Al Fischer is a music teacher in a Catholic school and the music director at the church where he and his family are members. Actually, Al used to be a music teacher in a Catholic school and used to direct the music at his church. When word got out that Al was headed to New York to legally wed his partner of 20 years (Charlie Robin), the school fired him. And when the press got wind of “popular teacher fired for planning gay wedding”, the church fired him too.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
When I came out as a lesbian, the church where I am on staff didn’t fire me. And when I announced that I wanted to marry my partner of just about a year, my church went with me to Iowa to celebrate. In fact, when a reporter from the Riverfront Times wanted to write about our the story, my church said, “come with us!” (and she did!) But stories like Al’s remind me that what I experienced is really quite unique and oh so very special.
In fairness it wasn’t, and isn’t, always easy for churches to stand in the precipice between the way the world used to be and the way it is today. Like any institution, churches like familiarity and exist to self perpetuate. Change comes very slowly to institutions, and as change unfurls with warp speed in our information soaked culture, it is incredibly difficult for most of us to keep up.
Our churches are reeling with the implications, many of us are still holding hymn books that are new (three decades ago) and assuming that high tech means having a sound system that allows the aging ears to hear the sermon. Still grappling with gender language for God, we are totally unseated by the so-called progressive conversations that swap verbs for nouns when talking about the sacred and make a distinction between being spiritual and being religious. Socially the pressures are even more acute and it is here that we see the strongest backlash. The sacred line in the sand is motherhood and apple pie or, in a word, patriarchy.
We see the attempt to hold the line for patriarchy in a number of venues today. Nowhere is this clearer than the assault on women’s reproductive health and choice. While churches have been the backbone of the anti-abortion movement, it is stunning to see church folk line up to also limit access to contraceptives! Same-gender marriage is a total insult to patriarchy as it denies the basic framework necessary for patriarchy to function. So it is perhaps not surprising that even as the majority of Americans concede that same-gender marriage is a basic human right, the bulk of American Christendom continues to stand firmly opposed.
To be sure, same gender couples that dare to expect the same rights and privileges afforded to everybody else are still something of an oddity. Let’s face it; Bride magazine still assumes that the hand holding Mrs. Right’s is going to be Mr.’s. The wedding industry, to which the church is (for better or worse) inexorably linked, makes its bread and butter on heterosexuality. Simply allowing gay folk in the door is big stuff for most modern churches, respecting and now even condoning same-gender marriage is still the niche of the very left.
This past week a judge in Texas announced that she would no longer preside at opposite-gender weddings. As long as the law of the land (Texas-style) precludes her own participation in the ceremony with a partner of her choosing, she’s simply going to sit this one out. I remember a few years back when some of my clergy colleagues suggested that we, as clergy, refuse to sign all marriage licenses until we can sign licenses for all of our couples. Although the challenge was indeed compelling and several of us at church discussed the implications, I wasn’t that courageous. I have deep respect for this Texas jurist.
One approach is to walk away from the tradition, but theologically, I’m with Al and Charlie. I think marriage is not only a right and privilege, I believe that it is a sacred covenant that I want not only for my own relationship but also for all of our families. Knowing what I do today, I would not intentionally deny the blessing of marriage to anyone, gay or straight.
As Al and Charlie head for New York next week, Ed and Scott are filling another bus to headed to Iowa and Maryland just enacted legislation making marriage legal in one more state. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) As we move along the winding arc, I can hear the spirit calling in the front and feel the pull of the church holding the rear guard. Together, however slowly, we will get there.
In the meantime, I am one St. Louis pastor grateful for the witness offered by Al Fischer and Charlie Robin. As we said in Iowa last July, Mazel tov!