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cities from around the world tell the story
with thanks to the New York Times for their collection of photos….
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev’d Justin Welby, has called for a renewal of prayer and the life of religious communities, saying “there has never been a renewal of the Church in Western Europe” without it.
In a major speech this week at a conference organised by the charismatic church organisation New Wine, Archbishop Welby said there had been “a fresh outpouring of the Spirit in worship” over the past 10 years, saying: “it’s been the most amazing thing to see the depth of worship growing and deepening.”
After reading from Acts 4: 32-37:
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Archbishop Justin said:
Now, first of all, if you’ll excuse me being quite impolite, the trouble with New Wineskins is that they get older. I’m looking around. I look in the mirror. It’s a bit frightening. That may seem shocking and rude, but I’m afraid it’s true, and it is the pattern of all renewal in the Church. As they get older, they accumulate bits and pieces that attach to them; they get baggage.
Now, some of you may have heard this story, but it bears repeating because it’s true, and my apologies if you’ve heard it before. A friend of ours living in Paris, called John Moore – a very old friend, now ordained – used to travel a great deal, and particularly to the United States. We saw them in Paris after he’d just come back from a trip in the middle of winter, and he was telling us what had happened at Kennedy Airport, which is always pretty chaotic.
There’d been snow; the flights were late, everybody was bad-tempered. The person in front of him in the check-in queue was horrendously rude to the poor woman who was doing the check-ins. He didn’t like his seat; he didn’t like the fact the plane was late – it wasn’t her fault; he didn’t like the film that was going to be showed – it was the days when you just had one. He didn’t like anything, and he was really, really unpleasant.
John, who is always courteous; when he got to the front, said, “I am so sorry; I feel ashamed to be a passenger when other passengers treat you like that.” She obviously liked him, and she said, “Well, there’s bad news and good news, Sir. The bad news is that he’s on the same flight as you, going to Paris. The good news is I’ve sent his luggage to Tokyo.”
Now, there are a number of lessons there… One of which is always be polite when checking in on an aeroplane, but that wasn’t the one I was thinking of. But actually, with churches and with movements, there’s a point where we need someone who will do that for us. Because we accumulate baggage, and it pulls us down.
As someone once said to me, when things in the Church are not going well, or in bits of the Church historically, God does not repair; He renews. He doesn’t just stitch it up; He gives us something new. New Wine has been one of the great sources of renewal for the last 25 years. Or, if I were to put it less comfortably, a quarter of a century–it makes it sound longer.
So much has changed in that time. There is a genuine desire in New Wine to be at the front of the wave. There always has been. It’s been one of the characteristics; “If God is in it, we want to be on the front of it.” We have seen that, in our family and in the churches I’ve been in.
Anyone from Southam here? Say that again, I can’t… Oh, back there! Typical blooming Southam; they always sit at the back. That’s my parish church, that is; they’re great. Very nice to see you.
But when we came, 15 years ago, for year after year, we learned from here time and time again. And as a family, when we were working in churches where things were often relatively slow, we used to come here, and benefited hugely. Indeed, it was our lifeline, spiritually. Working in small churches, in places that some people think are far away from the great centres of life – they’re not, but some people think that – is a matter of step by step. To spend a week every year, as we did for 12 years, at New Wine, getting a fresh vision; being prayed for; learning; being part of the community, was wonderful.
Less wonderful was trench-foot; babies in buggies above the swirling floods; freezing cold; cooking under a gazebo – which leaked – and conducting family “discussions” in the kind of whisper that can be heard three tents away! Some of you know what I’m talking about.
But it was worth it. Far more than worth it. We remembered what God does, who He is, and by the grace of God found the courage to take risks and step out, and see change. But where now?
In these years, this quarter of a century, the world has been changing dramatically. Attitudes to women have changed, including our own, for the better. Listen to talks and comments from about 1990 and the cringe factor is often through the roof. So have a lot of other things. Above all, in this country, we find ourselves in a revolution of culture and expectation which challenges the churches at the heart of their being and understanding and values. That is nothing new, and whenever the world has mounted a great challenge to the Church, God has moved in renewal and revival. We may be pressed down, but we are always hopeful.
