By Rev. Carmen Emerson
One of the joys of being an ordained minister is to conduct religious ceremonies honoring love, covenant and commitment of one life to another life. One of the profound privileges of being a minister ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition is our Congregational and Denominational support for marriage equality — meaning that I will not and cannot be “defrocked” for performing a religious ceremony of covenant and commitment for same-sex couples.
Today, as I rejoice in our Supreme Court’s decision to strike down as unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, I am thinking of the same-sex couples for whom I have performed religious ceremonies of covenant and commitment, and the heterosexual couples for whom I have performed religious ceremonies of covenant and commitment — the only difference being a government-issued piece of paper recognizing the latter couple as legally married.
And yet, I prepare for both ceremonies in exactly the same way. I do my best to create a personal and meaningful ceremony of covenant and commitment for each couple, but as an ordained minister I am even more concerned about what happens AFTER the wedding day: I am concerned about the long-term spiritual, emotional and mental health of the partners in the relationship, and their capacities to tend self, one another, and the relationship itself.
And so when I am asked to perform a ceremony of covenant and commitment or a legal marriage, I ask the exact same questions. I first want to know “Why?” — or more specifically, “Why each other?” Can they tell me, without flourish or romance, why they believe they can commit to the other person, and why they believe they can count on one another when money is tight and the rent is past due; when the sink is full of dirty dishes and both the refrigerator and the gas tank are empty; when the baby has croup and the school called because there’s a discipline problem with the kids; and the dog has thrown up on the rug; and on and on the list goes — and anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship will recognize, can add their own issues, to “the list”! I need to know what will hold you together in those times, because romantic love will not be enough.
I want to know what you have discovered about yourself that you always wanted to know but could never articulate until you entered this relationship. How are you different with this person? How would you be different without this person? Having known and loved him/her, having been loved by him/her, is the “with” worth the possible “without”?
I want to know what it is about him/her that inspires you to be a better person. What is worth sacrificing for the person you love? What is worth risking for the person you love? What is worth reaching for, together, now that you’ve discovered one another?
Most importantly, I want to know how you will each tend and support the emotional and spiritual lives of one another, as well as take quiet time for yourself, as you begin a lifetime’s journey of growth and change, together.
And the truth is this: Thoughtful and honest responses to these questions are not reliant upon the gender or the sexual orientation of the partners seeking witness for a lifetime commitment to one another. Thoughtful and honest responses are reliant upon mature hearts and minds preparing to make a declaration of their love of, respect for, and commitment to one another’s continued unfolding as human beings desirous and deserving of a loving and fulfilling life with the partner of their choosing.
And THAT is the information that assures me I can plan and conduct a religious ceremony of covenant and commitment — not a document issued by a legal entity that has never bothered to ask such questions, but the couple’s individual, heartfelt and truthful response to such questions that an ordained minister has the responsibility to ask. It is my profound privilege that I get to follow my pastoral inquiry with either a ceremony of covenant and commitment, or a legal marriage — and I look forward to the day when there is no legal distinction between the two and the spirit of covenant and commitment is present in both!
For every religious argument made against equal marriage, there is an equally valid religious argument in support of equal marriage. For every impassioned argument that equal marriage is somehow perverted and therefore erodes traditional marriage and family life, there are equally impassioned arguments (and actual proof) that infidelity, domestic violence, neglect, oppression, addiction, and plain old disrespect are sufficient unto themselves in the erosion of traditional marriage and family life.
The emotional and physical intimacies of my traditional marriage are private, and the responsibility of my husband and myself. In other words: they are none of anyone else’s business and I have yet to meet a healthy hetero or healthy same-sex couple willing to publicly air such private and tender matters. A healthy, respectful, and loving relationship between committed and consenting adults is not perverted — be they hetero or same-sex couples — and it is not moral relativism to support such healthy, respectful, and loving relationships between committed and consenting adults.
However, excessive imagining and concern about the emotional and physical intimacies of another relationship does seem perverted to me, and it also strikes me that fear and judgment about another couple’s relationship are at best a distraction from and at worst an unhealthy substitute for tending one’s own relationship.
If consenting adults love each other and commit to building and tending a life of love and respect for one another, and for the children that may come into their lives, such loving commitment cannot help but inure to the common good. We are and we do our best when we love and are loved. I support marriage equality as a voter and as an ordained minister who trusts in a loving and unfolding Creation. I know that I have been called to the service of Love in all ways it is made manifest in the here and now by human beings seeking to be and to do our best in a lonely and divided world, by human beings seeking to love one another as we are loved by the holy spirit of love, life’s most creative force!
Emerson is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Meadville.