Even with Albany bishop’s resignation, diocese’s path toward same-sex marriage remains unclear

By David Paulsen and Egan Millard
Posted Oct 26, 2020
Albany Bishop William Love

Albany Bishop William Love speaks on Oct. 24 at the diocesan convention, announcing that he plans to retire as part of an agreement to resolve a Title IV disciplinary action. Photo: Diocese of Albany via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] Albany Bishop William Love’s agreement to resign early next year removes one of the final barriers to marriage equality across The Episcopal Church’s domestic dioceses, with some congregations in the Diocese of Albany considering whether to begin offering marriage rites to same-sex couples upon Love’s exit.

Love was one of the church’s most conservative bishops on that issue, and the only one to refuse to implement the compromise resolution passed by General Convention in 2018. A disciplinary panel determined on Oct. 2 that Love’s refusal violated church canon law and his ordination vows.

On Oct. 24, at the upstate New York diocese’s convention, Love, 63, announced he had reached an agreement with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to resign effective Feb. 1, 2021, rather than face further disciplinary action for blocking same-sex weddings in his diocese. The agreement is the final resolution of the disciplinary case against him.

In his announcement to the diocesan convention, Love called it a “very difficult, but necessary decision” that was made “after much thought and prayer, recognizing that whatever disciplinary action would be offered would not be anything I could in good conscience agree to.”

“Given all that has happened, and that which was still to come, I believe that to stay any longer would be more of a detriment to the diocese than a help,” Love said.

Under the agreement, which went into effect on Oct. 21 with the unanimous approval of the Disciplinary Board of the House of Bishops, Love will remain the diocesan bishop until Feb. 1 – three days before the 14th anniversary of his installation as the diocesan bishop – but will spend the preceding month on sabbatical. Love’s ban on same-sex marriage will remain in effect until Feb. 1, but so will the restriction on ministry Curry enacted in 2019 that prevents Love from taking disciplinary action against clergy or lay leaders regarding same-sex marriage. Love has also agreed to work with the presiding bishop’s office “to help foster a healthy transition.”

The diocese has no other active bishops. Under church canon law, the diocese’s standing committee assumes ecclesiastical authority when there is no bishop. The standing committee will also oversee the election of the next bishop, although the diocese did not have a time frame for when that might happen as of Oct. 26.

“I have tried by God’s grace and the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit to faithfully uphold my ordination vows, despite the recent ruling of the hearing panel,” Love told the convention. “I have tried to be faithful and obedient to God’s Holy Word as best I understand it, as revealed through the Holy Scriptures, recognizing its authority over my life and the ministry entrusted to me.”

The day after Love’s announcement, the Rev. Glen Michaels, a supply priest in the diocese, led a Sunday service at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville, New York. He avoided mentioning Love’s resignation in his sermon, but “it was the talk before and after the service.”

“The hope people expressed was that we can move past this controversy,” Michaels said in a phone interview with Episcopal News Service. “I think most folks in the pews seem to consider Bishop Love’s strong anti-gay stance to be distracting from the main work of the church.”

Even without Love as its leader, Albany still is known as a conservative diocese. It is based in New York’s capital city and includes more than 100 congregations, most of them in less-populated communities from the Canadian border to the northern Catskill Mountains. Many of the diocese’s priests and deacons were supportive of Love’s stance on same-sex marriage, but other clergy and some Episcopalians were frustrated that he continued to deny gay and lesbian couples the ability to marry in their churches. Uncertainty still looms over the diocese’s future.

“I don’t think anyone should plan on wedding bells on Feb. 2. There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done here,” said Louis Bannister, a member of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany who serves as a lay leader on the cathedral’s chapter.

Bannister, who is gay, has been a vocal proponent for allowing same-sex couples to get married in the diocese under General Convention’s Resolution B012. He doesn’t see Love’s resignation, however, as cause for celebration.

“I’m prayerful, I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic, but I’m not convinced that we’re running clear,” he told ENS on Oct. 26. “I’m hopeful that we will all be able to walk forward and heal. The road has been long.”

One of the diocese’s most prominent supporters of full LGBTQ inclusion in the church has been St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Albany. The congregation was one of at least three in the diocese that had been receiving pastoral oversight from bishops in neighboring dioceses because of tensions with Love.

“St. Andrew’s in Albany, New York, has long favored the inclusion of all people in the sacraments and the life of the church of Jesus,” Roland LaScala, senior warden at St. Andrew’s, said Oct. 26 in an email to ENS. “There is therefore no need for a discussion of same-sex marriage by the vestry. It is a decided matter for us. We have only wanted to walk in faith with our sisters and brothers as General Convention, guided by the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture, has revealed it.”

The Rev. Matthew Stromberg, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady, New York, told ENS by phone that Love’s opposition to Resolution B012 has frustrated members of his congregation as well.

“Our congregation tends to be a bit more open to the idea of same-sex marriage,” Stromberg said. “We have a number of gay parishioners and people involved in our leadership who are gay, and I think most everybody at St. George’s wanted the bishop to relent on this particular issue and have long been frustrated by his opposition.”

Clergy and lay leaders at St. George’s have not yet discussed the possibility of offering marriage rites to same-sex couples in the future, partly because no couples there now are planning to get married, Stromberg said. But if he were to agree to celebrate a same-sex wedding, he doesn’t think his congregation would object.

