General Convention will again grapple with same-sex marriage questions

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Apr 4, 2018

“Liturgical Resources 1: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing” was one of the rites General Convention authorized in 2015 for trial use. Photo: Church Publishing Inc.

[Episcopal News Service] On June 26, 2015, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the 78th General Convention was in its second day.

A few days later, convention authorized two new marriage rites for trial use (Resolution A054) by both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The bishops and deputies also made the canonical definition (via Resolution A036) of marriage gender-neutral.

Indie Pereira asked her priest, who was at convention in Salt Lake City, if this meant she and her then-fiancée could finally get married at their parish in Tennessee.

It wasn’t until November 2015 that the answer to Pereira’s question became clear. Diocese of Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt told the diocese that he would not allow the use of the rites and that only marriages between men and women could be performed in the diocese. He said that same-sex couples could work with Diocese of Kentucky clergy, whose bishops said they could use the rites.

“From my perspective, I don’t really want to have a destination wedding in Kentucky, not to insult Kentucky,” Pereira told Episcopal News Service.

Thus, “almost three years later, we still haven’t had access to a church wedding, which we had been hoping for,” said Pereira, who attends St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nashville. She and her partner had a civil marriage but, she added, “I still hope that I can have my marriage blessed in my parish.” And blessed by the priest who, she said, “has walked with me through some of the most difficult moments of my life.”

When convention authorized the liturgies in 2015, bishops and deputies said individual diocesan bishops had to approve their use. And convention directed diocesan bishops to “make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies.”

General Convention’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage has since monitored the use of the trial liturgies and is aware of concern about unequal access to the trial use liturgies. Its Blue Book Report, released April 3, says it found that eight diocesan bishops in the church’s 101 domestic dioceses have not authorized the trial liturgies.

The Episcopal Church includes 10 dioceses in civil legal jurisdictions that do not allow marriage for same-sex couples. Since church canons require compliance with both civil and canonical requirements for marriage, convention did not authorize the trial liturgies for use in those dioceses. The task force received a statement that was signed by five Province IX diocesan bishops and one retired bishop representing the dioceses of Ecuador Litoral, Ecuador Central, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Honduras. Their statement criticized the task force’s recommendations and threatened that approval would “greatly deepen the breach, the division and the Ninth Province will have to learn to walk alone.” The bishops of Colombia and Puerto Rico did not sign the statement.

The task force is proposing that convention require bishops in authority to “make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have reasonable and convenient access to these trial rites.” It also would have convention say that bishops will “continue the work of leading the church in comprehensive engagement with these materials and continue to provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.” The reference to “generous pastoral response” echoes Resolution 2009-C056, which forms part of the history of the church’s move toward marriage equality.

In the General Convention worship hall before the daily Eucharist on June 26, 2015, the Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime advocate for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, past president of Integrity, and senior associate at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, celebrates that day’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. With her is the Rev. Michael Sniffen, now the dean of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, New York, and a self-described “straight ally.” Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Essentially, the task force is saying that, in the words of the Rev. Susan Russell, a task force member who helped research the acceptance and use of the trial liturgies, “it shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code to have access to the rites.”

The eight bishops who have prohibited same-gender marriage in their dioceses are Albany Bishop William Love, Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer, Dallas Bishop George Sumner, Florida Bishop John Howard, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, Springfield Bishop Dan Martins, Tennessee’s Bauerschmidt and Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs, according to the task force.

Love, Brewer, Sumner, Martins and Bauerschmidt prohibit clergy canonically resident in those dioceses to use the liturgies inside or outside of the diocese, the report said.

“At this point it’s very unclear whether canonically resident clergy could actually use the liturgies [anywhere] without the permission of their own bishop,” Bauerschmidt told ENS before the report was released. “So, that’s not so much my idea, but I think it’s implied by the 2015 resolution.”

The bishops in Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Florida and Tennessee have told same-sex couples who wish to be married to go to a neighboring diocese, according to the report. Smith has provided Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) for a parish that asked to use the liturgies. The task force said it could not determine whether Gumbs has made provisions for Virgin Islands couples to access the liturgies.

