Central Florida’s canon prohibiting same-sex marriage becomes issue in bishop election

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 17, 2022
McCulley and Stacy wedding

Bobby McCulley, left, and Dustin Stacy exchange vows on Nov. 12 during their wedding in Cocoa, Florida, officiated by the Rev. Alison Harrity, rector of St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Winter Park. Photo: Jordan Hurst

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Central Florida forbids weddings of same-sex couples. It also allows them.

At the root of that contradiction is a diocesan canon restricting marriage to “one woman and one man.” The restriction remains on the books despite The Episcopal Church’s General Convention voting in 2018 to require all dioceses to accommodate same-sex couples wishing to marry. Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer said he would oblige, but so far, marriage equality in the Orlando-based diocese is limited to one parish, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Winter Park. Its rector, the Rev. Alison Harrity, is the only priest who has asked for and received permission from Brewer to marry gay and lesbian couples – a permission to essentially violate the diocese’s marriage canon.

Harrity, in a phone interview with Episcopal News Service, said she is grateful for the opportunity “to ensure that the sacraments are available to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.” At the same time, she wishes the diocese would be more open in addressing the discrimination underlying diocesan policies. Last weekend, she officiated at the wedding of Bobby McCulley and Dustin Stacy, who said they couldn’t marry in their home parish an hour away in Cocoa because Brewer has only accommodated the rites at St. Richard’s.

McCulley and Stacy were shocked when the priest in Cocoa told them she could not and would not officiate at their wedding, referring them to Harrity. “It was hurtful,” McCulley told ENS by phone. “I truthfully feel like I’m a second-class Episcopalian. Dustin and I do not truly matter in the eyes of the leadership of the diocese.”

Now, as Central Florida prepares to elect a bishop to succeed Brewer when he retires in June 2023, the gap between the diocesan canons and churchwide policies has become an election issue for the diocese, known as one of the most theologically conservative in The Episcopal Church. A diocesan questionnaire asked the three bishop candidates on the slate for the Jan. 14 election whether they would obey Central Florida’s canon opposing same-sex marriage and the General Convention resolution allowing same-sex marriage. All three said, yes, they would obey both.

General Convention first approved trial rites for same-sex couples in 2015, following up in 2018 by extending access to those rites to all U.S.-based dioceses. Even so, Central Florida is one of at least three dioceses, along with Albany and Dallas, where same-sex marriage is still canonically prohibited – where the answer to marriage equality is both no and yes.

“We are trying to thread that needle,” the Rev. Tom Rutherford, president of the Central Florida Standing Committee, told ENS by phone. “We are trying to follow the rules and be respectful of the General Convention resolution as well as our diocesan canon.”

The Central Florida Diocesan Convention could eliminate such ambiguity by repealing the restrictive marriage canon, though Brewer blocked such an effort in early 2018. The convention’s next meeting is in February. “If somebody wants to submit a resolution about that canon … they’re certainly welcome to do that,” Rutherford said.

Reconsidering the marriage canon, however, is not an immediate priority of diocesan leadership, according to the Rev. Scott Holcombe, Central Florida’s canon to the ordinary for congregational development. “After our election of a new bishop … and the confirmation process, we will turn our attention to other matters,” Holcombe told ENS by email. “Right now, our energies are focused on the bishop election.”

As bishop, Brewer is “the final interpreter of the canons,” Rutherford said, and it is up to the bishop “how we walk that tightrope” of complying with the 79th General Convention’s Resolution B012. For Brewer and several other conservative diocesan bishops, threading the needle on marriage equality has meant referring priests and parishes to outside bishops who approve of same-sex marriage, through a process often called delegated episcopal pastoral oversight, or DEPO.

McCulley Stacy kiss

Bobby McCulley, left, and Dustin Stacy were told by one Central Florida priest that she could not and would not marry them. She referred them to the Rev. Alison Harrity, who welcomed them at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park. Photo: Jordan Hurst

Under that option, Harrity was able to marry McCulley and Stacy on Nov. 12, in a chapel at the homeless shelter in Cocoa where McCulley works. McCulley, 30, called it one of the happiest days of his life. “Dustin was literally placed in my life by God,” he told ENS. “He’s my rock. I couldn’t do life without him.”

Access to marriage expands after 2018 compromise, but with conditions

Resolution B012 does not require or even specify a formal DEPO process, but that is the prevailing conservative interpretation of the resolution, which was accepted by bishops in 2018 as a compromise between progressives and conservatives.

