2014 NY Assembly Keynote by Byron Rushing - ENCOUNTERING THE CITY

July 14, 2014

[Byron Rushing’s Keynote Address at the 2014 Episcopal Urban Caucus ASSEMBLY]

To download a PDF of this keynote address, click here.


O holy city, seen of John,
Where Christ the Lamb, doth reign,
Within whose foursquare walls shall come
No night, nor need, nor pain,
And where the tears are wiped from eyes
That shall not weep again.

[Hark, how from men whose lives are held
More cheap than merchandise,
From women struggling sore for bread,
From little children’s cries,
There swells the sobbing human plaint
That bids thy walls arise.]

O shame to us who rest content
While lust and greed for gain
In street and shop and tenement
Wring gold from human pain,
And bitter lips in blind despair
Cry “Christ hath died in vain!”

Give us, O God, the strength to build
The city that hath stood
Too long a dream, whose laws are love,
Whose crown is servanthood,
And where the sun that shineth is
God’s grace for human good.

Already in the mind of God
That city riseth fair:
Lo, how its splendor challenges
The souls that greatly dare;
Yea, bids us seize the whole of life
And build its glory there.


If the Episcopal Urban caucus has a theme song it is Walter Russell Bowie’s “O holy city, seen of John.”


While cities and urban living are becoming the new normal for life in the world—we approaching very soon a time when over half the people in the world will be living in cities—we in the United States  still seem to define cities  primarily as the centers of social problems, dysfunction, poverty, and violence. ("O shame to us who rest content / While lust and greed for gain / In street and shop and tenement / Wring gold from human pain")


Yet at the same time we Christians read scripture that tells us that where our God resides and where we hope to be headed is not on a farm but in a city.

To Paul:  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”


And, “O holy city, seen of John, Where Christ the Lamb, doth reign,Within whose foursquare walls shall come, No night, nor need, nor pain, And where the tears are wiped from eyes That shall not weep again:” I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.


What is the future of our cities, if this is where we belong and are meant to be? ("Lo, how its splendor challenges / The souls that greatly dare / And bids us seize the whole of life / And build its glory there.")


If the entire American population was as densely settled as the population of Brooklyn, the entire population of the United States could fit into New Hampshire.

We have various definitions, political, statistical, cultural for urban, for city—but what they all have in common is closeness—to be in the city as opposed to being in the country is proximity to people you are not related to—who are not members of your family.

This living together is not easy: it has not been easy since the beginning.


When we lose our memory, we lose the ability to know both where and when we are. Our orientation is made possible, defined by memory. When we have no memory we become disoriented. When I try to explain the importance of history to young people, I ask them to engage in an exercise, a roll play, of losing their memory. They quickly understand that they are not able to answer questions like what day is this or what room or building are they in?  I then tell them that I have not lost my memory; they begin to ask me those questions. I answer with inaccuracies, with lies. They realize that theirs is not only a disorientation of time and place. It is also a disorientation of recognizing truth and falsehood. This is the dangerousness of amnesia.


Theologians have a fancy word for the opposite of amnesia. It is a word for recalling, recollecting, remembering what is most important: Anamnesis.


History is our corporate memory. It is the memory of our individual existence incorporated into the memories of others existence. If it is not known, if it is forgotten, “lost, stolen, or strayed,” we suffer from corporate amnesia. When we lose our memory, we lose the ability to know both where and when we are. Our orientation is made possible, defined by memory. When we have no memory we become disoriented. When I try to explain the importance of history to young people, I ask them to engage in an exercise, a roll play, of losing their memory. They quickly understand that they are not able to answer questions like what day is this or what room or building are they in?  I then tell them that I have not lost my memory; they begin to ask me those questions. I answer with inaccuracies, with lies. They realize that theirs is not only a disorientation of time and place. It is also a disorientation of recognizing truth and falsehood. This is the dangerousness of amnesia.