“I was honestly quite surprised to find that the liturgies were being so overwhelmingly received and overwhelmingly authorized with so few restrictions,” Russell, a longtime advocate for the full inclusion of LBGTQI people in the life of the church, told Episcopal News Service.

“I couldn’t have imagined those numbers 10 years ago,” she added.

Task Force Chair Joan Geiszler-Ludlum agreed. She told ENS that the group found that the restrictions some bishops have placed on their use are “fairly innocuous” and include such things as approval of both the rector and the vestry or use after a congregational discernment process.

The overwhelming majority of task force members agreed to call for the whole church to have equal access to the rites, Geiszler-Ludlum and Russell said.

The proposed new requirement of “reasonable and convenient access” is not the only recommendation on marriage that the task force is making to General Convention. The group is calling for continued trial use of the liturgies as additions to the Book of Common Prayer, as well as amendments to the prayer book’s other marriage rites, prefaces and sections of the Catechism to make language gender-neutral.

The task force would also have convention authorize two liturgies for blessing the relationships of couples who choose not to marry for legal or financial reasons. It also recommends that the church ponder new ways to minister to the growing number of people who cohabitate in committed and monogamous relationships rather than marry. ENS coverage of those recommendations can be found here.

Meanwhile back in Tennessee

Episcopalians who live in the eight dioceses and want access to same-sex marriage worry that the rest of the church does not grasp their situation. Connally Davies Penley, who helped form the advocacy group All Sacraments for All People, or ASAP, in the Diocese of Tennessee, says that when she travels to other dioceses and tells her diocese’s story “people are just astonished. They have no idea that this is happening. I think if people know, we can get somewhere, but they just don’t know.”

ASAP and five congregations submitted a diocesan convention resolution to have the diocese ask General Convention to allow clergy and churches to decide on access to the same-sex marriage rites, instead of bishops.

“I think the work before us is to learn how to speak to each other in a gracious way, not to engage in legislation. The trouble with legislative fixes is that in making them we create winners and losers,” Bauerschmidt said in his address to diocese convention.

In the end, the convention passed a substitute resolution to send a so-called “memorial” to General Convention asking that its 2018 deliberations “take into account the exclusions, competing convictions, and loss of community experienced by the members of this diocese under the current terms of authorization for these texts.”

ASAP supported the substitute resolution “because we thought it could pass and it did almost unanimously, and so to have something from the whole diocese with an almost unanimous vote seemed powerful,” said Davies Penley.

Pereira agreed. “It said that the way things are currently are not working well for our diocese, so we thought that was a good start,” she said.

“It was wonderful occasion of a diocese coming together in the face of the prospect of challenges to our unity,” Bauerschmidt told ENS.

Davies Penley and Pereira said their and ASAP’s goal is “to draw the circle bigger,” in Davies Penley’s words. “This has been drawn here as this black-and-white, either-or issue,” she said. “I’m not going to change Bishop Bauerschmidt’s mind, and that’s not my job. I just want room for all of us.”

“And while I disagree with priests in this diocese who say it’s wrong, I’m not trying to change their minds and I trust their hearts. They’re trying to do their best but leave space for us, too.”

Geiszler-Ludlum and Russell said the resolution was a compromise that “was still a win for them.” Russell added that the history of the effort to allow all Episcopalians access to the sacrament of marriage has included other compromises along the way.

A push for equal access in Central Florida

The Rev. Alison Harrity, rector of St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Winter Park, said some priests in the Diocese of Central Florida have considered what one called “a public act of canonical disobedience” after which they would face the consequences in order to draw attention to the disparity.

Harrity and others from St. Richard’s and elsewhere in the diocese attempted in late January to have their diocesan convention change a canon that restricts marriage to heterosexual couples and denies clergy the ability to solemnize same-sex marriages. They also asked the diocese to commit to “ending institutional and other forms of discrimination for LGBTQ+ people” and form a task force to study the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the sacramental life of the church.

Both resolutions were ruled out of order weeks before the Jan. 26-27 convention because, Brewer said in his convention address, they failed to measure up in what he called his grid for decision-making. The grid is based on the text of the examination (page 517 of the Book of Common Prayer) of a bishop-elect during his or her ordination and consecration. Brewer said it helps him balance coherence with the faith of the apostles with the impact of any action on the faith, unity and discipline of the church, and what he called “my global responsibility as a leader who shares that leadership with other bishops throughout the world.”

