sample of Alter’s book and the notes on part of this section. I can’t recommend it highly enough:

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The Chinese Dragon and the Cross

For a number of years the Chinese government has been increasing its persecution of Christians by tightening enforcement of building regulations, requiring the removal of crosses, the use of political imagery, and pursuing the arrest and detention of Christian leaders from the underground house church movement.

Not all of this oppression is unique to Christianity. Readers may remember the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, for example. In China, as elsewhere, Communism is no friend to religious belief and practice.

But I do think the antagonism between Christianity and Communism is particular and intrinsic to the foundational assumptions of both as ideologies. China has vacillated between limited toleration, hoping to capitalize on the social benefits that may come with Christian belief among the citizenry, and persecution when Christianity seemed to be getting too strong.

These issues have recently been brought to the forefront of my mind by the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one area of China, because of the one nation two systems approach, that has maintained more freedom of religion. Additionally, the Hong Kong legal system has been strongly shaped by the Common Law tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian presuppositions (though, of course it is in the nature of the Common Law to be influenced by the presuppositions of those who adhere to it).

All of this being said, there is a specific danger as President Xi of China consolidates power and sets himself up more firmly as a modern day totalitarian leader. That danger is that religions, including Christianity, will find themselves co-opted into the service of Chinese nationalism.

Precisely because this situation is not new or unique, Christians need to be watchful and pray for our brothers and sisters in China. We need to pray for their clarity and their discernment, as well as their fortitude and courage. The tweet below demonstrates one example of the problematic nature of this sort of coopting:

Folks might rightly point out that you could see similar things at American Megachurches on Memorial Day. But while theologically that too is a marker of something disturbing, it is not a coercive or commanded obedience and nationalism. Even more concerning are efforts by the Chinese government post Tiananmen to influence the media of the Chinese diaspora, as well as their faiths, so as to be more amenable to the plans of the Chinese government.

So, if all of this is the case (and I hasten to add I am no expert, simply thinking about the issues as I understand and have read about them), then what is the hope in terms of Christian witness in China? To answer this question, I think about the words of the late Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of world Christian mission, who wrote of Christianity in China, that:

“Mao might be far from Christendom, but not far enough to avoid rousing the Christian ghost from the mountain recluses and political backwaters to which rhetoric banished it. The political mission of China seemed too evocative of the Christian mission it combated for it to succeed without the Christian alibi. And that alibi came to haunt the gatekeepers of the revolution”

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 269

The Twilight of the Greatest Generation & the loss of Memory

As we grow further removed in history from World War II and D Day, especially as that generation dies and fewer people have even heard first-hand accounts from family members and others they know, people will need more reminders of the significance. The map below is one reminder. 50% of deaths from allied civilians. A trial everywhere, but in some cases completely staggering–a 25% death toll in Belarus for example.

And while a lot of folks may not realize it, for the reasons given above–the postwar pursuit of economic integration, free trade, and the emergence of the European Union (with the UK as an important ballast to prevent domination by Germany or France)–were integral to the peace that emerged and the fact that there hasn’t been another conflagration in Europe.

Cordell Hull

Tennessean Cordell Hull (there’s a building named after him on the square in Gallatin, and he was a graduate of the Normal School at Bowling Green KY, which I’m guessing was a predecessor to Western Kentucky University) was a major architect of this and champion of the insight that economic integration fosters peace. Not without flaws–he opposed admitting Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis and thus did not rise above the lesser instincts of his day on that front–he nonetheless advocated for a perspective on international trade and peace that has proven insightful, durable, and mostly accurate.

The breakdown of the postwar consensus, the likely departure of the UK from the EU, and greater moves toward nationalism and economic protectionism, especially when the advocates display very little awareness of the broader implications of those changes, when the broader implications–political and social–of the postwar policies were arguably the major point, with base level economics being secondary. This latter issue was also in play with the short-sighted rejection of the Trans-pacific Partnership trade agreement by both candidate Hillary Clinton and now-President Trump. Trump’s issues with China can be read in part as a result of the fact that the multilateral economic agreement meant to bind Pacific rim powers more closely to the United States and hem in Chinese influence, was rejected in favor of his arrogant attempts at bilateral agreements.