Many in the Episcopal Urban Caucus understand that our original story as Americans cannot be accurately told without telling the story of slavery. The story of slavery is an opportunity to cure our amnesia and consider the opportunities of a corporate, cultural anamnesis.


This “recalling” will not be an easy exploration. Slavery and the slave trade in the Americas existed longer than emancipation and civil rights has yet existed.  If you use 1619 as the approximate date of the introduction of slavery in the North American British colonies which would become the United States of America, slavery lasted for 246 years. It will not be until 2111 that people of African descent will have been free as long as they have been enslaved in the United States. (Even in Haiti/the Dominican Republic—on Hispaniola, as the Spaniards called that island—where the first successful revolt against slavery occurred---slavery lasted about 285 years; it will be 2085 before Haitians and Dominicans of African descent will have been free as long as they have been enslaved.)

To move from the myth of slavery as an incidental occurrence in the early days of the European occupation of the Americas, to the truth of slavery as part of the truth of the origins of the nations of the Americas and specifically of the origins and economic success of the United States will require the production of an accurate history, a new memory of our founding. The stories which we combine into the set of experiences, beliefs and values that affect the way we as “Americans”  perceive  who we are is sometimes call a paradigm: “the values, or system of thought, in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Dominant paradigms are shaped both by the community’s cultural background and by the context of the historical moment.” A more accurate history will lead us to a new paradigm. What is called a paradigm shift.


Consider this paradigm from the story in New England: The first record of a group of African people arriving in Massachusetts is from John Winthrop’s Journal, [“History of New England”].  In his July 1637 notation, John Winthrop wrote, “We had now slain and taken, in all, about seven hundred (Indians).  We sent fifteen of the boys and two women to Bermuda, by Mr. Pierce; but he, missing it, carried them to Providence Isle.”


William Pierce was the captain of the Desire which was built in Marblehead and sailed out of Salem.  Providence Isle was a Puritan settlement off the coast of Central America. 


In an Entry dated February 26, 1638, Winthrop wrote in his Journal:  “Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months.  He had been, at Providence, and brought some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence, and salt from Tertugos.  Dry fish and strong liquors are the only commodities for those parts.  He met there two men-of-war, set forth by the lords, etc., of Providence with letters of mart, who had taken divers prizes from the Spaniard, and many negroes.”


Lorenzo Greene the author of The Negro in colonial New England calls this statement, “the earliest recorded account of Negro slavery in New England... Negroes may have been enslaved before that time but earlier allusions to slavery are inferential.”


The founders of whom we are today as a nation are all in this story:  The aboriginal, the “native people; the English, the Europeans; and the Africans—what in our language would be come to called the Red, the White and the Black. And they all must be in this new paradigm if it is to approach the truth.


In this revised paradigm of our founding, our civic scripture does maintain its importance:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”



“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


However this new paradigm will always have space to ask, who is this “our”? , this “we”?

Adam Hochschild, in Bury the Chains: Prophets and rebels in the fight to free an empire’s slaves points out, that at the end of the 18th century, well over three-quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another. So no one can doubt the revolutionary nature of these propositions.

In March of  2008—the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a remarkable interview. When asked about race, she reflected: “Well, you know … America doesn't have an easy time dealing with race. I sit in my office and the portrait immediately over my shoulder is Thomas Jefferson, because he was my first predecessor. He was the first Secretary of State. And sometimes I think to myself, what would he think …a black woman Secretary of State as his predecessor 65 times removed…? What would he think that the last two successors have been black Americans? And so, obviously, when this country was founded, the words that were enshrined in all of our great documents and that have been such an inspiration to people around the world…. They didn't have meaning for an overwhelming element of our founding population. And black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together; Europeans by choice, and Africans in chains.

And that's not a very pretty reality of our founding, and I think that particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it, and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today … And so we deal daily with this contradiction, this paradox about America, that on the one hand, the birth defect continues to have effects on our country, and indeed, on the discourse and effects on perhaps the deepest thoughts that people hold; and on the other hand, the enormous progress that has been made by the efforts of blacks and whites together, to finally fulfill those principles. When we acknowledge all and everyone who made America possible we …acknowledge good and bad, sin and grace, a complex yet rich history.”

