Go gently in victory – and in defeat

Northern Indiana bishop responds to ENS article

[Diocese of Northern Indiana] “Celebrations of marriage equality, court rulings continue across church,” the ENS headline of July 1 reads.  “From Los Angeles to New York,” the article tells us, “worshippers gathered across the church to celebrate in very public and very personal ways, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and ruled California’s ban on gay marriage (Proposition 8) unconstitutional.”  The article goes on to cite example after example of Episcopalians rejoicing at the Court’s decision.  Photos – some of beloved friends – accompany the article and illustrate their joy.

The article appeared in a wider context.  In the days following the Supreme Court’s decision, countless Episcopal Church leaders on a diocesan, parochial, and national level issued statements supporting the ruling.  My Facebook “news feed” brought dozens of those statements to my attention.  Their content included oft-repeated elements:  the Supreme Court’s decision respects the dignity of every human being; the Episcopal Church has worked tirelessly for the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our church and in national life; it’s time for the Episcopal Church, now that the Supreme Court has acted, to move from blessings to same-sex marriage.

Reading the ENS article and many of these statements, one would conclude that the Episcopal Church is a DOMA- and Proposition 8-opposing church; that contrary convictions do not exist in our church; and that there is no longer a place in our church for Christians who affirm a traditional understanding of marriage as the life-long union of husband and wife in both civil and Christian context.

There are a few exceptions to this general tendency.  To her great credit, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori, while welcoming the Supreme Court’s ruling, adds:  “I am deeply aware that faithful Americans find themselves on all sides of these issues, including those who have not yet clearly discerned an effective or appropriate response.”  Her caveat is rare among the many statements issued by Episcopal Church leaders.  Bishop Katharine, of course, is addressing the question of same-sex marriage in its civil expression; but her words are clearly applicable within the church as well.  I am grateful for her generosity of spirit, and that of other leaders whose celebratory statements include a recognition that not all are rejoicing.

As a matter of full disclosure:  I do not support either the move toward same-sex blessings and marriage in the church or the transformation of marriage in its legal context.  I can affirm, and even encourage, some version of civil unions as a matter of law, but am unable to support the change in the sacramental or the legal definition of marriage.  Both the sacrament and the civil institution are so deeply rooted in church and society (and, in a Christian setting, so deeply rooted in Scripture and in the Great Tradition) that such a change is, from my perspective, theologically and legally untenable.

But my purpose is not to argue the merits of the case.  Faithful Christians find themselves on both sides of the issue, and many within our church and beyond it would take exception to the preceding paragraph.  They too are disciples of Jesus and are thus my brothers and sisters.  My purpose, instead, is to raise a hand of caution in the wake of the one-sided celebrations that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Are we solely a DOMA- and Proposition 8-opposing church?  Is it true that contrary convictions no longer exist in our church?  Is there a place in our church for those who affirm a more traditional understanding of marriage?  Reading the ENS article and the many statements from around the church, one would deduce that the answer to those questions are Yes, Yes, and No.

Those conclusions are, in fact, false.  While people who share my perspective are in a minority within the Episcopal Church, and while many have simply become silent in the face of such overwhelming numbers on the other side of these difficult issues, the Episcopal Church is far from monochrome.  And so it is essential that church leaders – and the church’s own news service – honestly recognize this diversity when they respond to an event such as the Supreme Court’s ruling.  To fail to do so is, effectively, to “un-church” a theological minority and to treat them as though they do not exist.

In other words:  Go gently in victory – and in defeat.

Here is my own commitment:

  • I will recognize and honor the presence of brothers and sisters within my own diocese who conscientiously disagree with me.
  • I will do all that I can to be in relationship with them, and to seek honest and open conversation.  That includes creating diocesan policies that honor their consciences as well as my own.
  • I will recognize that I might be wrong, and will continue to search the Scriptures.

And I urge my fellow leaders in the Episcopal Church – and the Episcopal News Service – to make a similar undertaking:

  • Recognize that there are faithful brothers and sisters in your diocese, in your parish, and in your ecclesisial institutions, who do not agree with you – even if they are silent.  Recognize and celebrate their presence.  Never speak or act as though they do not exist.
  • Do all that you can to be in relationship with them.  Talk with them.  Make sure that their consciences are honored.
  • Recognize that you might be wrong.  Continue to search the Scriptures.

The ENS article of July 1 and many statements issued immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling profoundly disturbed me.  They felt at best dismissive and at worst triumphalist.  St. Paul’s counsel provides a wise counterpoint and a reminder that the way of humility honors the Gospel of Jesus Christ:  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Romans 12:15-16).