Hull was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his instrumental work in founding the United Nations. Funny that the apocalyptic preachers of my youth who so often used the UN as a Boogieman, never mentioned that a Southerner–a Tennessean!–was integral to its founding. If they had, regional loyalties are such that it might have limited the effectiveness of their message.

As one essay about Hull and his work prior to WWII put it, “Mark Twain said, ‘you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’ Secretary Hull and the commercial policy planners foresaw an integrated world economy where peace would be built on trade liberalization. But most Americans could not yet picture that world” (Available here–requires registration). Now, the problem seems to be we’ve seen only that world for long enough, that we’ve forgotten how bleak the alternative of nationalistic factionalism is.

I find this irksome…

William Blake, Poet & Painter
28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827

I am fond of William Blake, both his poetry and engraving work/painting. On the good side, some amateur sleuths have located the exact spot of William Blake’s grave, the original marker having been moved when the cemetery where he and his wife were buried was restored, and a portion of it turned into a park, as part of the recovery from the blitz in World War II.

This is the marker that was placed after the restoration. It was placed some distance from the actual grave site. My assumption is, however, that it resembles the original grave stone, or perhaps combines the two grave stones of William and his wife.

Now, there’s the irksome part–at least to me–and I wonder if I’m alone in this. Below is the new marker just installed at the actual site of Blake’s grave:

The new crowd-funded grave marker

Two things stand out to me, both of which bother me at least a bit. First, and most significant: his wife is not included in the marker. Granted, this was to honor Blake’s literary and artistic achievements, but if they found his grave, one assumes they may have also found his wife’s. Usually couples are buried close to one another, if not side by side or even in the same grave (one atop the other). The earlier marker noted that fact. It bothers me that Catherine is excluded from this one.

Secondly, I know folks sometimes refer to Blake as “prophetic” because of his work and the mythos he constructed in his work. But by what authority is the title “Prophet” applied on this monument with the same certainty as poet and artist?

Also, it just occurred to me: a poet is a species of artist, as is painter. The post-restoration marker was also correct in that realm as well.

You can read more about the new marker and how it came about here, and here.

UPDATE: Some friendly folks on Twitter pointed me to some resources that pointed out that Blake and his wife were not buried next to one another. Instead, she was buried several meters away from him. Also, the marker that was moved was evidently placed closer to the original grave site in the 1920s, while Blake’s original grave was unmarked.

Important Under the Radar Resolutions

At the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church we have considered over 500 resolutions, most of them in the last two days, as the discussions of possible prayer book revision and what provision would be made for bishops who disagree with the allowance for same-sex marriage rites throughout the church, as well as the budget, took up the bulk of the time of the House of Deputies. That means that a great many resolutions must be passed on what is known as “the consent calendar.”  This provides a means for resolutions to be considered en masse and for convention to concur with the recommendation of the particular committee that has been working with the resolution. In effect it prevents things that are thought to be boiler plate, necessary, or uncontroversial, from being considered by 800+ people at once (and you thought vestry meetings were difficult).

I wanted to highlight some of the resolutions that find significant that have been passed through the consent calendar at convention.

These are not the only significant resolutions that were passed on those days. I have focussed on resolutions wherein the church has taken some action, or committed itself to take some action, as opposed to resolutions, however good, that encouraged other bodies (governments, agencies etc.) to take action.

Day 1: None


Day 2:

A034 Supporting General Convention Children’s Program

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the General Convention commends and supports the General Convention Children’s Program, and continues to direct funding to include the youngest of God’s children in our work together.

A030 Small Evangelism Grants

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the General Convention directs the Executive Council to implement small grants program to encourage local parish worshiping community and diocesan evangelism efforts; and be it further

Resolved, That the sum of $100,000 shall be allocated for this grant program.