The basis for that compromise was first set forth in 2015, when the 78th General Convention deleted the reference to “a man and a woman” in the church’s marriage canon, while adding the term “the couple.” It also approved trial-use marriage liturgies and made them available to same-sex couples, though their use was subject to a bishop’s discretion.

Three years later, Brewer was one of eight bishops who still would not permit their use in their dioceses. Resolution B012 in 2018 ensured equal access to the rites, in all dioceses where civil law permits same-sex marriage, while acknowledging that such marriages are contrary to some bishops’ theological beliefs. In such cases, the bishops “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.”

After the passage of the resolution, at one extreme, then-Albany Bishop William Love continued to refuse to allow clergy in his northern New York diocese to marry same-sex couples, prompting Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to pursue disciplinary action against him.

Like Central Florida, Albany says in its diocesan canons that clergy can only officiate at wedding ceremonies “between one man and one woman.” A disciplinary panel concluded that the diocesan canon did not absolve Love of his responsibility to carry out churchwide policies enacted by General Convention, including B012. He was forced to resign in February 2021 and was removed from episcopal ministry two months later. He has since left The Episcopal Church to join the conservative Anglican Church in North America.

Most other conservative bishops instead chose to enlist a more progressive bishop to assume pastoral oversight of same-sex weddings. Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt established such a process in his diocese, as did Bishop John Howard in the Diocese of Florida, though some Florida Episcopalians initially complained Howard’s process was cumbersome and didn’t live up to the spirit of B012.

In Texas, the Diocese of Dallas’ convention in 2017 had voted down a proposal to eliminate the anti-LGBTQ+ language in the diocese’s marriage canon. A year later, in response to General Convention’s Resolution B012, three Dallas parishes asked permission to marry same-sex couples, and Bishop George Sumner allowed it by referring those three parishes to then-Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith for pastoral oversight.

Some priests in parishes with these arrangements have expressed mixed feelings, however, especially in dioceses like Dallas where the bishop chose to relinquish pastoral oversight of the parishes in nearly all matters, not just same-sex weddings. The Rev. Paul Klitzke, rector of Church of the Ascension in Dallas, told ENS at the time that he thought more congregations would have sought permission to celebrate same-sex couples’ weddings “if it didn’t mean a change in the relationship with the bishop diocesan.”

At one Central Florida congregation, an ongoing struggle for equality

Such arrangements also have resulted in patchwork access to the rites in conservative dioceses, since not all parishes or priests request permission to offer them.

In Central Florida, the restrictive marriage canon dates to 2004, approved amid the churchwide debate over the 2003 consecration of now-retired New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop. The Central Florida canon reads: “All members of the clergy of this diocese may allow to take place in their cures, officiate at, bless or participate in, only those unions prescribed by Holy Scripture: the wedding of one woman and one man. Said clergy are forbidden to allow to take place in their cures, officiate at, bless or participate in any other unions, as proscribed by Holy Scripture.”

Clergy and lay leaders at St. Richard’s have long sought to welcome same-sex couples interested in marrying there. Documents on the church’s website included a letter to Brewer in October 2016 asking him “to allow the ceremony of the blessing of same sex marriages by the clergy and in the buildings of this diocese.”

Brewer in 2018

Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer addresses the diocesan convention in January 2018, saying he would not allow three resolutions on LGBTQ+ inclusion to come up for a vote. Photo: Diocese of Central Florida, via YouTube

At Brewer’s request, the congregation followed up with a proposal for offering the rites. If necessary, parish leaders said, St. Richard’s would welcome a different bishop’s oversight of marriages, ordinations and rector searches, but they preferred to retain pastoral oversight from Brewer on all other matters.

Brewer responded in March 2017 by citing the diocesan canon forbidding clergy from marrying same-sex couples in the diocese. “I will tell you that no parish church in Central Florida will host the performance of a gay marriage,” he wrote. “Our diocesan canons make that impossible, unless those canons are changed through a convention vote.”

Then St. Richard’s formed a committee that spent much of 2017 developing a plan to propose three resolutions on LGBTQ+ inclusion for the diocesan convention to consider at its January 2018 meeting, including one that would amend the canons to delete the restrictions on same-sex marriage. The other two resolutions sought to declare the diocese was “committed to ending institutional and other forms of discrimination for LGBTQ people” and to create a task force to “consult with LGBTQ people” on paths forward.