We expect great things, and we expect in the future, in this land, through the Church, greater things than in the past. As Jesus said, greater things than these, if we are obedient and responsive; if we’re on the front of the wave. Look back in history across Europe, at the history of God visiting and renewing His Church in times of change and crisis.
In the fifth century AD, the Western Roman Empire, which had stretched for half a millennium, from what is now the Balkans to Hadrian’s Wall, covering North Africa, fell to invading tribes from the east. The population of Western Europe may have dropped by as much as two thirds. The economy collapsed by perhaps 90 per cent or more. Peace evaporated; security disappeared, for nearly 1,000 years. It was the Dark Ages.
Into that time came one of the most extraordinary Christian leaders of all times: Benedict; Saint Benedict. He started a monastery. Didn’t go terribly well at first; the first one he started; after a few months, the monks found him a bit tough, so they tried to poison him. I just get hate mail, but then I’m no Benedict. He lived in a cave for a while, and then started another monastery. When he did that, he wrote a rule; the Rule of Saint Benedict; a rule for monks. You can get hold if it; it’s very easily got hold of. It’s about 40, 50 pages; quick read, and its first word is, “Listen”. Not listen to each other, not listen to him; listen to Jesus Christ. It’s all about getting to know Jesus and conform our lives to His.
The monasteries grew and spread. There were a few incidental benefits to what he did. He set a pattern of study, work and prayer, and more or less accidentally saved learning. He preserved western civilisation. They started the universities. They started hospitals and schools. They re-founded diplomacy and stopped wars. They renewed music and worship, and spread the gospel as evangelists across the whole of Europe in the most dangerous places imaginable. They built many of our cathedrals as monuments to a faithful God, who calls people back to Him. But they never tried to do that; that was accidental, it just sort of happened on the side. They tried to follow Jesus.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, there was another vast crisis. The papacy was in its most corrupt phase. The Arab armies had pushed north and conquered Spain. They pushed into the Balkans, and many thought they’d conquer the whole of Europe and wipe out the Christian faith. The human answer of the Crusades disgraced the gospel with its terrible cruelty. Then another extraordinary figure appeared: Francis. He called people to follow Christ in love and poverty. He challenged the invaders. He started new communities. He went to the headquarters of the invaders. He preached and he served, and the Church found new life.
We can go on. In the 16th century, God raised people up who translated the Bible in the face of the challenge of the Renaissance, which challenged our whole understanding of who God was. The Bible was translated into people’s own languages, and home groups were started. Although the Church got caught up in terrible scandals of war with each other, in His grace, God opened the way to another renewal.
There were bad moments. There’s a dungeon at Lambeth Palace. It’s currently unoccupied, but there’s always space. In it, William Tyndale was held. The rings are still attached to the walls to which he was chained. He translated the Bible into English and died for it. The Church found renewal.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Industrial Revolution swept away our social structures. Wesley came. He formed small groups that followed a method; the Methodists, and we saw the greatest revival in our history amongst the urban poor, and we did not have the revolution that France had.
There are a million more examples. We can be like the psalmist of Psalm 107, recounting the many disasters, and ending each one by saying, “They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them from their distress.” This is our song. A God who saves His people; a God who changes His world. We are His people, and we may be hard-pressed, but we are always hopeful.
Today, we face another crisis. As in the past, we cannot see the outcome. Like the apostles in Acts, Chapter 4, the passage we read was just after they had faced their first bout of serious persecution. They come back and report to the believers what had happened, and the believers turn in prayer. The Lord shakes the place where they are, and you get that extraordinary reading: “They were of one heart and mind; they held all in common.”
A few weeks ago, I sat in the House of Lords, listening to the debate on the same-sex marriage act. I took part; I spoke and voted against it, in case you wonder. I spoke against, and I voted against, but I listened, and I heard the roar of revolution.