Day 3

A196 Fund a Full-time Evangelism Staff Officer

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention affirm the initiative of the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council in the creation of and funding for a full-time Evangelism Officer to serve on the Presiding Bishop’s staff; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention encourage Program, Budget, and Finance to maintain the sum of $380,000, as currently allocated in the draft budget proposed by the Executive Council for this position.

Day 4

A109 Create Task Force on Sexual Harassment

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declares that sexual harassment of adults by clergy, church employees and church members are abuses of trust, a violation of the Baptismal Covenant, contrary to Christian Character, and are therefore wrong; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church establish a Task Force on Sexual Harassment to be appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to prepare a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses, including parishes, missions, schools, camps, conference centers and other diocesan institutions. It shall be the duty of the Task Force to study, educate, develop curriculum, and propose and promulgate model policy and standards of conduct on different forms of harassment, and to advise the Church as resource persons. The membership of the Task Force is to be representative as to gender, race and ethnic diversity and should include lawyers whose practice covers this area of law or who serve or have served as chancellors for a diocese or church, human resource professionals, educators for adults, and those experienced in the prevention of sexual harassment. Approximately one-third of the members of the Task Force shall be clergy. The Committee Task Force will report to the 80th General Convention and include as part of its report a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider a budget allocation of $50,000 for the work of the Task Force.

D031 Recognizing and Ending Domestic Violence in our Congregations

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church continue to speak out clearly against all forms of domestic violence as it has done in the past; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention encourages Episcopal clergy and congregations to educate themselves on the widespread problem that domestic violence is in their churches, neighborhoods and beyond; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urge all Episcopal Bishops and other clergy and lay leadership to familiarize themselves with the international and multi-lingual resources provided by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, White Ribbon, and other local resources, as well as existing trainings developed for domestic violence prevention, and create procedures for supporting domestic violence survivors in their dioceses and congregations; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urge the Church at every level to examine its response to domestic violence, especially its response to survivors of domestic violence.

Day 5 (no consent calendar)

Day 6

A223 Family Leave Policies

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 79th General Convention acknowledges the need for a well-defined, comprehensive family leave policy, paid and/or unpaid; and be it further

Resolved, That the appropriate joint standing committee of the Executive Council be directed to study and distribute model policies for paid and unpaid family leave for dioceses and their congregations and institutions to consider, with such models to be distributed to the dioceses by June 30, 2019; and be it further

Resolved, That General Convention urge every diocese to review such model policies and to implement comprehensive policies on family leave that fit their respective needs; and be it further

Resolved, That in view of the time required for study and actions by diocesan conventions, dioceses report their specific policies to the Office of General Convention no later than December 31, 2020.

D061 Develop an Episcopal Gap Year Program

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church direct the staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, especially the Office of Global Partnership and the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministries, to conduct pilot development of an Episcopal Gap Year Program in international mission for young adults, ages 18-23, who are between high school and other educational or vocational pursuits; and be it further

Resolved, That the program be guided by innovative models of such programs, including but not limited to the Young Adult Service Corps, and that it ensure accessibility to racial and ethnic minorities, to persons from non-U.S.-domestic dioceses, and to persons of limited financial means; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention encourage dioceses and congregations to recruit young adults to participate in the Gap Year Program and to support them with fund-raising assistance; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider a budget allocation of $90,000 for the 2019-2021 triennium in order to develop the Episcopal Gap Year Program.

Day 7

A032 Congregational Redevelopment

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 79th General Convention requests that the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies in consultation with the Church Center staff create a church-wide Community of Practice that works with up to one hundred (100) congregations and their bishops to help them redevelop to better engage the cultural realities of their communities for the sake of launching new ministries and multi-cultural missional initiatives; and be it further

Resolved, That the Communications Office be directed to make a priority of reporting on the stories of redeveloped congregations on an ongoing basis through news media, video, and other means and through developing a website online resources that provides detailed information about the redevelopment efforts happening throughout the church; and be it further

Resolved, That the cost of this initiative will be equally shared by the church-wide budget, participating dioceses and redeveloping congregations; and be it further

Resolved, That the presiding officers appoint a task force to coordinate this initiative in collaboration with Church Center staff. That task force may be combined with a task force on Church Planting and Missional Initiatives at the discretion of the presiding officers; and be it further

Resolved, That the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider a budget allocation of $725,000 during the triennium for the implementation of this resolution.