He called, instead, for a task force to reflect on the 2015 actions of General Convention on marriage, and their canonical and pastoral implications for diocesan congregations. The task force will also consider the biblical, theological and pastoral implications of convention’s actions.

Brewer’s remarks on the resolutions begin at the 27:03 mark in this video.

Geiszler-Ludlum called the proposed task force “a big step” because it means that there will be “some discussion within that diocese.”

However, Jim Christoph, St. Richard’s senior warden, told ENS that the goal of the proposed task force “is not to research how this diocese is treating gay people. It’s to react to the national church and their error.” Christoph also objected to what he called Brewer’s “denunciation” by name of the St. Richard’s vestry during his address.

“I felt very belittled,” said Stephen O’Connell, who is the secretary of St. Richard’s vestry. “I felt like I was a child being reprimanded in front of a whole group of people and shamed for something we felt was important.”

Brewer has not been available for comment.

Harrity said she “naively believed” that advocates of marriage equality would not have to resort to performing an act of canonical disobedience because they had a process available to them at diocesan convention to attempt to change the restrictive canon.

“But, the truth of the matter is, this church allows bishops to make up rules along the margins of canon law, both national canon law and local canon law, that circumvent any process,” she said. “The only way that we are going to get anything done in regard to canonical rights for gay people in the church is to be disobedient to our bishops? I am not interested in getting spit on or having anybody that we’re connected to getting spit on when we have a process that would work for us if it was allowed to work.”

Touching on larger issues of authority

The question of access to marriage is part of a larger one about where a diocesan bishop’s authority ends.

“There is the question of whether or not the bishop actually has the authority, canonically, to prohibit clergy under their licensure from functioning outside the diocese with liturgies approved by the General Convention,” Russell said. “There are those who argue it is not within their authority to do that. That is, for many in the church, not a settled point.”

“There’s a wide divergence of opinion about how much control bishops have, and the bishops themselves have different views of that, too,” Geiszler-Ludlum said.

There are other questions about authority. Can a bishop deny a sacrament to a group of people based on their sexual orientation? And can dioceses enact canons that restrict access to sacraments in ways that conflict with the canons of the wider church? Albany, Central Florida and Dallas have canons that restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.

Bauerschmidt hopes that the Episcopal Church will “find a way to make room for those who hold the traditional teaching of the church on marriage,” and to acknowledge that those people are “loyal members of the Episcopal Church.” He hopes for a “robust” solution that lasts over time and doesn’t need to be renewed every three years.

“I think it’s going to require the creativity of a lot of people,” he said.

Bauerschmidt added that he hopes convention will also “preserve the traditional and canonical responsibilities of bishops,” adding, “I really don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s important, too.”

The task force’s suggested solution to the access question is part of a proposed resolution outlining how convention might make “permanent additions and revisions to the Book of Common Prayer” of four marriage liturgies and specific gender-neutralizing word changes about marriage.

Those proposals could run in tandem with convention’s consideration of whether and how to begin a process for revising the prayer book. Convention’s legislative committee that will review all prayer book revision resolutions will handle the task force’s proposals. The task force is not proposing that the prayer book would need to be reprinted but that the additional rites be published separately at first.

The task force also is proposing to change Book of Common Prayer’s “An Outline of the Faith,” also known as the Catechism, to state that Christian marriage involves “two people,” not “the woman and the man,” as it now says on page 861. It would also add a question about marriage to explain the canonical requirements for marriage, including instruction in the purposes of Christian marriage.

The task force’s report was summarized during a side gathering at the March 6-9 House of Bishops retreat. Bauerschmidt said any proposal to change the Catechism’s definition of marriage “would be of great concern to those who hold to the traditional teaching” about marriage both inside and outside the Episcopal Church.

Although the March HOB meeting is traditionally largely private, Springfield Bishop Dan Martins blogged about each day’s sessions. On March 8, he wrote that he attended the gathering and rejected the proposal to consider the trial use liturgies to be part of the prayer book.