It came not merely from those one would expect in favour of the bill, but from every side of the House; Conservative and Labour and Liberal and mixed; from every age; from every opinion. Those of us against the act were utterly crushed in the voting again and again and again. More people turned out to vote in the House of Lords than at any time since the Second World War, and they voted against any opportunity to defeat the bill.
Let me be clear: popular opinion is not a cause for changing obedience to God. But let me be equally clear: an overwhelming change that affects the opinions of the majority of people, and especially of younger people – even those who come here and to similar events – is a revolution to which we must pay attention. Not to do so would be as foolish as Benedict pretending the Roman Empire still stood, or Wesley ignoring the Industrial Revolution and the urban poor.
The revolution is not only about sexuality. In other areas, there is a revolution in our economy, and the Church has responded faster and better than anyone else to this revolution. The latest economic outlook forecasts that government spending will be constrained for the next 50 years. World power is shifting. Our society looks different. Medicine gives new possibility. Science moves on ever more rapidly. What do Christians do? They are first to form food banks; first to educate children; first to set up hospices; to care for the poor and ministry with the poor, and that pleases the Spirit of God. We have shown and respond, and this great movement of New Wine has been at the forefront.
But did you notice something in that quick historical tour? That God moves through prayerful communities. People listened to the spirit; sought first the Kingdom; looked for intimacy with Christ. The US Army gave us the expression, “Collateral damage”, which means killing people you did not mean to target. People seeking Christ create collateral blessing. That means changing the world for the better in ways you could not have predicted.
When asked what my own priorities are, I start with renewal of prayer and communities of prayer; what, in the jargon, are called “Religious communities”. Communities that live with a rule in the sense that Wesley had one; Francis had one; Benedict had one. All over Europe, new communities of prayer are starting. They have women and men living together; they have families in them. They have women leading communities with Roman Catholic priests in them. They have communities that live together or just meet together for meals and sharing. Like the people we read about in the Acts, they often hold all in common. They bind themselves together for a few years; usually not for life. Above all, they seek first to know and love Jesus.
There has never been a renewal of the Church in Western Europe without a renewal of prayer and the life of religious communities; never. If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer. It starts with a new spirit of prayer, using all the traditions, ancient and modern, of prayer. When it comes, it will be linked to what has gone before, but it will look different, because it is a new renewal for new times. God’s created community is perfectly designed for its time and place. It always comes from below; almost always. It comes from Christians seeking Christ, and is often – says I, looking at the one bishop. I can see from here – is often opposed by church leaders, and especially archbishops.
We must have a new movement of prayer, and I commit myself to opposing it, because that seems to work. We must have, out of that prayer, lives changed. The apostles went back and reported their persecution. The people prayed and they were shaken. Fear neither hindered their testimony nor caused them to become negative and inward-looking. They were more and more the people of good news. When the Church is real, people see the real Jesus.
The last few days have been astonishing, with this affair over the payday lenders. For a start, the positive comments have outweighed the negative, which, in the letters that come to me, is unusual. What people have commented on is a Church speaking for the poor. When the Church is real, people pay attention. Anne spoke about that very well and powerfully this morning. When we are what we should be; when we deal with issues of gossip and slander and hatred and power-seeking and put them aside.
What are we going to do about it? The change has to start with us. We have to be transparent; accountable; self-aware. It’s one of the reasons in recent weeks that I’ve spoken about safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults. We cannot pretend that the Church has got it right. Everybody knows it hasn’t, so let’s stop pretending and be honest, and repent, and change, because people will see what is right.
Whatever our attitude to the sexuality issue; wherever we stand on this, we cannot pretend that throughout the Church, our attitude to gay people has always been right. We have not loved them as Christ loves us, and that is the benchmark. Some of us have. Many of you have, with great power. Many haven’t; let’s be honest. We are not saints, calling people – we are saints in one sense – but in the popular sense of people who don’t sin, we are not saints, calling people into a place away from the world. We are sinners, calling other sinners to know and love Jesus Christ.