This new paradigm will acknowledge all who owned these words by their hearing, heeding, and incorporation of them into their lives over the protests in word and deed of the authors of those words; over the protests of those who continue to believe these words as narrowly as Jefferson and Washington did.


This new paradigm will raise up the words of Fredrick Douglass: “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”


This new paradigm is necessary to abolish the artificial concept of race—a construct invented in the 15th and 16th centuries and refined in the 17th, 18th, and 19th in order to make slavery more efficient by confining/reserving it to Africans and people of African descent. And preserved to the present in order to preserve their descendants in profitable states of discrimination and what we call “racism.”

This new paradigm will not fear the bad news nor deny it as our heritage whenever we or our parents arrive on these shores. Maya Angelou is correct:

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, and if faced              

With courage, need not be lived again.


To do this recalling, this facing with courage, we must confront

The horror: in the paradigm of our founding, native, aboriginal, first people were killed to secure the land. Africans were worked to death in order to exploit the land. (Before the suppression of the slave trade the birth rate among most enslaved women was always lower than it had been in Africa. This only changed when it became illegal and thus too expensive to import Africans. Slavery and the trade is a history of trauma.


And we must confront The money: In 1860, more wealth existed in the accumulated value of slaves in the United States than in any other sector of the economy except land—only the total value of land exceeded the total value of enslaved men, women, boys and girls. And this does not include the secondary economies to maintain slavery, such as the food—cod fish—to feed them and the “Negro Cloth” to clothe them and the chains and shackles forged to bind them. And this does not include the value of the products they produced—manufactured into rum and cigars and snuff and-most valuable-- into cotton textiles. And this does not include the value of the philanthropy of the slave masters.


The memory of all those who suffered and resisted can be honored by  their stories becoming incorporated into our memory. The memory of them can be honored by us recalling the truth of slavery –“that particular birth defect”-- as part of the truth of the origins of the nations of the Americas and specifically of the origins and economic success of the United States; by us producing and using a new paradigm of truth.


Karl Barth has been credited with two great one-liners. As some of you know, Barth’s  major work was *Church dogmatics*, which he left unfinished despite its more than 9,300 pages and thirteen total volumes. One one-liner goes like this—it’s probably apocryphal but is too good not to be “true”. Someone once asked Barth whether he could sum up his whole theology in just a few words. Barth paused for a moment, and then replied, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." 

And in the other, Barth is to have said, one should “preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other"


The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton has thus far not been able to discover an authoritative source for this quotation. They do say that Barth did occasionally make similar remarks. In an interview from 1966, for example, he stated, "The Pastor and the Faithful should not deceive themselves into thinking that they are a religious society, which has to do with certain themes; they live in the world. We still need - according to my old formulation - the Bible and the Newspaper.”  And in a Time Magazine piece on Barth published on Friday, May 31, 1963:  "[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians 'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.'"


The Center for Barth Studies has no comment on Barth answering the other question with Anna B. Warner’s words:  “Jesus loves me! This I know, / For the Bible tells me so.” However it does make sense to me. I like them both.


For me, attempting to be a politician of faith, the discipline is to “'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”  The challenge is to “interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

Over the past 29 years, I have attempted to carry out my share of the ministry of God’s mission as a Massachusetts state legislator.  As an elected legislator, my tasks are to sponsor, support and revise legislation, to respond to the immediate concerns of my constituents, and to speak out on public policy issues and questions in ways that educate, support and challenge my constituency.  I am convinced that effective representation is mutual, a partnership between the representative and his and her constituents.  I listen and debate, learn and respond, suggest and lead, not in isolation, but with the authority that derives from my election, and ongoing discussions and consultations with my constituents.


My primary ministry is politics.

