The Episcopal Church has recently come out of the 79th General Convention (held in Austin, Texas) where both houses passed Resolution B012, which allows for the use of all the marriage liturgies for all the baptized in all the dioceses of The Episcopal Church where same-sex marriage is legal. In many ways this is the culmination of the multi-decades work of The Church on this topic. As such, it makes sense to add an entry on this series in response to this.
What follows is part SIX of this series.
For part ONE of our discussion, which focuses on the Bible and how we Episcopalians view/read it, please click HERE.
For part TWO, which looks at what the Bible has to say about “homosexuality”, click HERE.
For part THREE, which looks at marriage in The Church and how it developed over the centuries, please click HERE.
For part FOUR of this discussion, which looks at the Marriage Canon itself, click HERE.
For part FIVE of this series, wherein Fr. Charles offers his personal thoughts, click HERE.
Last time in our discussion, I was offering my own thoughts on The Episcopal Church’s changes to the marriage canon. Now, I am recently arrived back in Southeast Florida after having spent about four days in Austin, Texas at the 79th General Convention, and even having the blessed opportunity to be present in the House of Bishops when they took up their vote on Resolution B012: Marriage Rites for the Whole Church.
So, what is Resolution B012 all about?
I’m glad you asked! This resolution builds upon Resolution A054 from 2015, which authorized (for trial use) the various marriage liturgies that are approved for use in marriages throughout The Church, which include: “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” and a revised form of the Rite II BCP marriage liturgies (of which the language is amended to reflect same-sex persons). The 2015 resolution called on this at the discretion of each diocesan bishop. Eight dioceses*, the bishops of which refer to themselves as “Communion Partners,” did not permit this liturgy in their dioceses, because they do not agree that same-sex marriage is consistent with scripture and the vows they hold.
This was quite movingly illustrated by The Rt. Rev. William Love, the Bishop of Albany, who asked the indulgence of the House of Bishops and the Presiding Bishop to speak for an indefinite time (rather than the allotted three minutes). He held the Prayer Book and mentioned his vows to uphold the Old and New Testaments and how he did not feel that same-sex marriage is consistent with what he read therein. It was obvious that the direction of the wider Episcopal Church was painful for him personally. And it was equally moving, for me at least, to see the ways in which the bishops allowed him room to talk and the spirit (if not the Spirit) of the gathering testified to the deep connections that each of the bishops share as a body. There is love, familial love. And we all know that familial love can be complicated.
To return to the question, this resolution is a compromise measure that calls for same-sex marriage to be solemnized in every diocese of The Episcopal Church (where same-sex marriage is legally recognized; we have to remember that our Church is not just a United States Church, but is also found worldwide in places like Taiwan, Guam, the Caribbean, Cuba**, and throughout parts of Europe—thanks to the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe), including those in which the bishop is opposed.
In order to best talk about this, we’ll take a look at a couple of paragraphs of the resolution.
The first speaks to the priests:
Resolved, That under the canonical direction of the Rector or Member of the Clergy in charge and where permitted to do so by civil law, provision will be made for all couples desiring to use these marriage liturgies in their local congregation or worshipping community, provided that nothing in this Resolve narrows the authority of the Rector or Priest-in-Charge (Canon III.9.6(a))
Basically, this says that if a priest in, say, the Diocese of Albany*** is open to celebrating and blessing a same-sex marriage, they are allowed to do so. As already mentioned, Albany is a diocese where the bishop is opposed to same-sex marriage. So, you may be wondering, how is this possible? Well, that brings us to the next section of the resolution:
Resolved, That in dioceses where the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or, where applicable, ecclesiastical supervision) holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites;
Additionally, it says:
Resolved, That bishops exercising ecclesiastical authority, or where appropriate ecclesiastical supervision, who hold a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same sex couples, shall in the case of remarriage after divorce, invite another bishop of this Church to oversee the consent process and to receive any report of such Marriages, as provided in Canon I.19.3(c)
What this does is it allows for the alternative oversight of bishops in regards to same-sex marriage. As the Rt. Rev. George Sumner of Dallas said, this gives conservative bishops (and their diocesan clergy) the space to be conservative. It also, in effect, gives “liberal” clergy in conservative dioceses the space to live their convictions.
