A Saskatoon priest is facing unemployment for agreeing to marry gay and lesbian couples. Shawn Sanford Beck has been told by the Anglican church that he will lose his abilities to perform duties of the priesthood by the end of the month. As a result, Beck will also lose his job, working with a Lutheran inner-city project.
However, Beck says he is making a stand because of conscience. He will not recant his faith, but says he will not back down from his decision. He says the situation is an act of civil disobedience within the church and calls himself a priest in exile.
Shawn is a priest committed to bringing justice to the oppressed. His work in the inner city is among impoverished native Canadians where he is working towards enabling them to start to run the agency themselves. He is on the Saskatoon diocesan synod, he lectures and gives talks on various issues, including liturgy, and he is an associate priest at the cathedral.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE CHURCH
Conversion of St. Paul, 2007
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
As you are no doubt aware, our church finds itself in a turbulent, confusing, and painful time. Many issues are involved in our current struggles: authority, hermeneutics, ethical and theological visions and convictions, and the complex relationships of gender, power, and patriarchy. Though the “presenting issue” is the place of LGBTT folk in the Body of Christ, the roots of our conflict go much deeper.
As a priest in the midst of this struggle, it has become clear to me after much prayer and soul-searching, that my spiritual conscience can no longer abide by the laws which I am required to uphold in regard to the blessing of same-sex unions and marriages. It is my conviction that our current ban on such practices is theologically problematic and fundamentally unjust. Upholding such a position (even unwillingly) forces me to bend severely (if not break) my priestly vows, my baptismal covenant, and the Word of God inscribed within my heart. I therefore publicly declare that I will, when requested, officiate at same-sex marriages and offer blessing upon committed same sex unions. I will no longer discriminate against homosexual people when it comes to the exercise of my priestly duties.
I am aware, of course, that the stance I am taking will likely lead to serious consequences, and I am prepared to face these consequences openly and publicly. It may be helpful to consider my action a form of ecclesiastical civil disobedience. With conflict and rhetoric rising in the worldwide communion, too many queer brothers and sisters are being further marginalized and excluded. In some parts of the world, this takes the form of outright violence: as I write, the coordinator of Changing Attitude (a sister organization of Integrity) in Nigeria is living under a death threat from his “fellow Christians”. Here at home, it is often a more subtle form of oppression: exclusion rendered invisible. As a priest and leader in the church, my complicity in upholding our current law makes me at least partially responsible for the ongoing suffering of LGBTT Christians, and I can no longer take part in that. If my current action helps render visible that which has been made invisible, then I will be happy to bear the consequences. I too will stand “outside the gate”, where so many other queer Christians have been sent.
To be clear, there are three main reasons for my choice of taking this stance. On one level, this is a clear issue of justice, solidarity, and human rights. On another level, this is an issue of evangelism: our church’s continuing discrimination against LGBTT people is a scandal which keeps many of my peers from being able to hear the good news of Jesus. And finally, this is an issue of personal integrity: I can no longer, in good conscience, uphold a law which I consider unjust, as well as theologically deficient.
Some might say that my actions sidestep the legitimate process of discernment underway in the church. I understand that concern, and I have wrestled long and hard over what to do, working within our established canons and structures to the best of my ability. However, I also see my current course of action as being part of the wider church’s discernment. We have heard many arguments about the cost of blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining unclosetted queer folk; we also need to recognize that there is a cost as well to not moving in this direction. The cost is a huge amount of suffering for LGBTT Christians who are pressured to remain silent. The cost is that some of us, straight and gay, will no longer be able to abide the status quo, and we will simply cease to obey an unjust law. The cost is that others will quietly leave. That reality needs to be part of our church’s discernment. In this, I am not leaving the church, nor relinquishing my orders. Instead, I offer my current action, with all its consequences, for the ongoing discernment of the Body.
Yours in the unquiet peace of Christ,
The Rev. Shawn Sanford Beck