L. William Countryman is a priest in the Episcopal Church and professor of Biblical Studies at The Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. He is the author of "Gifted by Otherness" and other books on gay spirituality and sexual ethics. We talked to him recently about the sacraments and gay marriage.

The recent Texas sodomy decision by the Supreme Court, Canada's decision to allow gay marriages and the movement here for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage have framed the question in strictly legal terms. What is the spiritual component of gay marriage?
The spiritual component is basically the same whether you are heterosexual or homosexual. The intimate sexual relationship in a marriage or partnership is one of the most important experiences human beings have in transcending our individual limitations and becoming part of a larger whole. Sexuality is what makes that possible. Sexual love is probably the most important door for people into a way of speaking about and understanding our relationships with God.

Erotic imagery has been fundamental for Christian spirituality from the very beginning. In the Middle Ages you find people writing commentaries on it left and right, asking, How does this inform your relationship with God? Later you have St. John of the Cross, and English writers like Henry Vaughn and Thomas Traherne. They all draw very heavily on The Song of Songs.

Do you believe gay relationships are ordained by God in the same way as heterosexual relationships are?
I can see no difference between the way gay partnerships function in building that bond of intimacy and the way heterosexual marriage does. Neither group does it terribly well. So yes, I'd say there are plenty of gay partnerships that this is exactly how the sexual partnership functions.

You say in your book, "Gifted by Otherness" that gay spirituality can improve everyone's spirituality in the Christian community. Would you say that same about gay marriage?
It helps in certain ways. In gay partnerships, the focus is on the relationship between the partners, whereas in heterosexual marriage it's so easy for that to be diffused by social expectations. Gay partnerships, on the other hand, don't fufill much in terms of social expectations--in fact they can get you in trouble--so there has to be a pretty powerful drive toward that kind of intimacy with another person in order for gay relationships to work. Heterosexual people might pay attention to the homosexual experience of partnership. It could be helpful in rediscovering what marriage is about.

It's intriguing, too, that a recent New York Times article reported that not only does gay parenting seem to work as well as heterosexual parenting, it could even serve as a model. That's not because gay people are better parents, but they have to focus on what they're doing because the social order is not set up for us.

Many Christians cite Scripture, particularly Paul, to condemn homosexuality. How do you respond?
I think Paul is almost invariably misread. What he does in Romans 1, which is the relevant passage, is not announcing that gay or lesbian sexual relationships are wrong. He takes advantage of widespread Jewish prejudice at the time to lure his audience into feeling superior. Having turned the audience into that spot, he attacks them. The unfortunate thing is that he lured the rest of Christendom into feeling superior for the rest of its history.

How do convince someone who believes the Bible says homosexuality is wrong?
In my own experience, people become free from that not from thinking but from living life. People who get to know gay or lesbian people and find they are pretty much the same mix as any other group of people eventually begin to think there is something wrong with their system of thinking. Then they may be able to go back to the Bible and read it differently.

It seems like gay marriage has become a pressing issue nearly overnight.
It became a major issue with the development of the AIDS epidemic. Gay partners are significantly disadvantaged because, with no equivalent of marriage, people found themselves evicted from their residences and their joint property claimed by the family of the deceased, who may not have had much to do with him when he was alive. So marriage in terms of the legal right and responsibility, that's been an issue for quite some time.

In the church, gay Episcopalians have long focused on his, because they perceived that the alternative is toleration. The sense ways, "You can come sit in the back pew, but don't expect to be thought of as a real member of this congregation." That sounds political, but it's a spiritual thing: we're here, this is who we are. Either get rid of us or take us seriously.

Do some gays reject marriage as a "straight" institution, not part of what being gay is?
Part of the gay liberation movement was a rejection of societal norms, which had been entirely punitive to gay and lesbian people. But gay people are as diverse as heterosexuals are, and some people have always been couple oriented. There are those who are experimenting with groups larger than two, and those who don't want to settle down. That's true of heterosexuals as well. The main difference is that society doesn't help you come together as a couple if you are gay.

Do sacraments change?
I think they can certainly change. Marriage wasn't even defined as a sacrament until the 12th century. Celibacy was considered the sexual ideal in the church until the Reformation. There was a question whether something as erotic as marriage had any place in the church.

You can see how sacraments evolve more easily in the other sacraments. Confirmation, for instance, is radically different in the Eastern church, where it's adminstered by the priest at baptism, and the Western church, where it's been reserved to the bishop.There have been times when no one was supposed to receive communion without being confirmed. There were times when confirmation was rather rare.

Or take the sacrament of reconciliation. There have been times when it was an entirely public process. It was the Irish monks who converted it into private confession to use it for spiritual direction. There were other times when it was thought of primarily as a deathbed process. So yes, sacraments do change and develop over time.

Gay men are already getting married in what are essentially church weddings, in the form of blessings. Would you consider that marriage?
In the legal sense, no. The commitment is the same, and that sense of taking on the commitment publicly is the same. But when you apply the word marriage, you are into realms of legislation that the act can't create. That is up to the larger society.

How do you define marriage?
Marriage is the union of two adult people, the sharing of their entire lives with one another. It's the celebration of a particular intimacy and the creation of a household. I think that's very important. The celebration is not simply for them. We don't sanction them to be totally absorbed in each other and retreat from the world. Rather it's a celebration of a new building block in the community. It has to be open to the community. It serves as a center of hospitality, of generosity, of hope, of contribution to the larger community. If it's not that, it's not worth celebrating and it should be a sacrament. Because sacraments aren't inward looking. They are proclamations of the gospel.

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