“It would be completely uncontroversial in my parish,” said Stromberg, who has been rector for four years.

Trial use of rites for same-sex marriage ceremonies were first approved by General Convention in 2015. Three years later, as Episcopalians prepared to gather in Austin, Texas, for the 79th General Convention, the conservative bishops of eight domestic dioceses – Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Florida, North Dakota, Springfield, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands – continued to block same-sex couples from marrying in their churches.

Resolution B012 was a compromise. It didn’t advance as far as advocates preferred toward including the rites in the Book of Common Prayer, but it established that the rites should be available to all couples and emphasized that clergy have the authority to use them. Seven of the eight holdout bishops said they would implement the resolution, with some of them interpreting provisions of the resolution as allowing them to delegate pastoral oversight for same-sex marriages to fellow bishops.

Love refused, calling homosexuality “sinful and forbidden” in a November 2018 pastoral letter that outlined his decision to block the use of those rites in the diocese.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry responded in January 2019 by partially restricting Love’s ministry and initiating the process that led to his Title IV disciplinary hearing under the church’s canons.

Michaels, in addition to serving the diocese as a supply priest, is vicar of All Souls Memorial Chapel, a summer chapel in St. Huberts in the Adirondacks. That congregation’s vestry voted soon after General Convention in 2018 to allow same-sex weddings at the chapel, and Michaels was prepared to officiate at such ceremonies even after Love issued his directive forbidding it.

Since Michaels is a part-time priest who also works full time as an assistant New York attorney general, he reasoned that his livelihood wouldn’t be affected by any attempt by Love to punish him. But that scenario never materialized. Michaels was “ready and willing,” but no one asked to be married at All Souls. He and others interviewed for this story were not aware of any congregations that have challenged Love by marrying gay or lesbian couples.

“I really do wish Bishop Love well. I’m just really sorry it had to come to this,” Michaels said. “When he issued that pastoral letter in November 2018, it was so attacking and divisive. It wasn’t just saying, ‘Here’s what I believe, folks.’ It was calling same-sex marriage the work of Satan. That was such a turnoff for so many people, and most congregations that I work with, regardless of their feeling of same-sex marriage, don’t want this to be the focus of the Diocese of Albany.”

Stromberg, the Schenectady rector, was somewhat surprised that Love announced at the convention that he intended to resign, but it was “the best choice for everyone involved,” Stromberg said.

“It would have been disruptive to me to see the bishop deposed,” he said. “He’s the bishop that ordained me as a priest. We haven’t always seen eye to eye on everything, but he’s always been supportive to me. … It would have been very sad for me to see it end that way.”

A request for comment from the Very Rev. Leander Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints, was directed to the diocese. Bannister said he wasn’t aware of any gay or lesbian couples who have yet sought to be married at the cathedral.

Bannister partly attributes that fact to an exodus of LGBTQ Episcopalians from the diocese’s churches. “The message has been very clear, that we are not welcome here or that we are second-class Christians,” Bannister said, though he said has always felt welcomed at the cathedral.

“People need to feel like they can come back to the church, those that have left. People need to feel that it’s safe to stay in the church,” he said. He is concerned that Love’s resignation may appear like a “win” by The Episcopal Church over the diocese on this issue, when “there’s still division yet to come” – even in his own congregation.

“I know that the majority of people in the cathedral congregation would support [same-sex marriage], but there are some who would prefer to follow Bishop Love,” he said.

Love has received support throughout the process from bishops affiliated with Communion Partners, a group of Anglicans dedicated to preserving traditional marriage and advocating for tolerance of their views across the Anglican Communion. Love’s supporters include most of the U.S. bishops who oppose same-sex marriage but have allowed it in their dioceses under the canonical provision that allows another bishop to provide pastoral oversight.

Eight Episcopal bishops – including the bishop of Honduras – signed a letter supporting Love in September 2019, after it was announced that he would face a disciplinary hearing.

“We stand in solidarity with him,” the bishops wrote. “We are dismayed that latitude is extended to some in the enforcement of canons, but not to others.”

The same group of bishops wrote another letter in support of Love after the hearing panel’s decision this October.

“We support unreservedly his convictions on the church’s traditional teaching on marriage,” they wrote. “If members of the church who hold the traditional teaching on the question of marriage have ‘an indispensable place’ in our church, as the General Convention has said, then securing that place needs to be a priority. Again, now is the time. This indispensable place should not be an unstable one.”

In an email to ENS last week, Dallas Bishop George Sumner, one of the signers, said the church has been inconsistent in the enforcement of its canons.

“We recall over the past 15 years many occasions when bishops took liturgical actions contrary to the canons in the name of ‘the prophetic,’ and hope for a similar latitude for our friend Bishop Love,” Sumner wrote, speaking on behalf of the Communion Partners bishops, before Love announced his resignation.

Another signer, West Texas Bishop David Reed, told ENS the letter “was not meant to oppose the hearing panel’s decision, but to remind our church, and maybe our brother and sister bishops in particular, of things our church has said about the ‘indispensable place’ of more traditional Episcopalians in the life of the church.”

“The hearing panel had the difficult task of deciding on a narrow canonical question, and I don’t question the accuracy of their decision,” Reed said. “My hope, for the sake of the whole church, and for the sake of the church’s witness to the world, is that we will refuse to give up on one another, despite a few profound differences and strongly held beliefs.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org. Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.