Look what happens as a result to those believers. Having been a Jewish church, in a community that for 500 years had been locked into the belief that non-Jews were outside, they become a people that reaches out to gentiles and Samaritans; that draws them into fellowship with Christ, and this flows from lives lived in reconciliation, with God and with each other. Where diversity is accepted as the gift of God of infinite variety, confronting a world that likes uniform certainty. Our God has created a universe with more variety than all science will ever begin to scratch the surface of, and in our world, we like to put things in neat boxes.
If we’re honest, we’re not always good, as people, at reconciliation, except with people with whom we agree. Or to be accurate in my case, who agree with me. We look carefully, and we see someone, and we say, “Well, yes, he’s alright, Fred. But actually his analysis isn’t quite the same as mine, so actually he’s outside.”
We forget. We forget that my sister, my brother, is never my enemy. We’re told to love our enemies. We’re told to love our neighbour, and we’re told to love each other. If anyone can spot the cracks, let me know, because I haven’t found anyone who can fall through them yet.
Jesus prayed that we might be one. He says this in John: 17 in the last seven verses, nine times, “So that the world may know”. Do we want the world to know who Jesus is? Then we need to be a reconciled people, who reconcile the world. We are reconciled to Christ. We need to be overwhelmed by reconciliation, converted and converting others. Because Jesus died for us when we were His enemies.
Let me give you an example. In 2002, there were riots in a city in northern Nigeria called Kaduna. I went at the end of them; I was working in that kind of work, and in that area. They were huge riots; several thousand dead. I met a number of clergy who’d been caught up in them; who’d lost friends and family and churches. One of them was particularly bitter. He used to preach a sermon in the ruins of his church, teaching people how to disassemble, clean and reassemble an AK47, rather than preaching from the Bible. Probably got more attention than I do, but still not a good thing. He came to the meetings that we had on reconciliation embittered, reasonably. God touched his heart. It took several months; through the scriptures, God spoke to him.
He went to the local imam, and found out where their baker was of the Muslim community, and his community started buying their bread there. The imam came and said, “Why are you doing this? How can we help?” He said, “Well, you can stop people coming round the ruins of our church from your community and lobbing petrol bombs through the ruined windows on Sunday morning, because it sort of disrupts the service. The imam said, “Well… We’ll do that if you come on Friday and stop your lot doing that to our mosque.”
They started there; started with buying bread; stopping attacking each other. Two years later, in that small part of Kaduna, they were digging a new sewage system together. Still arguing furiously, but not killing each other. The reconciled people had overflowed with such miraculous reconciliation that their enemies were able to work with them.
That is the Church that people recognise; a church that overflows. I think one of the things that worries me most is the remorseless power of negative religion in this country. The more we harp on the negative and fail to show love for one-another, and for Jesus Christ, to proclaim service to the poor; ministry to the poor, the more we give in to those who oppose the gospel.
I saw – you probably saw it yourself – a YouGov opinion poll a few weeks ago. 58 per cent of people under 25 didn’t say they opposed the church, or faith; they said it was completely irrelevant. Opposition is one thing; indifference is far more dangerous. That kept me awake at night. “Who cares what these people think?” was their attitude.
So thirdly, my priority – first: prayer and renewal of the religious life; secondly, reconciliation, within the church and overflowing into the world around us; and lastly, making new disciples. If we are to grow the Church numerically; if we are to find life in all its fullness for many of our fellow citizens, we must be the people who show hope in the face of death; steadfastness in suffering, because we overflow with the good news of Jesus to those around us.
A friend of mine is gravely ill at the moment. He’s younger than me. He’s a church leader. He has children, and a probably inoperable cancer. In his hospital ward, nurses come to sit with him, because they say it is the most peaceful place in the hospital. He is winning people to faith in Christ, not through any words, but because he is overflowing with the presence of Christ.
Living Christians make new disciples because in all circumstances, the spirit spills over the edge of their lives. We need evangelists, witnesses, ordinary people, talking and living out of the knowledge of God. God is faithful. He always has been, and He always will be. He will hear our prayer and see our need, and bring what is required.
New Wine has done much; has been a great channel of the grace of God; has changed and trained two generations of leaders. But we are in a time of revolution, and we need another revolution in the Church. What it looks like, I do not know, but I want to be in it. What it feels like is Jesus-centred, fire-filled, peace-proclaiming, disciple-creating, and the Church word for this revolution is revival.