Politics.  In his book Experiencing Politics, my former colleague, John  McDonough, writes, “Politics is who gets what, when, and how…Politics is the way people decide what, when, where, how, and why.” (p. 20).  When "politics" is mentioned in causal conversation, anecdotal evidence suggests people generally have one of two reactions, distaste or excitement. In Massachusetts many times it seems to be most people’s second favorite sport. (After their first: the Red Sox, or the Celtics, or the Bruins!)

Politics often polarizes people. Even politicians use the word “politics” to denote distasteful politics or to mean only partisan politics. As in, “We must move beyond politics…” A definition I use with young people which seems to work is, “Politics is the process--informal or formal--of setting rules to keep things the same or to change things. My question then to young people is, “Can you remember when you first engaged in successful rules changing? Can you remember your first positive feedback from a political act; when you first won?” And they almost all can recall and the answer usually involves them and a parent or grandparent and when they first got them to change their minds to change the rules.


This is politics. My primary ministry is politics.

I have become accustomed to other Christians offering how difficult it must be for me to be a practicing Christian--(I like that term “practicing Christian”; I hope we’re all us Christians are practicing. Life is a rehearsal for us to meet Jesus face to face…)--how can I be a practicing Christian, while working within the system that is perceived to be self-serving, corrupt, and ruthless?  My first reaction is to reply as a legislator: No, I don’t think my colleagues are any more corrupt, or virtuous, for that matter, than the workers in most other institutions: investment firms, hospitals, universities, computer firms, churches.  What is different is that our virtuous and corrupt actions are more regularly made public.


Now, that is, however, not an appropriate answer to another person of faith or “practicing Christian.”

If a Christian asks me that question, How can my primary ministry be politics, I should begin with Matthew 6:9-13 [and Luke 11:2-4]

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name.
10   Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven.
11   Give us this day our daily bread.*
12   And forgive us our debts,
     as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13   And do not bring us to the time of trial,*
     but rescue us from the evil one.

[And in Luke—

He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father,* hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.*
3   Give us each day our daily bread.*
4   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’]

In the Matthew text, the politics of heaven can be the politics of earth:  Your kingdom come.    Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.*  [In Luke:  Your kingdom come.* 3Give us each day our daily bread.]


Or I should begin with Matthew 25: 31-46, “The Sheep and the Goats”.  Eugene Patterson translates this as “When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne.  Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.


“Then the king will say to those on his right, “enter, you who are blessed by my Father!  Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom.  It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation.  And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.

We know what happens to the “goats” in [41-45].  May I point out four things to those of us who wish to be the “sheep” in this story:


(1) What the people who are selected to be on his right did were all tangible acts that affect the lives of the Son of Man and

(2) the “sheep” did these acts even though they did not know they were doing them for the Son of Man.  (“"Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.'”)

(3) If the “I” in this story is the Son of Man, the King, the Master, then the “I” cannot be any one or two individuals we choose to serve, some ones who we consider deserving, who will be grateful. The “I was hungry and you fed me” is everyone who was hungry.

(4)  And note: if you and I are asked questions, it probably will not be from this list. (This is not a cheat list.) Be prepared for another set of questions.

If a Christian asks me that question, How can my primary ministry be politics, what I really should say is, “Where I try to carry my ministry is like any other part of the world: It is fallen and unreconciled.  And that is why it is an opportunity for me.  It ultimately belongs to Christ, and I am called to share in renewing it.  I am in the legislature because I have heard Jesus there; I am in the legislature because I am called to follow Jesus.”


Am I where Jesus is?  Asking and answering this question is what defines us as Christians. In my daily life and work and leisure am I following Jesus?  It is not enough for us to be volunteers in religious institutions and agencies and societies and soup kitchens.. We are called to be God’s in all our daily life, in all our work and play—ministers and missionaries all the time. The church does not have a mission; God’s mission has a church.  You and I are the purveyors of God’s mission.          

It took the Apostle Paul to give us that fine, holy, mysterious, political description: when he wrote that we are the Body of Christ, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:12-27)


[“14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.]