The Return of Clandestine Marriage?

A version of this post was also posted at The Living Church’s Covenant Blog.

An initial “C” in a medieval manuscript discussing clandestine marriage. The British Library.

The seventeenth century Anglican Priest and historian Thomas Fuller once wrote, “It is the worst clandestine marriage when God is not invited to it. Wherefore, beforehand beg his gracious assistance“ (Fuller, The Holy State, 172 ). While Fuller called those marriages that are not undertaken before God to be the worst form of clandestine marriage, his comment may strike many modern readers as odd, given that we are so far removed from the question of clandestine marriages. But it was not always so.

Indeed, at various points in the medieval period, the Church and society struggled with the question of what constituted marriage. The two main schools of thought were consent—favored by many scholastic theologians—and consummation, favored by many laity. Because the Church emphasized consent, and—at least in the West—upheld the fact that the couple are themselves the ministers of the marriage, there arose a problem with what were called “clandestine” or secret marriages. Marriages that were not witnessed by anyone (other than a priest). Indeed, such marriages were so problematic, and continued to be performed in England up through the 1700s that they became known as “Fleet Marriages” because they were so often performed by unscrupulous priests serving time at Fleet Prison, who would perform a wedding for the right price.

While there were times when clandestine marriages were pursued for reasons that a conscientious observer might have found ethical, they were a source of abuse wherein people could be married secretly, have sex, and then one party—the man, let’s be honest—could then deny the marriage had ever taken place after having taken advantage of a woman, often of a lower social or economic class.

While the reading of the banns of marriage—not often done in the United States at all, but still, I understand, done occasionally in England—may seem no more than a quaint custom, and the charge in our wedding rite that “if any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace” (BCP 424) may be more confusing than not (mostly because clergy don’t explain it), they stem from the same concern that gives us our double consent formula: a desire to avoid abuse. In the case of the banns, the concern was to avoid bigamy. In the case of the double consent, it was to avoid forced marriages. In both cases, the desire was to avoid the strong imposing their will on those with less power or a lower social standing.

What does any of this have to do with us today, in our culture of falling marriage rates, widespread cohabitation, and changing sexual mores? I submit it may be of interest because we in the Episcopal Church may have an opportunity to at General Convention next year to approve a supplemental liturgy that enshrines something very much like Clandestine Marriage.

The Task Force for the Study of Marriage recently offered its report from its last meeting. In it, they discuss all hot button issues related to a gender neutral marriage rite, whether or not to amend the Book of Common Prayer’s wedding service prior to a full revision of the Prayer Book etc. In addition, however, they indicate they will be putting forward a resolution to authorize two supplemental liturgical blessing rites. One, The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, is intended for use in dioceses and parishes of The Episcopal Church that exist in places where the legal jurisdiction does not have legal same-sex marriage. But it is the second of these proposed supplemental rites to which i want to turn our attention, “The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship.” It is this rite that I believe entails a revival of Clandestine Marriage, and with it, possible abuses.

The Task force states in their report that The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship is proposed for use under two circumstances:

  • By mature couples who seek to form and formalize a special relationship with one another that is unconditional and lifelong, but is nevertheless something different than a marriage in that it does not include the merging of property, finances, or other civil legal encumbrances, in order to protect against personal and familial hardship.
  • By couples for whom the requirement to furnish identification to obtain a marriage license could result in civil or criminal legal penalties, including deportation, because of their immigration status.

They state that the use of both supplemental rites will contain conditions for use that reflect the conditions for use of the marriage rites, by which I assume they mean that one party must be a baptized Christian. I don’t think they could mean that the couple would need to sign the Declaration of Intention, since the very design the second supplemental rite would negate what is intended by the declaration.