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II
Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana


  1. Lecia Brannon says:

    Thank you Bishop Little for your thoughts. They articulate so well the uneasiness I have felt while reading the many statements from The Episcopal Church’s leaders in favor of the SCOTUS decision on DOMA. The assumption that Episcopalians are of one mind concerning this issue is false. It is also false that every Episcopalian that disagrees has left the The Episcopal Church. There are those amongst the faithful that are somewhere in the middle wondering and discerning their way through this important issue.

  2. Bishop Little, you make it clearer to me why in the BCP we pray “Shield the joyous.” Perhaps we should add also, “Shield those whom the joyous make unhappy.”

    I have always respected you and your integrity. I will do so no less when Ernest and I ride 30 miles in a few days for a quiet civil marriage in New York state. We won’t ask the church to marry us; that would be redundant. The Holy Spirit was the only guest when we married using the BCP almost 40 years ago, on 2/2/1974. May God continue to bless us — you and Sylvia, Ernest and me.

  3. Br William Henry Benefield, BSG says:

    No doubt there were faithful Episcopalians in the South who did not celebrate the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. I’m curious to know if a diocesan bishop of our Church wrote a similar letter back then when Episcopalians who fought for justice were celebrating?

  4. “I will recognize that I might be wrong, and will continue to search the Scriptures.”

    May we all share this commitment.

  5. Kent Cicerchi says:

    Give me a break! We’re not to celebrate, not to rejoice, not to plan our moving forward after these groundbreaking civil rulings, because there might be those who are left on the wrong side of history??? I’m sure there were those who were not happy that people of color were also entitled to civil rights in this country or full inclusion in the Episcopal church! Or that women ought to be included in all expressions and orders of the Episcopal church! If you aren’t able to accept all of God’s or bless a same-sex couple’s love and commitment in the manner that the church blesses opposite-sex couples, in the celebration and act of marriage, perhaps it is time for your to move aside and let someone without your reservations (read: prejudices) to take the responsibility of tending to the shepherds who in turn tend to ALL of God’s flock, not just those who fit into your warped prejudices. Would you be so bold (read: arrogant) as to write about a reluctance to bless nuptuals between a man and a woman of different races, or that those in that configuration throttle their joy and celebration because you remain stuck in your sinful prejudices???

    • Andrew Adamson says:

      “We must guard against the emotional overtones of a phrase like ‘the judgement of history’. It might lure us into the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune.”

      – CS Lewis

  6. Your Grace,

    We in the NYC-Metro Chapter of Integrity prayed at our Street Eucharist at NYC Pride that God would bring comfort to those people who were pained by the court decisions, and Bishop Provenzano of Long Island said in his statement that we cannot be “a church with no outcasts” unless we honor and make room for those who disagree with us.

    I have screened the film Love Free of Die for many audiences, and the person who always comes up in the following conversation is the woman who is moved to tears by her struggle with this issue. We discuss where that conflict comes from and how to respond with compassion to those who experience it. We are committed to graceful engagement with all who are willing to be in conversation with us.

    Integrity’s vision of its success is that The Episcopal Church thrives as a beacon of love, justice, and compassion, where ALL PEOPLE are equally embraced and empowered. This by definition includes those with whom we do not see eye-to-eye. If we were a little sweeping in our reactions to the news, we beg the church’s forgiveness. We’re the ones whose lives and relationships are being scrutinized and debated on the national stage.

    I was struck by your witness of your own internal struggle with these issues in the film as well, and am grateful you have chosen to stay the course in what I am sure feels at times like an increasingly foreign church . I will pray for you, and with you, as long as I am able.

    Christian Paolino
    National Stakeholders’ Council Chair, Integrity

  7. Bruce Garner says:

    It took a Methodist minister to sum it up best for me:

    From Gil Caldwell; an article about the United Methodist Church & Kermit the frog; share it if it makes sense, even it is does not…

    What do Kermit the frog and the United Methodist Church have in common?

    I was 20 years old in 1954 when on May 17th of that year, the U.S. Supreme
    Court issued its ruling declaring racially segregated public schools invalid.
    That year I was finishing my junior year in college and beginning to look
    forward to responding to my call to ministry by going to Seminary in 1955.
    (My first application for admission to Seminary was sent to Duke Divinity
    School in my home state of North Carolina, and as I have written before,
    I was refused admission because of my race).

    At the time of the May 17, 1954 ruling, I had already become the news-focused
    person that I still am today as I move toward my 80th birthday in October.
    Remember theologian Karl Barth said, “The Christian lives his/her life with
    the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” The news following
    the public school decision informed us that many Churches in the south began
    the process of establishing racially segregated schools in order to avoid racial
    integration. I remember wondering, how long could the Methodist Church retain
    and maintain its racially segregated Central Jurisdiction when the Supreme
    Court had declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional? (The answer;
    14 years until our merger in 1968).