Let us stand for prayer.
Episcopal priest and activist from Pasadena, Calif.
In November 2003 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to ordain the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. For the record, V. Gene Robinson was not the first gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, much less Christendom, but he was the first one to be honest about it. And so his ordination as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire included pomp, circumstance and metal detectors. The assembled crowd included clergy, choirs and CNN. And as we filed into the arena where the service would be held, we were greeted by ushers, reporters and bomb sniffing dogs.
In 2003 we were a country where marriage equality was still a dream, “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was in force and the president of the United States was backing a federal marriage amendment that would write discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans into the U.S. Constitution. And we were a church with an organized and mobilized conservative bloc reaching into their deep pockets in an effort to turn the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire into the schism that they hadn’t managed to pull off in the 1970s, when they had tried to split the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women.
What a difference nine years makes.
In November 2012 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to celebrate the retirement of Bishop Gene Robinson after nine years as their bishop. An ice sculpture of the diocesan logo took center stage on the buffet table as ladies in plaid skirts and gentlemen in blue blazers sipped tea and munched on brie. Gene circulated around the room hugging necks, posing for pictures and receiving the thanks of a diocese grateful for nine years of work and witness together. It was an afternoon event marked by nothing so much as its quintessentially Episcopalian ordinariness — and there was not a metal detector or a reporter in sight.
And in 2012 we are a country where nine states (and the District of Columbia) have civil marriage equality, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed over a year ago and the president of the United States not only has “evolved” to become an outspoken supporter of marriage equality but is leading the charge to send DOMA (the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”) into the dustbin of history. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church has come out on the other side of the inclusion wars with a robust commitment to full inclusion for LGBT people that includes a General Convention that voted overwhelmingly to support federal marriage equality and to approve liturgies for the blessing of same-sex relationships.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” but he didn’t say it bends easily or quickly, nor did he say there wouldn’t be some cracks along the way. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” a song that includes this wisdom: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
What the Diocese of New Hampshire did on June 7, 2003, when they elected V. Gene Robinson as their ninth bishop — and what the Episcopal Church did on Nov. 2, 2012, in consecrating him — was create a crack in systemic homophobia that let the light in: the light of equality, justice and compassion that shone far beyond our little corner of Christianity in some powerful and prophetic ways.
In his letter to Bishop Robinson on the occasion of his retirement, President Obama wrote:
As you reflect on your many accomplishments, I hope you take tremendous pride in all you have done to fight AIDS, poverty and intolerance around the world. Your efforts remind us that we all have the power to create a better world when we do God’s work here on earth and your legacy will inspire generations to come.
I not only know that will be true, but I know that it is already true in the legacy that Bishop Robinson leaves as he concludes his tenure as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Ever an advocate for the most marginalized, Bishop Robinson has asked that donations in his name be made to support a chaplaincy program for the New Hampshire Prison for Women, which he describes in this moving video clip:
The Bible tells us in Matthew 25 that Jesus is a whole lot more interested in how we treat “the least of these” than he is in our theologies or our liturgies, our doctrines or our dogmas. And so the legacy that Bishop Robinson leaves as he concludes his ministry as Bishop of New Hampshire is so much greater than just being the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. It is a legacy of using the platform of privilege he has been given to continue to make a difference — to continue to get the light through the cracks — for absolutely anyone who has been told that they are outside the light of God’s love.
As same-sex couples march down the aisle in New York, the author reflects on his own life, love, and pursuit of happiness.
As a child, when I thought of the future, all I could see was black. I wasn’t miserable or depressed. I was a cheerful boy, as happy playing with my posse of male friends in elementary school as I was when I would occasionally take a day by myself in the woodlands that surrounded the small town I grew up in. But when I thought of the distant future, of what I would do and be as a grown-up, there was a blank. I simply didn’t know how I would live, where I would live, who I could live with. I knew one thing only: I couldn’t be like my dad. For some reason, I knew somewhere deep down that I couldn’t have a marriage like my parents.
