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Not until you give me your blessing

I have bad news for you. The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, sometimes known as the Peace Prayer or ‘Make me a channel of your peace,’ wasn’t written by St Francis in the twelfth century. It was written in 1912 by a French Catholic priest, Esther Bouquerel, and published in a small-circulation spiritual magazine. At the end of the First World War, the French Franciscan Étienne Benoît printed millions of copies of the prayer on a card that depicted St Francis on the back. A few years later an English translation was printed in a Quaker magazine in the US under the title A Prayer of St Francis of Assisi – and the rest is history. By the time the South African third order Franciscan Sebastian Temple wrote ‘Make me a channel’ in 1967 all connection with historical attribution was long gone.

Like the Prayer of St Francis, the connection between the blessing of same-sex unions and the controversy that surrounds them sometimes gets lost in sweeping assumptions and half-remembered history. I’m not attempting tonight to talk in any detail about marriage, to survey the scriptural terrain, or to offer any definitive statement. I’m simply going to explore some Old Testament themes that have hitherto been largely neglected. Some maintain that same-sex unions constitute a threat to historic heterosexual marriage. On the face of it it’s rather absurd to suggest that an institution could be placed in jeopardy because a whole new tranche of people want to join it. But something’s clearly under threat, even if that something isn’t marriage itself. Perhaps what’s really under threat are the multiple confusions, double standards and ambiguities that underwrite the compromise that has been marriage in the last few decades. 

Just to offer some examples: is marriage always, in every case, monogamous? Only in theory. Statistics suggest that 45% of married women and 55% of married men cheat on their spouses. Is marriage always lifelong? Clearly not, since around 40% of UK marriages end in divorce. Do marriages invariably bring forth children? Evidently not, whether by accident or design. Is church or society clear about what the relative roles of married couples should be, in relation to income, career development, housekeeping, and child-rearing, or are we all in fact completely at sea about such things, or perhaps instead swimming in a sea of hypocrisy? What is the place of erotic desire within marriage? Is it central, dangerous and safely contained, only there at the start, crucial and to be carefully maintained, or best not discussed? Is marriage akin to friendship, or completely different? 

These are the kinds of questions that are wholly or largely unresolved, and that make the onset of same-sex unions so threatening, because same-sex unions bring their own norms and ambiguities into this already complex and in large degree incoherent set of expectations and anomalies. On the face of it, why would any social group be so eager to join an institution that’s evidently so beleaguered and floundering? We don’t know if it’s monogamous, if it’s permanent, if it’s about children, what equality should look like, what the role of desire should be, or what love in fact means – but otherwise it’s great. In such circumstances one theologian speculates that there are four reasons why couples seek same-sex blessingsa.  He observes couples that celebrate at an anniversary (or as death draws near), who want to mark a sense of reconciliation with God, who seek the support of a community, or who are in fact trying to save their relationship. He ironically remarks that heterosexual couples seek marriage for broadly similar reasons. In other words, it’s not that we all know what regular marriage is, and same-sex unions are something irregular and undefined: it’s that we’re all scratching around for fixed points in the fields of love, desire, commitment, sex, faithfulness and family, and same-sex couples are simply highlighting the anomalies that already exist.

In such circumstances, what might blessing mean? I want to start by pointing out three things blessing certainly doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean a casual benevolent waft of goodwill. Think about when you sneeze, and a person beside you on the bus says, ‘Bless you.’ That’s a mixture of social habit and bland kindness. Recall the occasion when someone in the office is watching a YouTube video of a puppy being kind to a baby, and a passer-by says, patronisingly but sentimentally, ‘Awww – bless.’ Consider the moment when a friend goes out of their way to be considerate and you want to say something more than just ‘Thanks,’ so you say ‘Bless you.’ Blessing is about a lot more than such casual acknowledgements. But then second, blessing means something beyond the sense of an abundance of offspring, military advantage, and material goods. At the end of the book of Job, we’re told ‘The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys.’ (Job 42:12) So that’s all right then. All the sufferings – we can forget about them. Perhaps most significantly, what blessing doesn’t mean is the sense of a God whose fundamental purpose is to furnish us with plenty, comfort, and fortune – who is, in short, our joker to be played in difficult circumstances, our trump card in adversity, our get-out-of-jail token to bail us out when we mess up. 