I will leave it to others to hash out those liturgies referred to in the report of the task force that have already received, and will doubtless continue to receive much attention. My purpose here is to sound what I believe to be a necessary alarm bell about this supplemental liturgy. I do so for a few reasons:

First, it would enshrine in our liturgy the blessing of a union that is not marriage, but which nevertheless intends what marriage intends, save for the condition that it is not marriage. If our debate about same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church over the past few decades has taught us anything, it’s that the terms of the debate hinge on what marriage is, and whether it can and should rightly be expanded to include same-sex couples.1 Those who have argued for some other union for same-sex couples have always been a minority, and in the terms of the unfolding life of the Episcopal Church, I think even those who hold that position would have to admit that the debate has passed them by. In other words, if something looks like marriage, and functions like marriage, we are best off conceiving of it and discerning it in terms of whether or not it does in fact constitute marriage.

It is more than a little strange that at a time when the bulk of the Episcopal Church has accepted same-sex marriage, we would consider authorizing a rite that, even though it claims to be blessing a union that is “unconditional and lifelong” is precisely predicated on the condition that the couple avoid the obligations and duties of marriage, and likewise are deprived of the legal protections due them within their relationship. The very justification from the task force is self-refuting: claiming something as unconditional while starting the precise conditions. The authorization of such a rite is a revival of clandestine marriage precisely because it is a revival of a relationship that looks like marriage that is invisible to the community, embodied by the state, when the state is the only entity that can provide appropriate protection to the parties of the relationship.

It’s difficult to know precisely what sort of situation is envisioned by the Task Force when they write that about avoiding the “merging of property, finances, or other civil legal encumbrances, in order to protect against personal and familial hardship.” I recall a number of years ago that there were some bishops who sought permission to have their clergy officiate at marriages using the BCP rite, but without a civil marriage license. The stated reason then was so that couples would not be required to give up their Social Security upon marrying.

Honestly, discussing whether or not Social Security requirements might not actually be as burdensome as some think, or pointing out that adults can perfectly well protect their assets legally when they decide to wed without avoiding marriage, might be begging the question. Assumed in a discussion that does that direction is this: It must be ok for the church to salve peoples consciences as they seek to circumvent laws intended to apply to people living in particular relationships. In other words, I would question whether the prior assumptions that make such a rite conceivable are even ethical for Christians.

That question of ethics is one of communal or social ethics. On the side of personal ethics and morality: should the church bless something that is not marriage, but which all parties conceive on the personal level to be like marriage, avoiding only the social cost, which could therefore entail a sexual relationship outside the bounds of marriage.

Let’s be real: It’s not only the elderly who are discriminated against by our governmental policies when it comes to marriage. Look around your own family or community and I bet you can find examples of couples who have postponed marriage so that their children wouldn’t lose medicaid (or whatever local equivalent) coverage. I suppose it makes sense that we would be thinking about the elderly, given the makeup of The Episcopal Church, but this solution is not a solution at all. To use the meme inspired parlance of our day, this is weak sauce.

If you sense some sarcasm, it’s because this proposal does nothing to deal with the inequities of the system, and instead doing what comes easy to Episcopalians and crafting a liturgy to make us feel good in the midst of injustice. At least, we must think it’s an injustice, or else it really is completely unethical to offer such a liturgy.

Which brings me to the second scenario envisioned: that of undocumented immigrants who are uncomfortable—for obvious reasons—with applying for marriage licenses. These two scenarios really are an odd pairing. In the first, pains are taken to say that the couple does not want marriage. In the second scenario, I imagine the couples would say unequivocally  that they do. Unless one assumes, as I do, that they actually do want marriage in both cases, but are avoiding real or perceived penalties.

My pastoral response to the two situation would be quite different. In the one, I’d say something like “it’s a hard decision whether to marry, and whether to bear the cost of that. I’d be happy to talk with you through the process, and recommend attorneys who could help you arrange things so that your families are reassured.” But I would not offer them “marriage-lite.” Nor would I want to officiate at a service for them without a marriage license.