It’s hard to convey what that feeling does to a child. In retrospect, it was a sharp, displacing wound to the psyche. At the very moment you become aware of sex and emotion, you simultaneously know that for you, there is no future coupling, no future family, no future home. In the future, I would be suddenly exiled from what I knew: my family, my friends, every household on television, every end to every romantic movie I’d ever seen. My grandmother crystallized it in classic and slightly cruel English fashion: “You’re not the marrying kind,” she said. It was one of those things that struck a chord of such pain, my pride forced me to embrace it. “No, I’m not,” I replied. “I like my freedom.”
This wasn’t a lie. But it was a dodge, and I knew it. And when puberty struck and I realized I might be “one of them,” I turned inward. It was a strange feeling—both the exhilaration of sexual desire and the simultaneous, soul-splintering panic that I was going to have to live alone my whole life, lying or euphemizing, concocting some public veneer to hide a private shame. It was like getting into an elevator you were expecting to go up, the doors closing, and then suddenly realizing you were headed down a few stories. And this was when the future went black for me, when suicide very occasionally entered my mind, when my only legitimate passion was getting A grades, because at that point it was all I knew how to do. I stayed away from parties; I didn’t learn to drive; I lost contact with those friends whose interest suddenly became girls; and somewhere in me, something began to die.
They call it the happiest day of your life for a reason. Getting married is often the hinge on which every family generation swings open. In my small-town life, it was far more important than money or a career or fame. And I could see my grandmother’s point: the very lack of any dating or interest in it, the absence of any intimate relationships, or of any normal teenage behavior, did indeed make me seem just a classic loner. But I wasn’t. Because nobody is. “In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love,” as the poet Philip Larkin put it, as well as the fear of never being loved. That, as Larkin added, nothing cures. And I felt, for a time, incurable.
You can have as many debates about gay marriage as you want, and over the last 22 years of campaigning for it, I’ve had my share. You can debate theology, and the divide between church and state, the issue of procreation, the red herring of polygamy, and on and on. But what it all really comes down to is the primary institution of love. The small percentage of people who are gay or lesbian were born, as all humans are, with the capacity to love and the need to be loved. These things, above everything, are what make life worth living. And unlike every other minority, almost all of us grew up among and part of the majority, in families where the highest form of that love was between our parents in marriage. To feel you will never know that, never feel that, is to experience a deep psychic wound that takes years to recover from. It is to become psychologically homeless. Which is why, I think, the concept of “coming out” is not quite right. It should really be called “coming home.”
In the end, I had to abandon my home in order to find it again and know the place for the first time. I left England just after my 21st birthday for America and its simple foundational promise: the pursuit of happiness. And I gave myself permission to pursue it. I will never forget the moment I first kissed another man; it was as if a black-and-white movie suddenly turned into color. I will never forget the first time I slept next to another man—or rather tried to sleep. Never for a moment did I actually feel or truly believe any of this was wrong, let alone an “intrinsic evil,” as my strict Catholicism told me that it was. It was so natural, so spontaneous, so joyous, it could no more be wrong than breathing. And as I experienced intimacy and love for the first time as an adult, all that brittleness of the gay adolescent, all that white-knuckled embarrassment, all those ruses and excuses and dark, deep depressions lifted. Yes, this was happiness. And America for me will always represent it.
And that is why marriage equality is, to my mind, the distillation of America. If you’re a heterosexual reading this, have you ever considered for a millisecond that your right to pursue happiness did not include your right to marry the person you love? And that is why, over the centuries, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to marry for everyone, citizen or even traveler, as a core, inalienable right, bestowed by the Declaration of Independence itself. The court has ruled that the right to marry precedes the Bill of Rights; it has decided that prisoners on death row have a right to marry, even if they can never consummate it. It has ruled that no limitations may be put on it for anyone—deadbeat dads, multiple divorcées, felons, noncitizens. Hannah Arendt wrote in 1959 that “the right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right … Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.” And, of course, after a long struggle, interracial marriage was finally declared a constitutional right, in perhaps the most sweeping ruling ever, with the court declaring that civil marriage was one of the “basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival.” Barack Obama is a historic American figure not because he is black, but because he is the son of a black father and a white mother. He is the living embodiment of the pursuit of happiness that marriage represented.