So if blessing doesn’t mean these things, what does blessing mean? I want to speak briefly about three Old Testament notions that offer a truer picture of blessing, and might describe more accurately and less cynically what same-sex couples might actually be searching for when they ask for their relationships to be blessed. 

It might seem to be stating the obvious, but the first dimension of blessing is love. In Isaiah 43.4 God says to Israel, ‘You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.’ That’s the first thing we’re looking for when we seek a blessing, from God or from another person: that we may know that we are precious, honoured, and loved. I don’t know why that text isn’t more often used at weddings, because those three words say most of that the marriage service is wanting to say. You are precious: you are unique, wondrously made, fragile, glorious, of infinite value. You are honoured: respected, with dignity, to be treated properly, given thanks for, listened to, not taken for granted. You are loved: adored, desired, cherished, longed for, cradled. It’s no good to be honoured without being loved; that’s just kindness. It’s no good being loved without being honoured: that’s exploitative. LGBT+ people don’t want just to be loved, if that means being patronised, being regarded as an exception, living life as an indulged anomaly. LGBT+ people want to be seen as precious, honoured, and loved, with the right balance of justice and mercy, challenge and acceptance. 

And the second dimension of blessing is the redemption of hurt. To be blessed is to be able to look back into the most mysterious and complex parts of your personal history and, perhaps for the first time, find them not layers of curse or unexploded gelignite but storehouses of wisdom, sources of understanding, textures of depth and perception and soil for healing. Jacob is a complex figure in the Old Testament. His life is a search for reconciliation and blessing. In Genesis 32 a man comes and wrestles with him all night. It’s more or less a draw; the man pleads for Jacob to let him go; but Jacob says, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ And Jacob knows he has seen God face to face. He leaves the place, limping because the man had struck him on the hip socket. The wound becomes a sign of the blessing. Jacob becomes Israel, the one who strives with God. Israel is beginning to understand that this relationship means as much to God as it does to itself. What LGBT+ people are looking for in blessing is to make sense of a story that in many cases began with a sense of difference, may have involved rejection or even demonisation, could have included self-hatred, and invariably involved some level of secrecy, yet has come to embrace love, acceptance, joy and hope. The limp becomes a sign of blessing. God is in this place, though I never knew it. Blessing is about redemption of the past, as much as it’s about love in the present.
Which brings us to the third dimension of blessing, which is about vocation, and the future. I said at the start that I had some bad news about the Prayer of St Francis: that it wasn’t by St Francis. But I also have some good news: that it’s about you. It’s fundamentally about blessing, in this third sense. The great Mommy and Daddy of passages about blessing in the Old Testament is Genesis 12, where God makes seven promises to Abraham. The ones that really count are the middle one and the last one, number four and number seven: ‘You will be a blessing,’ and, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ In other words, ‘Make me a channel of your peace.’ None of us want to be rejected – we want to be respected, understood, and loved. None of us want to be fobbed off with a superficial and patronising acceptance – we want our past and our hurts to be integrated back into God’s story; we want to feel that our insight and experience is valuable and our struggle is part of God’s struggle. But beyond either of those things, we want to be useful, to be put to work, to be able to move past fixation on our own struggles and be able to enrich the life of those worse off than us. That’s what vocation is – the moment when you realise God’s love for you has redeemed your past so that all the previously unexplained and unresolved incidents of your life now cluster back in in such a way that they can be a blessing to others. 

You’ve known hatred; through you the Holy Spirit can turn hatred into love. You’ve known discord; through you the Holy Spirit can turn discord into harmony. You’ve known doubt; through you the Holy Spirit can turn doubt into faith. You’ve known despair; through you the Holy Spirit can turn despair into hope. You’ve known sadness; through you the Holy Spirit can turn sadness into joy. That’s why a couple comes for blessing: to inherit the mantle of Abraham, and become a sacrament with whom and through whom many others will find a blessing.
Let’s not fear same-sex couples will destroy heterosexual marriage; conventional marriage is fast becoming unconventional without any assistance from elsewhere. Let’s not be put off by the weakness and folly to which we’re all prone: people seek a blessing for many ambivalent reasons. Let’s not be waylaid by inadequate views of blessing – it’s not necessarily a casual, worldly, or instrumental thing. Let’s see the call for same-sex blessings as an opportunity to renew our understanding of what blessing really involves: a request to discover what love is, what healing encompasses, and what it means to be an instrument of God’s peace. 

Mark D. Jordan, Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage (Chicago: University of Chicago press 2005) 123-27.