In the later case, I would like to see some provisional authority granted to priests to officiate at weddings—again, not marriage-lite—for couples where one party is at risk of deportation. But I think we really should only see this as provisional and it should chafe to the point that we actively work to see that undocumented immigrants can legally marry. Why would I say this?

I understand that it has become popular in some circles to argue that marriage in the church and marriage in the eyes of the state should be divorced from one another. Often this is accompanied with a criticism of the clergy “acting as agents of the state.” But I think this understanding has things exactly backwards.

The state doesn’t recognize a marriage I officiate because I’m an agent of the state (arguably, they recognize it because a license fee was paid, but let’s put that to the side for the moment). They recognize it because the State recognizes that marriage is an institution prior to and independent of the state, but which must nevertheless be managed by the state because the law is nothing if not the way our community has provided for us to work together.

Because marriage is therefore prior to the state (as is the family unit), the state recognizes that the traditional marriages as envisioned and contracted in numerous religious communities, regardless of their particularity, fits the minimum definition of what the state considers marriage to be, and it therefore recognizes them. It’s not that priests and rabbis or imams or brahmans thereby become agents of the state, it’s that the state recognizes these communities as constituent bodies within a broader society, and marriage as a constitutive element of society as a whole. This is why I am thankful that I have never said, and will never say “by the power invested in me by the state of _____, I now pronounce you man and wife.” I will instead say, with the Book of Common Prayer “No that N. and N. have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder” (BCP 428).

All of that said, the role of the state is important and significant: the state ensures the rights of all parties in the marriage, both each member of the couple, and any children they have. Blessing marriages without civil marriage licenses, and thereby creating legally invisible unions, means that the state doesn’t easily know how to adjudicate between the couple when their union dissolves, when one party abandons the other, etc. This is especially true when there is common property. Marriage—civil, legal marriage—is a protection against the abuse of the less powerful by the more powerful. In heterosexual marriage, the less powerful are often women and children. Unless we are going to revive ecclesiastical courts, I don’t see how we can responsibly bless unions without the legal element.

If we had common law marriage in the United States, perhaps it could work.2 If we were a sectarian tradition that claimed unfettered loyalty from our membership, maybe it wold have a shot (but who among us would really want that?). But neither of those is a reality. The states are all too diverse in their marriage laws and less than a handful have anything like Common Law marriage. And if we have some people entering these relationships with the express desire not to be married, then even the laws in places like North Carolina that provide for marriage by reputation wouldn’t be a protection.

We are a church that has worked in and through culture. We cannot so easily shirk our responsibilities now. Rather than crafting liturgies for these situations, perhaps we should be crafting legislation that calls out the injustice to which we really ought to respond, and put the Episcopal Public Policy office to work lobbying for specific legislation.

Maybe, even more importantly, we should teach about these issues in our parishes, and get Episcopalians and other Christians involved in challenging systemic injustices that harm people in our society, that militate against the formation of stable families, and that prevent people from getting the support they need, whatever their age, stage of life, economic or immigration status.

I think that’s a much better idea than reviving legally clandestine unions. If we really believe these to be issues of injustice, we are obligated to challenge the status quo. If it’s just a matter of being inconvenienced, then perhaps what we really want is a marriage of convenience, even if we call it a “Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship.”

  1. There was a good back and forth about this in The Living Church before General Convention 2015, between my former Professor Dr. Bill Carroll, and my bishop, John Bauerschmidt. I haven’t been able to find the exchange online, but if and when I do, I will link to it here. []
  2. I’m actually in favor of restoring a form of Common Law Marriage, much like I read described several years ago in a reform of marriage law in British Columbia. The one thing–considered radical by some, I’m sure–that I would add, would be to include same-sex couples if there were children present. Since part of the point is to encourage stability and to protect the less-powerful parties in relationships/families, it makes sense to include them, regardless of one’s theological perspective on same-sex marriage. See: []

A different kind of Monument

There has been a lot of talk about the rights and wrongs of various Civil War monuments in recent weeks. Most of the ones garnering attention were erected or have become artifacts and idols of what historians sometimes refer to as “The Religion of the Lost Cause.” The thing about this religion is that it has as one of its primary functions the sanitizing of the brutality inherent in the slave system of the South, the centrality that slavery had as an impetus for war, and even–oddly since it glorifies the suffering of the South on the one hand–the sanitization of the suffering endured during and after the war. Even as it lifts up the idea of the suffering south, the Lost Cause mythos has a tendency to knock off the rough edges, and make everything seem soft around the edges like the scenery of Gone with the Wind.