Martins noted that while a diocesan bishop can refuse to permit use of a trial liturgy, he or she cannot prevent clergy from using material deemed to be part of the Book of Common Prayer. He said the proposal “deserved a lot more consideration than it is getting at this meeting of the house.”

He added that it was “borderline dereliction of duty” not to have the entire house discuss the proposal. If the convention’s decision in 2003 to allow the Diocese of New Hampshire to have Gene Robinson, an openly gay partnered man, as its bishop was “an earthquake,” Martins wrote, “approval of anything like the Task Force on Marriage’s proposal would be a catastrophic aftershock.”

Gieszler-Ludlum and Russell said the task force members reached their conclusions by consensus. However, the Rev. Jordan Hylden, canon theologian of the Diocese of Dallas, filed a minority report, which begins on page 116 of the report, objecting to the makeup of the task force and its process, conclusions and their implications.

The task force has written a FAQ document outlining its work. It is available here.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (32)

  1. Steve Williams says:

    Doug, if Matthew 19 suggests that God intended for man and woman to marry and that that bond should not be broken by divorce, and if in your view this scripture by itself unambiguously precludes marriage between two of the same sex, then doesn’t it preclude divorce just as unambiguously? How can we reconcile this interpretation of Matthew 19 as providing unambiguous condemnation of same-sex marriage while we easily accept divorce and remarriage of divorced Episcopalians? I think we need to look elsewhere, other than in Matthew 19, for the explanation that eight Episcopal dioceses do not yet permit use of the trial rites for blessing of same sex marriages. The Diocese of Florida is one of those eight and suffers a history of several parishes exiting the diocese after publicity regarding the consecration of a gay bishop. I don’t know whether or not Matthew 19 would be claimed as justification for not now allowing the trial rites in the Diocese of Florida, as no explanation has been offered by the diocese. I suspect it is less related to scriptural interpretation than it is to a promoted emphasis on “unity” and the avoidance of diocesan discussion or statements on “controversial” issues, including those affecting LGBTQ and racial minorities.

  2. Susan M. Paynter says:

    It’s my belief that opinions on this issue are often, possibly mostly, a generational thing. In past generations, the societal-induced shame attached to homosexuality and the subsequent closeting thereof made gays (often just seen as “confirmed bachelors”) and lesbians (likewise seen as “old maids”) invisible. With rare exceptions, their sexuality, the way they were created by God, wasn’t seen. So it wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated. Many didn’t recognize that beloved family members, friends, community members and clergy were homosexual. And the daily pain endured by these beloved (and by the opposite-sex spouses they sometimes married in an effort to be “normal”) was not seen; so it wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated. As light has been increasing steadily, decade by decade, on that which had been historically kept in darkness, the normal variations (as confirmed by scientific inquiry) of human sexuality have come to be more and more accepted as just that: normal. Those of us who wish equally joyful lives for all of God’s children hope and pray that The Episcopal Church will support the effort to make marriage equality real for her members wherever they call home. We can be a beacon to the world. I haven’t seen any Gospel passages that tackle this particular question, so I don’t see any point in looking to the Bible for backup from Jesus. I think he’s trusting us to do the right thing.

  3. mike geibel says:

    The comments here show a lot of anger and discord over the issue of same sex marriage. I think we need to respect the positions of both sides. I can’t cite scripture one way or the other, and I certainly don’t profess to know God’s mind on the issue, but for me, I say everyone should be able to pursue happiness, and if that means a religious ceremony rather than civil ceremony, then it should be left to them and their pastor. Let God be the judge of whether the pastor’s actions are right or wrong.

    But no one should ignore another unspoken consideration. The TEC lost 35,000 members in 2016, the number of marriages and baptisms continued to plummet, and this decline is probably increasing given the partisan politicking by the TEC on divisive partisan and social issues since the 2016 election. Bishops in conservative middle America, in addition to their more orthodox theological beliefs, should be legitimately concerned that announcing the TEC as the Church for gay marriage, will result in the number of orthodox congregants who leave the Church significantly outnumbering the number of same sex marriages that would be performed. According to the NY Times’ “most detailed map of Gay marriages,” same sex marriage in Tennessee and almost all of middle America, is less than 1% of the state’s population.