    I read and heard in 1954, responses from some Christians who justified resistance
    to the racial desegregation decision by saying and writing things like this; “The
    Church is called not to follow the agenda of the world, but rather the agenda of
    Christ”…”Christians are called to be counter cultural or over against culture, instead
    of adjusting to culture.”…”The Bible is against the mixing of the races. Race-mixing will in time produce race-mixed children, and they will not be able to adjust to society.” (Does
    this explain some of the resistance to President Obama? In his case it is not his
    inability to adjust to society, it is the inability of some in the society to accept a bi-racial
    president who identifies as African American).

    I am beginning to read/hear responses to the Supreme Court same sex marriage
    decision re; church and culture that are not unlike those made about integrated
    schools in 1954. Why is that some persons recycle arguments that in time were
    proven to be be incorrect, imperfect and demeaning, vis-a-vis women and blacks,
    but now use them to demean LGBTQ persons and same sex couples?

    Bishop Warner Brown of the California-Nevada United Methodist Conference is
    quoted as saying this; “I must encourage pastors to reach out to their ecumenical
    partners so that pastors and churches that are permitted under their polity to offer
    marriage to same sex couples, be invited to assist in providing pastoral care.”

    Bishop Brown’s statement as an expression of sensitivity and concern for ministry
    to same sex couples is important. But, at the same time it highlights the contradictory,
    paradoxical corner into which we United Methodists have painted ourselves. Our
    anti-gay language language and legislation in the Book of Discipline about same
    sex unions and marriages makes us “partners” with Southern Baptists, Catholics, and
    Mormons with whom we share a similar response to same sex unions/marriages.
    But, in an effort to provide the ministry of marriage and unions to same sex couples,
    we must “partner” with UCC’s, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans.

    Rev. Jim Lawson, our United Methodist colleague and brother who is a Civil Rights
    Movement icon, performed the marriage of James Earl Ray, who was the convicted
    and sentenced killer of Martin Luther King. That marriage took place in jail.

    I suggest no equivalence between the jailed James Earl Ray and same sex couples
    who want United Methodist clergy to perform their marriages or unions. But, if I
    as a grandfather of an 8 year old little girl, in one of my many conversations with her
    about the church and the world, wanted to explain why a United Methodist preacher
    could perform the marriage of James Earl Ray in jail, but not a same sex couple,
    what would I say?

    Kermit the frog (My grand daughter has him sitting in a chair at their dining room
    table) once said; “It’s not easy being green.” Today, more than ever before, some
    of us are saying; “It’s not easy being a United Methodist”.

    Gil Caldwell

    • Doug Desper says:

      Bruce – I guess that what you’re saying is that if someone mangles the meaning of marriage then allows for more redefinition just to be fair to everybody? The line that utterly lacks logic is: “(if) a United Methodist preacher could perform the marriage of James Earl Ray in jail, but not a same sex couple, what would I say?” How about forgetting what Caesar (culture) and the pastoral errors of some say and look instead to what Jesus said in Matthew 19 where He very plainly reiterates Genesis 2. In that passage Jesus tells the listener that all the complexity and inconsistency occurs because “their hearts were hard”. If the Church differs at all from the culture’s latest itch then we’ll care much, much more about what Jesus plainly spoke on the matter and not even consult Kermit the Frog. Aside from Kermit the Frog, and vague passages that describe generosity and kindness, what Scripture can you cite that gives the Church permission to contradict Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19? Or should we just skip all pretense about being part of the Reformation heritage and just go back to accepting edicts from an authority as equal to Scripture?

  8. Ronald Johnson says:

    Bishop Little,
    Thank you for this article reminding us to act in Christian Charity. It does hurt to be lumped in with those who opposed the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and it does begin to feel like the Episcopal Church welcomes everyone except those who disagree with the majority position on the issues of sexuality. A number of my brothers and sisters in the Church of God in Christ have been deeply offended by this comparison. My hope is that we can move beyond the dismissive tactic of demonizing those with whom we disagree to have an open dialogue in which people can feel safe. I never expect to feel safe in the world outside of the church when I express an opinion that is not in the majority. It would be profoundly healing to feel safe within the church expressing dissenting points of view.

    • Joseph Parker says:

      as a Southern Baptist Christian we have found ourselves at times very wrathful but to say we are always a hateful group is an absurdity. to be related to the mistake of Southern Baptists is an unfair and unjust comparison. I thank you for the clarity of this article.

  9. Doug Desper says:

    Thank-you so much Bishop Little for a very clear defense of the catholic faith. For all the talk about our roots it appears that many of our friends arguing about this have forgotten that the faith and practice of the sacrament of marriage has already been received, and the matter determined, and settled Scripturally, Traditionally, and Reasonably. The liberal progressive arguments for redefining marriage seem to boil down to “We’re now here and it just needs to be fair as we define fair” rather than appealing to any Scriptural grounds (such as the Lord’s own words). Failing in that the next appeal is that those who hold to catholic teaching on marriage are close akin to racists who would oppose racial equality if it were a different time. The absolute poverty of logic and narcissism weary the Church.