This is a reflection on a different sort of monument, the sort that highlight the rough edges and brutality of that suffering.

In 1996, when we buried my maternal grandma in the cemetery at North Fork Baptist Church in Big Pine, Madison County NC, I went looking through the grave stones. One stood out to me as having a deeper story:

The epitaph on the grave stone of Emeline McFeatures Bucker reads “Wife of Chrys & Ephram Buckner: Gone but not forgotten”

How, I wondered, had Emeline been married to two different men? I thought it was likely that she had been widowed, but it still seemed noteworthy that she had married two men with the same family name. Later, as I was doing genealogy research, I learned a bit more of the history.

Christopher S. and Ephraim H. Buckner were both sons of Absalom Buckner, who was something of a patriarch of the Buckner family in the mountains. Born in 1800, it seems that he was the first Buckner to make his home and raise his family in this part of the mountains. He and his wife Elizabeth had eight children:

Rebecca (1830-1872)
Joseph Hardy (1834-1864)
Caroline (1835-unknown)
Christopher S. (1841-1864)
Noah (1842-1864)
Lydia (184?-1932)
Ephraim H. (1846-unknown)
Nancy (1851-unknown)

You might notice a common death year among several of the sons: 1864. Absalom–even though he was in his 60s by the time the war came–along with Joseph Hardy, Christopher S, and Noah enlisted in the Confederate Army. Joseph Hardy and Noah were captured at the Cumberland Gap and both died at Camp Douglas in Chicago Il. Their names are memorialized in another monument, marking a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Wood Cemetery where the remains of the more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at Camp Douglas–sometimes called the “North’s Andersonville,”–were removed to after the war.

The monument at Oak Wood Cemetery

Though I’ve not yet been able to visit Oak Wood Cemetery, I’m thankful for the ability to see the plaques up close. Because of that, as well as register of deaths from Camp Douglas available at, I was able to confirm that Joseph Hardy Buckner and Noah Buckner rest here:

Noah, 14th from the bottom on the second column, Joseph Hardy (J.H.) 17th.

But this doesn’t explain what happened to Christopher. Unfortunately, this may not be an answerable question. His name isn’t on the death records at Camp Douglas, and there’s no death record anywhere that I have yet found. An old family bible simply has a note next to his name: “Never came home from war.” A few years after the war Emeline married his younger brother Ephraim.

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like for those words to be someone’s epitaph: never came home from war. What did his wife, mother, brother, and father think? I once read an article about another family that had lost a son in the war–the mother set a place at the table for him every night until she died.

Since Joseph Hardy and Noah didn’t have similar notations, I assume the place of their deaths were known, if not their final resting place (I’m not sure if anyone would’ve had the responsibility of letting the family know, especially once the bodies were moved after the war).

These monuments show a deeper truth of the war: the suffering and loss it brought. The most recent figures, released in 2012, revise the number of combined war dead upward to approximately 750,000, or the equivalent of about 7 million (a little over 2% of the population) today.  But war dead tell only a partial story. The National Park service estimates that the Union sustained a total of 642,427 casualties have been divided accordingly:

  • 110,100 killed in battle
  • 224,580 diseases
  • 275,174 wounded in action
  • 30,192 prisoners of war

The Confederacy is estimated to have sustained 483,026 total casualties, including:

  • 94,000 killed in battle
  • 164,000 diseases
  • 194,026 wounded in action
  • 31,000 prisoners of war

That’s a whopping 1,125,453 total combined casualties of the war–when the total population is only estimated to have been about 25 Million–at about 4.5%.