    I suspect the number of LGBTQ Christian’ seeking a pastor’s blessing is a very small number in Tennessee, especially in rural areas, whereas the number of conservative congregants may be up to 50% of the congregation. Overruling Bishops in other states who know the tenor of their diocese may make the “enlightened one’s” on the West and East Coast feel ideologically righteous, but human nature is such that dictating what congregants in middle America may think or believe to be the true mind of God on this issue, will likely result in the exit of the more conservative members together with their financial support. I’m sure some supporters will say “good riddin’s” and that it is the Word that counts, equality in the abstract is the goal, and fiscal sustainability is irrelevant. Supporters of universal acceptance of same sex marriage ceremonies must be willing to accept the practical effect that more churches may become financially unsustainable, and no marriages, same sex or otherwise, will take place in a closed Church. Allowing some autonomy may serve the Church better than theological demagoguery at the national level, but if history is any guide, there is no tolerance for the minority dissenters at national conventions and there is no learning curve at the leadership level of the TEC when it comes to making social justice pronouncements that are sure to alienate a large percentage of the membership.

  4. Terry Francis says:

    Bruce you keep saying you’re for the dignity of all people. Apparently judging from your rhetoric you make an exception for people who are conservatives or traditionalist, people you constantly ridicule. People whose faith you question because they disagree with you on this issue. If my comments regarding your Christianity were snide it is certainly no worse than the comments you make toward people who believe the blessing of same sex marriages is wrong. And saying the Bible is a book with passages that are old, out of date and totally irrelevant to the 21th century, well, as I said before, those are the words of an atheist not a person of God. People like you are one of the reasons so many conservatives are leaving TEC. They are weary of having their faith, their morality, and their intelligence questioned just because they refuse to climb onto the progressive bandwagon. Not just in regards to same-sex marriage, but on other issues from immigration, climate change, gun control and so on. I’ll make a deal with you Bruce. I won’t question your faith for wanting same-sex marriage if you’ll stop questioning the faith of those who are against it. Otherwise you are, quite simply, a hypocrite. I am not going to debate you any further on this issue. I think I’ve made my point.

  5. Lawrence Denton says:

    As a lifelong Episcopalian, I find it insulting to my intelligence that the only reason same-sex marriage is not possible in my parish is that it is not in the Prayer Book. I don’t know if the reason is explained and discussed in the other seven dioceses that do not allow blessing of same-sex marriage, but it is not discussed by the Diocese of Florida. I feel entitled to a deeper or more meaningful explanation than that it is not in the Prayer Book. Leadership to me has a responsibility to explain and discuss issues affecting gay and lesbian worshippers, especially when they are denied the full sacraments others can receive.

    Racial discrimination and the ordination of women have also been controversial. How has the church survived the differences among congregants on those issues? Or do we believe the decrease in membership in the Episcopal Church is due in part to worshippers leaving because they disagreed with the church over the issues of racial discrimination and ordination of women? Is the fear of further losses what’s really behind the refusal in some parts of the country to fully include gay and lesbian Episcopalians?

  6. Steve Williams says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the comments of Susan Paynter and Catherine Cummings that Gospel passages do not resolve the issue around blessing same-sex marriages and that we should be concerning ourselves with such problems as hunger, homelessness and availability of healthcare. I live in a politically conservative part of the country in which social justice and economic equality goals are not given high priority, with public faith seeming to rest on a need to privatize governmental functions, including education, and to stop illegal immigration, protect the Second Amendment, and continue to reduce taxes, health care and public assistance expenditures. Our Diocese of Florida prohibits use of the trial rites for same-sex marriage but also avoids discussion and diocesan positions on these other issues, as if to avoid challenging the predominantly conservative politics of this region. For instance, in the last year, our Diocese of Florida was silent when Episcopal bishops around the country spoke out publicly against the demonstrations of white supremacy, Nazism, and hate in Charlottesville, and our bishop was not among the 125 Episcopal bishops who signed a full-page New York Times ad on September 21 imploring the president not to end the DACA program. I agree that there are bigger problems affecting humanity and the church than same-sex marriage. However, the discussion generated by this ENS article on same-sex marriage and the inability of eight of 101 Episcopal dioceses to resolve differences on this issue may be instructive of the struggle to overcome division in other areas in which we are guided by our faith to act.

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