This resolution comes the midst of a wider Church-wide conversation on liturgy. Some anxiety was being expressed in the lead-up to General Convention over the proposal of a new Book of Common Prayer (somewhat initiated by the change to the marriage canon and the new marriage liturgies). However, this compromise resolution helps to mitigate some of that anxiety and ease the sense of impending that had come with the new BCP****. This resolution permits these liturgies to be used on a trial basis until the reception of a new Prayer Book, which is a prudent decision because The Church needs time with these liturgies to see if they “work.”
So, what are my thoughts on this?
It will be interesting to see what comes. The Communion Partners have issued a statement already, which states that they feel they can still remain in The Episcopal Church. The resolution in the House of Deputies passed overwhelmingly. So, it’s quite clear to me that this is the will of The Episcopal Church.
One of the things that sticks with me is something I heard while observing the House of Bishops’ deliberations on this resolution. I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was the bishop of Vermont who said, while speaking in support of the resolution, that he worried that this would lead to the loss of the diocesan bishop as chief theologian for a diocese—since, ostensibly, this opens an avenue for priests and deacons to seek out bishops who agree with their theological leanings rather than conform to their oath of obedience made at their ordinations and installations. That will be a thing to keep an eye on.
Another of the bishops (I forget who) also made note of the fact that resolutions are made for the whole Church, not part of the Church. And that the intent of our bicameral structure is under-cut when we permit certain dioceses to ignore the will of the General Convention. This is an interesting statement that warrants further commentary.
See, since at least the Most Rev. Edmund Browning’s tenure as Presiding Bishop, the office of PB has been styled as “Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church.” I mention this because, as I understand it, The Episcopal Church was conceived a bit differently than other provinces of the Anglican Communion, specifically with the intent of avoiding a primatial episcopal form of governance. It’s the main reason why our “senior” most bishop is called the “Presiding Bishop” rather than an “Archbishop.” Our primatial authority comes from the collective voice of the General Convention, not any one particular bishop.
A brief history lesson: The Episcopal Church was formed under the name The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (and this is still our official name) in 1789, coming out of The Church of England. The genius of the early Episcopal Church was its attempt to articulate the historic episcopate (that is, bishops) in a liberal republican context (I use these terms in their more historical sense than in their contemporary sense). This Church was conceived to be a Church that reflected the representative democracy of its homeland. Rather than appoint an archbishop (a title which was common in the Church of England and carried reminders of monarchy and autocratic rule—the very things the nascent United States had just fought a war to be rid of), The Episcopal Church would gather in two Houses and this gathering would, collectively, do the work of an archbishop—each House moderated by a presider: a bishop for the bishops and either a priest or lay person for the deputies. For much of our history, the Presiding Bishop (who, again, was largely the bishop who presided over the work of the House of Bishops) was simply the senior-most bishop in The Episcopal Church at the time.
As the Church of England began to segment off into autonomous provinces, what we today refer to as the Anglican Communion, and as the High Church movement began to gain momentum, the desire for an archbishop-adjacent figure to represent The Episcopal Church in Anglican gatherings (particularly the once-per-decade Lambeth Conference) increased. Which leads us to today, where our Presiding Bishop is also seen as a primatial bishop‡.
I only bring all of this up to note that the argument made at the House of Bishops (about resolutions of General Convention being intended for the whole Church) reflects quite nicely a more traditional understanding of our governance and polity. And it was good to hear this, especially as it came from a more “liberal” bishop in our Church.
