Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not Here You Won’t

Last evening National Capital Presbytery had a discussion on marriage. That’s certainly not news, though, as was noted in the introductions to the discussion, “it is long overdue.”
Because it’s far too late to make news, I won’t bore you with the “positions” that were articulated. At this point, most of us can make all of the arguments whether or not we agree with them. Courtesy of Pew Research Center we did see some interesting demographic data that no doubt surprised many members of the Presbytery if for no other reason than how the facts underscore how rapidly the culture is changing around us with respect to marriage.
The facts and the arguments are more or less interesting, I suppose, depending upon your knowledge base and opinions, but the tone of the evening was far more fascinating to me than the content. Because we were not debating an issue to be voted upon, the discussion had no winners or losers, and thus the evening felt far less anxious and stressful. Perhaps the fact that no votes were taken also meant that some stridently partisan voices (like mine) were quiet. For the most part, the “the usual suspects” did not lead, but, instead simply participated around tables to which we were randomly assigned.
After various perspectives were offered (that’s the not-news-worthy part) we were invited to talk with others at our tables prompted by a set of questions, the first of which was:
  • Where did your understanding of marriage come from?
At my table, that question prompted reflections about our respective parents and our own marriages, and that’s when the evening got interesting and profound. One person at our table grew up Roman Catholic and has been married for 29 years to a woman who grew up in a Presbyterian congregation in Alexandria. When he went to his priest to ask about getting married in the church, the priest said, “not here you won’t.” When his fiancé went to her pastor to ask about getting married in the church, the pastor said, “not here you won’t.”
Many of us at the meeting last night have performed weddings for couples who come from different faith backgrounds. The differences can certainly be hugely significant, but for most of us that significance would be the beginning of the conversation not the end. We can scarcely imagine saying “not here you won’t” to a straight couple that comes to us seeking, for all the right reasons, to get married in the church. But that is precisely the word that gay and lesbian couples hear from the church all of the time: “not here you won’t.”
Another person in our small circle noted that, as an African-American woman married for more than four decades to a white man, she had experienced first-hand the resistance to changing attitudes about marriage and that her husband had been threatened more than once because of their marriage.
Then she went on to tell us a remarkable, uniquely American story of change. Her great-grandmother, whom she had known and whom she remembered from her childhood, was the daughter of a woman produced by a union between a slave and slave-owner. She noted that “folks who aren’t supposed to be having sex have been doing it for a long time, and it’s nothing new!” She went on to tell us that a few years ago the white descendants of that slave-owner had tracked her family down when doing genealogical research, and that now they hold a joint family reunion of the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave-owners.
At the time when those two family lines first crossed no one could have imagined their joyous reunion just a few generations later. Indeed, had the slave and master sought to be wed, every church in the land would have told them, “not here you won’t.”

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