I still didn’t think it would ever happen to me. I thought I was too emotionally damaged, my emotions and sexuality severed by all those years of loneliness and arrested emotional development. I thought my heart had too much scar tissue, and I could live my life well enough with just friendship and occasional sexual encounters or dates. But when I first set eyes on my husband, I knew I had lucked out. Some things you simply know. And when we finally got married, a few years later, and our mothers walked us down the makeshift garden aisle, and my sister gave the reading through tears, and one of our beagles howled through the vows, and my father put his arms around me and hugged, I did not hear civilization crumble. I felt a wound being healed. It is a rare privilege to spend your adult life fighting for a right that was first dismissed as a joke, only finally to achieve it in six states and Washington, D.C. But how much rarer to actually stumble upon someone who could make it a reality. And to have it happen to me in my own lifetime! This joy is compounded, deepened, solidified by the knowledge that somewhere, someone just like I was as a kid will be able to look to the future now and not see darkness—but the possibility of love and home. That, I realized, was really what I had been fighting for for two decades: to heal the child I had once been—and the countless children in the present and future whose future deserved, needed, begged for a model of commitment and responsibility and love.
And that is why it has been such a tragedy that conservatives decided this was a battle they were determined to fight against, an advance they were dedicated to reversing. It made no sense to me. Here was a minority asking for responsibility and commitment and integration. And conservatives were determined to keep them in isolation, stigmatized and kept on an embarrassing, unmentionable margin, where gays could be used to buttress the primacy of heterosexuality. We were for them merely a drop shadow for heterosexuality. What they could not see was that the conservative tradition of reform and inclusion, of social change through existing institutions, of the family and personal responsibility, all led inexorably toward civil marriage for gays.
Yes, the main stumbling block was religion. But we were not talking of religious marriage and were more than eager to insist, as in New York state, on the inviolable religious freedom of churches, mosques, and synagogues to retain their bans on gay marriage. We were talking about civil marriage—and in that respect, religious tradition had long since ceased to apply. Civil divorce changed marriage far more drastically for far more people than allowing the small percentage who were excluded to be included. And no one doubted an atheist’s right to marry, outside of any church or any religion, just as no one doubted the marriages of childless couples, or infertile ones. In fact, every single argument against marriage equality for gays collapsed upon inspection. And when the data showed that in the era of gay marriage, straight marriage had actually strengthened somewhat, divorce rates had declined, and marriages lasted longer, even those who worried about unintended consequences conceded that the argument was essentially over. And that is why it remains so appropriate that George W. Bush’s solicitor general, Ted Olson, would lead the legal fight against Proposition 8 in California; that a Reagan-appointed judge, Anthony Kennedy, would be the foremost Supreme Court justice affirming gay and lesbian equality; and that in Albany, in the end, the winning votes came from Republicans who voted their conscience.
Of course this is new and not so new. For a long time, gays and lesbians braver than I was were effectively married and lived together, risking violence and opprobrium and isolation. For decades these bonds existed, and we knew of them even if we never spoke of them. I saw them up close as a young man in the darkest years of the AIDS plague. I saw spouses holding their dying husbands, cradling them at the hour of their death, inserting catheters, cleaning broken bodies, tending to terrified souls. This proved beyond any doubt for me that gay couples were as capable of as much love and tenacity and tenderness and fidelity as heterosexual couples. And when I heard their bonds denigrated or demonized, dismissed or belittled, the sadness became a kind of spur. For so long, so much pain. For so many, so much grief compounded by stigma. But we did not just survive the plague. We used it to forge a new future. And in the years of struggle, as more and more heterosexuals joined us, we all began finally to see that this was not really about being gay. It was about being human.
Just like being gay is no longer necessarily about being an outsider. It is about being an American.
Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for this inspiring sharing of his journey and for his continued voice!