Additionally, I want to talk about something Bishop Love of Albany said in an interview with The Living Church. He’s quoted as saying, “I don’t believe we’ve done the clergy a favor by this[…] up until now, the clergy in the diocese could actually use the bishop as the excuse as to why they can’t go along with or approve a request for a same-sex marriage in their parish.”
The article goes on to say that the bishop explained that “clergy with traditional views on marriage will have to draw that line themselves.”
With all respect to the bishop, this ought to be a welcome change. God forbid a priest should have to articulate their convictions to someone instead of using the bishop as an excuse.
In my mind, this could help us as The Episcopal Church become more articulate in our theological rationale for the kinds of marriages we celebrate.
Conservatives ought not be allowed to lean on an “excuse.” Just like how liberals ought not lean on “well, it’s legal” as a rationale. As I mentioned in part five of this series, we need to start teaching this stuff in our congregations. Clergy need to be teaching their congregations about what they believe and why they believe it. It’s lazy, and poor pastoral leadership, to rely on excuses.
What the new marriage canon has done is it has shaken us from a place of complacency, from a place of simply saying “sorry, but them’s the rules.” We are now both empowered and obligated to teach our people about Christian marriage. And if we feel that marriage is only intended for a man and a woman, then we need to be clear about that and teach about that. We can’t rely on someone else to do that job for us—and nor should that have ever been the case. But, then again, this is part of the reason we’ve found ourselves in these discussions in the first place. We’ve relied on legality and past precedent to inform our understanding of marriage more than we’ve done deep theological work on what marriage is all about.
And, finally, an observation.
As already mentioned, I sat in the House of Bishops when this vote was taken. It was, in many ways, the final word on a discussion began in the late 1970s, a topic that has led to canonical trials, de-frockings, painful church splits, Supreme Court decisions, oceans of ink and endless pixels of digital text, actual violence in parts of the world, martyrdoms, the formation of new provinces and new Anglican communities… and it all came to a head with a vote in a conference room on the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center. It passed overwhelmingly.
A gavel was struck.
And without a moment of silence, we heard “our next order of business is…”
It was strangely procedural and sadly without fanfare. Perhaps the most divisive issue of The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement since the Civil War came to a close, to use a cliche, without a bang but a whimper.
The Episcopal News Service notes that the final vote, in the House of Deputies, sparked some applause, but the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings (president of the House) put a stop to it for decorum’s sake.
In a way, this is holy. Perhaps. A testament that the hard-fought battle is largely behind us. That we’ve mostly moved on.
Had the end-result been riotous, it would denote a victory held over an opponent. The guts and glory of fresh battle. But in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church there ought not be winners and losers. Because, in Christ, all are victors.
In Christ, death—the final enemy—is not so much trounced as rendered obsolete. In the New Jerusalem, death—like sin and war—becomes a memory, and then fades as the years roll on. Forgotten.
To quote the late Leonard Cohen, “love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Christ from His cross gave no battle cry. He simply breathed the words, “it’s done.”
And so, as concerns same-sex marriage in The Episcopal Church, it’s simply done. We've found a way forward. In time, everything about this will fade and all will remain are notes in a history book.
The gavel has been struck.
And now, the next order of business for the Jesus Movement.
*The dioceses in question are: Florida, Central Florida, Dallas, Albany, Tennessee, West Texas, North Dakota, Springfield. Not to mention Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The Communion Partner bishops extend beyond The Episcopal Church as well.
** The readmission of The Church of Cuba into The Episcopal Church was a momentous occasion at this Convention, and one that I will speak about more in another post.
*** I am only using this diocese for rhetorical purposes. Considering that some of the Communion Partner bishops are discerning their participation in The Episcopal Church following the General Convention, I am in no way certain that this resolution is going to work out this way in Albany. Again, I mention them only for the sake of the argument.
**** I’ll talk more about the liturgy in an upcoming series. The next rector’s forum will also be about this.
‡ This is WAY over-simplified. So, if you’re an Episcopal Church history nerd, please cut me some slack.