All of this demonstrates the depth of the effect the war had to have had on local communities. one story that demonstrates this has stuck in my mind for years.

I came across one story during my college career that highlights the brutality and deep woundedness of many communities following the war. It struck me then because it concerns the very county my ancestors above were from, Madison County NC. Madison county went by the nickname “bloody Madison” for a while after the war, a name it unfortunately earned. In his book “Victims: A True Story of the Civil War” Phillip Shaw Paludan retells this story (I first read it in Welman’s The Kingdom of Madison, but the testimony of the mother concerned was enough to bring it up in this newer book in a Google book search):

This personal sense of righteousness spanned the Civil War era and frequently overwhelmed whatever regular due process might have required. During the war a group of soldiers moved into Shelton Laurel and surrounded Nance “Granny” Franklin’s home. The widowed mother of four sons, she had to watch as the troops opened fire and killed three of her boys. She tried to stop the killings but only succeeded in just missing death herself when a bullet clipped off a lock of her hair. The soldiers left, but revenge lurked awaiting its chance.

After the war it came. A few miles away from Shelton Laurel, men were trying to rebuild Mars Hill College, and masons and carpenters from the region came to help. One day one of the bricklayers got to telling war stories to some students. He told of being in on the Franklin killings and recalled something sort of amusing: “Usually I can knock a squirrel out of a tree at seventy-five yards, but I took aim at that woman, almost close enough to touch her, and all I did was shoot off a piece of her hair.”

One of the students took this story with him when he went back home that weekend to Shelton Laurel. He told it to James Norton, who was Nance Franklin’s brother, and Norton offered the student a five-dollar gold piece if he would point out the bricklayer. The student identified the unsuspecting veteran, who retold his story. When he finished, Norton announced, “That was my sister you shot the hair off of, and one of her boys you murdered was named James after me.” He pulled a revolver from under his coat, shot the bricklayer in the stomach, and ran away. He was soon arrested, and trial was held in the neighboring county.

Nance Franklin rode through the mountains to testify on behalf of her brother. her descendants remember the testimony vividly, and the jury and spectators at the time were moved, too. Especially memorable was her answer when the judge asked, “Madam, you tell us that you sent your young sons out to fight and kill and be killed. Did you bring them up for that sort of thing?”

“I brought them up as Christians,” she answered. “I told them always be good boys, tell the truth, and be honest. But I told them something else. If you’ve got to die, die like a damned dog with your teeth in a throat.” The jury decided that the victim deserved killing. James Norton went free (Paludan, 21-22).

The Home Guard had killed her sons, her brother killed a veteran of the Home Guard after the war. Blood paid for blood. And so it went after the war to such an extent that it shaped the politics of the county for decades after. My mother can remember when people carried guns with them to vote because tensions were so thick. The short hand I was once told is that, generally, the old Republican families in the mountains had been Unionist, while the old Democratic families had been Confederates. And yet, it can’t be that simple. My mother’s family were Republicans from a long way back, but there were four men in one family who fought for the South and three didn’t make it back home.

Two of those men are my direct ancestors. My great grandfather Elbert was the grandson of Christopher S. Buckner, who never came home from the war, and his wife Julina, was the granddaughter of Joseph Hardy Buckner, who died at Camp Douglas.

At any rate, when I think about monuments that speak some truth about the Civil War, I think about that monument at Camp Douglas, with those names inscribed on it, and that grave stone, with the names of two husbands: one who never came home, and one who picked up and raised his brother’s children as well as his own.

To those monuments, we would be well served to add monuments to the experience of the Black Americans who endured slavery and nonetheless made this nation their home–out of necessity yes, and with great burdens–but to the benefit and enrichment of us all. As I read recently, we Southerners are a big mixed up family, with white and black cousins and neighbors afraid to see themselves in each other because of a shared history that too often has divided and continues to divide us. It’s time to put up some new monuments that help to highlight those truths, and that help to bring us together rather than glorifying the things that separate us. As Michael Twitty writes:

“I dare to believe all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family but we are a family. We are unwilling inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption” (The Cooking Gene, xvii).



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