  10. Bishop, very well put and your mantra “Go gently in victory – and in defeat” I will keep forward in my mind. Although I am on the other side of the opinion than you, for gays and lesbians to dismiss traditional viewing people would be the same as those for so many years had dismissed the views of gays and lesbians. As tradionalists begin to understand that being gay or lesbian is not a choice, but the way God made you and as gays and lesbians get more accepted into the church community to better understand the traditions and deep roots of marriage, real progress can be made.

  11. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tessman says:

    Such irenic missives (thank you +Ed) are growing fewer in number among our co-religionists and it would be a welcome relief were the wind and tide to change. Personally, I welcome the demise of DOMA (believing it flawed from day one and that Bill Clinton should never have signed it) because it is a “sovereign state’s right” and a “civil right” to define the terms of relationships, “equality” and “justice” being the highest “legal” position to which we can attain, juridically and legislatively.

    At the same time, the highest Spiritual position, over which the Holy Spirit prevails, is that which is entrusted to the church. Hence, recent SCOTUS actions should embolden the church to be more faithful, and yes, distinctive, in proclaiming the liberating Gospel “as once delivered” – our recent month of Sunday’s serial reading of Galatians ought to embolden us even more! Professionally, I feel affirmed in having declined signing a “state-issued” marriage license in many years – having long ago decided that it was duplicitous and unfaithful of me to act as an “agent of the state” in a nation that prides itself on the separation of church and state. I can live with that, and celebrate1

  12. Marty Jacobson says:

    I’m relatively new to the Episcopal church. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical tradition, and I had to leave because I am gay and would no longer accept the shame that church laid on me for something that I could not change.

    It sounds to me like Bishop Little is feeling shame for holding a position that is different from the mainstream in the Episcopal Church. He feels his position on marriage is part of the Great Tradition and that belief–because it is being glossed over or dismissed–is not receiving its due. I understand deeply the fear of not being seen or heard.

    But I would also say that the shame Bishop Little is experiencing is of a different quality than the shame I felt being gay in a very conservative tradition. Whereas I was made to feel less than because of a quality of being which I had no control over, Bishop Little is feeling less than for a belief he does have control over. This is a critical difference, I think.

    The Bishop believes that people like me should not have the blessing of sacrament nor the protection of law in a life-long covenant. In the spirit of “I might be wrong” I ask, “Why should I, as a gay person, believe as the Bishop does?” Am I in danger of hell because of who I love and wish to spend the rest of my life with? Should I go back into my shame and believe myself broken and in need of fixing?

    While a Bishop bemoans the increasing invisibility of his belief, I bemoan the invisibility of the child growing up gay in a family or church that believes as the Bishop does. This child is taught and believes that in order to follow Christ he must never know love. He must guard against his own feelings and shove them down and abhor connection with others. I weep for this child because I know his pain and fear.

    The Bishop does not weep the gay children. He does not even acknowledge them or their pain.

  13. Marcia Markette says:

    In the backlash of the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson some years back, our church family lost a number of parishioners, including those that had been members for a long time. I know their decision to leave our family was not easy for them, either. The loss of these loved ones was difficult, painful and sad for our priests and for all those remaining in our church. Some stayed, not because they were in agreement, but because they believed they could be more effective in their disagreement with the issue. Each person had the right to choose their path.
    For me, the recent legal decisions remain in the same huge abyss.

    Personally, I have the opposite beliefs of these issues. Yet, I offer my respect to Bishop Little for his honesty in sharing his. I get no condemnation or judgement from Him. I find the listing of your commitments prayerfully dedicated, thoughtful and earnest. I pray you can hold to them–it’s a big list!

    Last time, I waited to hear the voice of our parish priest and that of our then Bishop. Where did they stand on this issue? Bishop Alexander’s repeated message was that the biggest priority was keeping the church together. No denying it’s a big issue, probably always will be. The withdrawals and separations would not help, perhaps just increase dissent. We are more than this and keeping the Episcopal Church together will allow further prayerful consideration for the Church to take as a whole. Trust and faith. My own much loved priest stood at the front of the altar, reiterating same. He said if anyone wished to know his personal views, feel free to ask him. The pulpit not being the appropriate place–and I have seen it used in other denominations just so. We would continue to offer a place of welcome to all, no exceptions. We continue to do so today.

    Most important for me, I believe God loves us all. I try always, to respect others with a different point of view. I support “go gently in victory, and in defeat”. I appreciate Bishop Little’s commitment to continuing open discussion and resolution to be sure all are included. In my church, part of celebrating the Eucharist is “all are welcome at this table”. I love that it is true. God’s peace to all.

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