“27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”


He meant it much more strongly than we understand this now. Often, I don’t think we take this description seriously enough.  I believe this is more than a metaphor—it is an instruction and it is a strategy.  Paul believed that we are the physical, real, body of Christ and our calling is to continue Christ’s work in the world.  We are Christ’s arms, legs, hands, feet, ears, eyes, heart, sexual organs. We are not “members” as in “card carrying members of the ACLU”; although we probably all should be.)  We are called to be members, as in real parts of a body, parts of Jesus’ incarnate, wounded, resurrected, and still wounded body.


You don’t need to be a body if your primary purpose is contemplation—you don’t need a body, if your primary posture is spiritual. You do need a body if your primary purpose is work—if your primary posture is action.


Another name for the Body is the church. The church does not have a mission; God’s mission has a church; God’s mission has a Body; God’s mission has the Body of Christ.          

In the 16th c., St. Teresa of Avila had already told us--


“Christ has no body now on earth but yours; yours are the only hands with which He can do His work.


“Yours are the only feet with which He can go about the world; yours are the only eyes through which His compassion can shine forth upon a troubled world. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world. Christ has no body on earth but yours.”


 (Or as, Anne Lanott, tells in this story: A holy woman sat outside the temple watching a tide of people pass, a river of need, the destitute and the wounded, the drunk and the lame and the outcast, and during her prayers, she cried out to God, “How can a loving creator see so much suffering, and not do something to help them?” And God replies, God answers, “I did do something. I made you.”)

God’s mission has a church; God’s mission has a Body; God’s mission has the Body of Christ.         God’s mission has us.  This is a call to move beyond our own limited understandings of ourselves to taking our rightful position as agents, advocates, politicians together, for God’s transformation of the world, God’s Kingdom come.

I am in the legislature because I am called to follow Jesus.


Am I where Jesus is?  In my daily life and work am I following Jesus?  Are you in the insurance business because Jesus is in the insurance business; Are you called to follow Jesus in school, into the office, into the hospital, into the garage?  Jesus calls each of us to follow.  We cannot follow by proxy.  We cannot ask someone else to follow for us.


We are all politicians. Some of us are professional politicians.


As an elected official, I am expected to have a special concern for the people who live in my district.  They live in the South End, Fenway, and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston.  They are some of the wisest people; they have re-elected me 13 times!  These people are my constituents; they form my constituency.


We all need to find a constituency.  It is the constituency of everybody else.  Not just those close to us, but everyone we meet and everyone we hear and read about. Everyone we imagine. You and I are committed to a special relationship with all the people of our communities and beyond, seeking and serving the best and the worst, the whole and the wounded, the richest and the poorest – the included and the outcast,; as we say, “seeking and serving Christ in all persons.”

{Tell Rep. Marie Parente story}


We have Assemblies to consider the many and significant ways the Episcopal Church has long been engaged in many and significant ways with the realities and pains, assets and possibilities of life in the city ministering in “street and shop and tenement.” 

We are all urban ministers. Some of you are professional urban ministers.

To see and experience aspects of life in the city.

To meet and begin to build relationships with individuals who are doing justice work in the city.

To experience both the difficulties of, and hopefulness in, ministry in the city.

To engage questions of justice in city life, with particular attention to realties of racism and power and their effects on city life.

To foster greater connection with networks and individuals committed to justice and anti-racism.

To develop one’s own pastoral approach and understanding of urban ministry.

To generate new commitments to the mission of God and discern our roles, both individually and corporately, in that mission as it is realized in the urban context.


We are called to a special relationship with God’s world, striving for justice among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.  The world.  Everybody else.  The other.  They must be our constituency.


When I follow Jesus I do not know where the path will take me. I may find myself in an ordinary place or a brand new place or a shocking place.  When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, on November 18, 2003, that same sex couples have the right to civil marriage in Massachusetts, it seemed so right and yet so new, and I also knew it would be shocking to many. 


I want to spend some time on this because it is one of my areas of decision where I was so informed by The Episcopal Church.


On the weeks following this decision, I’d like to say I promptly reflected on John 16: 12-14: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” But I didn’t.


I’d like to say I promptly reflected on words of Frederick Denison Maurice:  “[People] are mostly right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.” But I didn’t.


I’d like to say I promptly reflected on that verse from Frederick William Faber’s original poem, “Souls of men why will ye scatter” that did not make it into “There’s wideness in God’s Mercy” in the hymnal--


“We make his love too narrow

By false limits of our own

And we magnify his strictness

With zeal he will not own.”


However what did immediately came to mind were all the discussions that we Episcopalians had been having in public about homosexuality since 1976. I was at that General Convention when formal discussion of the place of homosexuals began when we resolved that they were “children of God”!  (The same Convention at which we amended the canons to permit the regular ordination of women to “Holy Orders.”)


Marriage is not a civil right; it is a civil institution. The civil right is the right to choose your partner—in marriage.  It is always appropriate for the government to set the rules for civil institutions. In a democracy all civil institutions should be open and available to all who qualify. Civil marriage should be available to all who qualify. I am convinced that sexual orientation should not disqualify a person from choosing whom to marry and that same-sex should not disqualify a couple from civil marriage.

In the Legislature I was an original sponsor of the Massachusetts gay rights law. That legislation was originally filed in the 1970s by a Jewish legislator who was in the closet and by an Afro American legislator who was “straight’—they were Barney Frank and Mel King.  I filed it in ’83-’84; ’85-’86; ’87-’88. It passed in 1989. In none of those debates did we mention marriage. Most of the gay and lesbian people who lobbied for that legislation were in the closet.


As you know in the United States it is state governments which set the rules for qualification to enter civil marriage. And those rules have never been uniform across the land. Can you marry your first cousin in your state? Half—26—of the states allow first cousin marriages. Can you marry your first cousin in Massachusetts? Yes.  In New Hampshire?  No.  States disagree on the minimum age of the parties who can marry as we see in the recent controversy around this difference in Nebraska and Kansas.


Until the debates on same-sex marriage, the most public debates revolved around race. In 1948, in Perez v. Sharp, the California Supreme Court ended the ban on interracial marriages that state. In 1958, Martin Luther King spoke out: “When a society says that I cannot marry a certain person, that society has cut off a segment of my freedom.” When the United States Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia in June 1967, 16 states still had so-called anti-miscegenation laws on their books. The Virginia court judge—who was overturned—had written, “If god has meant for whites and blacks to mix, he would have not placed them on different continents.”


(Richard and Mildred Loving were married in 1958 in Washington D.C. because their home state of Virginia still upheld the antimiscegenation law which stated that interracial marriages were illegal. They were married, then lived together in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1959 they were prosecuted and convicted of violating the state’s antimiscegenation law. They were each sentenced one year in jail, but promised the sentence would be suspended if they agreed to leave the state and not return for 25 years. Forced to move, they returned to Washington D.C. where, in 1963, they initiated a suit challenging the constitutionality of the antimiscegenation law. In March of 1966, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the law, but in June of 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional. In 1967 the 16 states which still had antimiscegenation laws on their books were forced to erase them.


(Mildred Loving died May 2,     ; her white husband had died in 1975 – they have 3 children, 8 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.)


After the Goodridge decision in Massachusetts some legislators proposed an amendment to the state constitution to prevent the civil institution of marriage from being open to same sex couples. Marriage is not mentioned in our Constitution. In Massachusetts, the Legislature is obliged to determine whether it is "expedient to alter the Constitution"; it is only after that question is answered in two joint sessions that we ask the people if they agree. It is that determination which we debated.  The idea that the people automatically get to vote on any proposed amendment to our state Constitution is just not in the amendment process in the Massachusetts Constitution which in its time was adopted by the people. And the people adopted that process by a popular vote.


(And we can be pretty sure that inter-racial marriage would still be illegal in some states if the question could only be decided by referenda. Consider  that in a November, 2004, attempt in Alabama to remove from the state constitution the separate-schools language inserted in the 1950s in an attempt to counter the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated public schools-- that vote was so close -- a margin of 1,850 votes out of 1.38 million—it went to an automatic  recount and lost.)


All civil rights do not have to apply to race. We have had and have civil rights movements in the United States that deal with many other aspects of our being and choices. Although race and sexual orientation are obviously not the same, the way they have been understood in our society is analogous and those analogies are instructive. As almost all civil rights struggles the precipitating event is the affected people saying “Basta”, enough, and  understanding that they can having standing, that they are in the “we” of “we the people”, that they can get  others to “rise up and live out the true meaning of [this nation’s] creed."  Or in the words of Frederick Douglass, "Find out just what people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."


The discrimination that drives this argument is discrimination against homosexuals, the belief that homosexuality is a disorder rather than a difference. (I ask those who oppose more inclusive marriage, “May I ask you a hypothetical question? If it were proven to your satisfaction that homosexual preference was genetic would this change your opinion?”)


When we have moved to end discrimination against other groups in our society we have found that we must change not only our attitudes but also in many instances change our institutions and systems that support that discrimination. We could not have freedom of religion without ending religious establishment; we could not begin to end racial discrimination without abolishing the institution of slavery, we can not end sexual discrimination with reforming marriage and property laws.

Since May 17, 2004, same-sex civil marriage has been permitted in Massachusetts. The final effort to amend the state constitution to forbid same-sex marriage was defeated by the state legislature on


June 14, 2007 by the necessary “super-majority” vote of 75% of the Legislature.

The majority of Massachusetts legislators support Goodridge, support same-sex marriage, and oppose adding a discriminatory article to the state constitution; and voted against the proposed amendment, and I believe, reflected the opinion of their constituents as they experienced this new reality.


There is no evidence in Massachusetts or anywhere that the expansion of marriage has weakened the right of heterosexuals to marry or prevented the strengthening of heterosexual civil marriage by individuals, organizations or government.


In the United States marriage is a civil institution as well as a religious covenant. Unlike most European countries, we have allowed religious authorities to participate in the authorization of civil marriage.  However we have never allowed religious authorities to define civil marriage. As you know, if you do not believe that marriage is sacred and divinely ordained, you still have the right to marry. At no time were we debating the rules or doctrines of religious or sacred marriage. I agree that the qualifications for the religious covenant of marriage should be set solely by religious organizations. However it is always appropriate in a democracy for the government to set the rules for the civil institution of marriage.


The public schools in Boston were first integrated in the 1850’s. After the controversy that led to that success and the desegregated schools in September, 1855, William C. Nell said, “And since the 3d of September to the present time, the sun, moon and stars are regular in their courses! No orb has proved so eccentric as to shoot madly from its sphere in consequence, and the State House on Beacon Hill, and old Faneuil Hall, remain as firm on their bases as ever.”


Moved be these words, on May 16, 2004, the day before same sex marriage began, I made this prediction: “The sun will rise tomorrow, and the milk will not curdle!”


This is not the end of the civil rights struggles in Massachusetts. As we interpret newspapers from our Bible, scripture will trouble us and aid as we explore the rights of transgender persons, as we end medical abuse of intersex persons; as we revise of concepts of the privilege of the “good looking”; when we consider the end of the oppression of  children; when  we begin a serious analysis of the existence and role of class in our society.; when we explore economic justice. (Perhaps these several years of discussing and debating “sex” in The Episcopal Church is the Spirit’s way of preparing us to discuss honestly that other word, “money.”)


In the 19th century Theodore Parker taught Bostonians to, “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long”

Or as Martin Luther King like rephrase it,


“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

However, listen: That arc does not bend without the hands of Christ’s Body grabbing hold of it, without Christ’s politicians, without you the Episcopal Urban Caucus joining in bending it towards justice.








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