None of the proposals made it to a vote. “Though these resolutions contained material worthy of consideration, they failed, in my opinion, to live up to the requirements … regarding the faith unity and discipline of the church,” Brewer said in his convention address, explaining why he chose not to allow the resolutions to be considered.

“The wording of the resolutions themselves were freighted for confrontation. They were provocative, far more than they were conciliatory,” Brewer said, adding that St. Richard’s had included “no theological justification” for the proposals. He also warned, “it would not be possible to debate the resolutions without inflicting serious harm on the unity of the diocese.”

Harrity strongly disputes such characterizations, particularly regarding the resolution to delete restrictive language in the canons. “We just wanted it crossed out,” she told ENS.

Less than six months later, bishops and deputies at the 79th General Convention approved Resolution B012, ending marriage equality’s dependence on a diocesan bishop’s theological agreement. Harrity again asked Brewer for permission to marry same-sex couples at St. Richard’s, and he responded that he would accommodate the request by referring her to Kentucky Bishop Terry White. St. Richard’s and White established a delegated episcopal pastoral oversight relationship that has effectively ended interactions between the congregation and Brewer as its diocesan bishop.

Despite the disconnection with Brewer, “we were overjoyed,” Harrity told ENS. She has officiated at the weddings of five same-sex couples, some of them her parishioners, others, like McCulley and Stacy, referred to her by other priests in the diocese. Another wedding is scheduled for April.

Questions remain amid leadership transition

With Brewer nearing retirement, it will be up to the diocese’s new bishop whether to maintain Brewer’s current process for complying with General Convention on same-sex marriage or to consider alternative options. Two of the three candidates are priests in the diocese: the Rev. Roy Allison, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Ormond Beach and the Rev. Justin Holcomb, the diocese’s canon for vocation. The third candidate, Stacey Tafoya, is rector of Church of the Epiphany in Denver, Colorado.

The diocese’s candidate questionnaire asked seven questions, most of them inviting expansive answers on topics ranging from theology and evangelism to the post-pandemic church. The final question asks the candidates to reach the diocesan canon on marriage and General Convention’s Resolution B012.

“Would you obey this Canon? Yes or no … Would you obey this Resolution? Yes or no,” the questionnaire concludes.

The Rev. Chris Rodriguez, who served as chair of the search committee, said the intent was to determine how the candidates felt about the status quo under Brewer. “The spirit of the question was, would any nominee who would be brought in essentially be willing to continue in that same practice?” Rodriguez told ENS by phone.

At a forum on Nov. 9, the three candidates were asked to expand on their views, including whether they would be in favor of changing diocesan canons to align with churchwide policies.

“We know there’s much conversation and dialog to go along with how we reach out to our brothers and sisters in the LGBT+ community,” Allison said. He alluded to Brewer’s process of delegated episcopal pastoral oversight, to comply with the church’s policy on same-sex marriage. “At no point can the diocesan canons and constitutions supersede the national church.”

Holcomb agreed that churchwide canons take precedence over diocesan canons, but even if the diocesan canon were changed to eliminate restrictions on same-sex marriage, “B012 created a mechanism for traditional bishops to continue teaching a traditional view,” he said.

Tafoya’s answer was shorter and more direct. “I would hope that that canon would not be changed,” he said. “That was another reason why I was attracted to the Diocese of Central Florida.”

Rutherford, the standing committee president, told ENS he thinks the candidates “would probably lose a bunch of votes from different portions of the diocese” if they said they rejected either the diocesan canon or the General Convention resolution. As for reconciling the two positions, he said, “the new bishop will have to figure out how to do that once they get into office.”

Harrity said she and her congregation were satisfied that the compromise reached in B012 achieved their goal of welcome gay and lesbian couples interested in marrying at St. Richard’s, though the diocese still has “a long way to go.”

“While I feel privileged to be able to provide this service in the diocese of Central Florida, and seem to be the only one, the ultimate goal is not to remain in this silo. The ultimate goal is to shed light on the discrimination,” Harrity said. “This needs to be contended with, not just theologically but as a social justice issue.”

McCulley and his husband, who now make the 45-minute drive to Winter Park to worship at St. Richard’s, have been following the bishop search closely. Whichever candidates wins, the difficulty the couple faced in getting married “isn’t going to leave our minds until we have resolution here in our diocese,” McCulley said. They want to work to change the diocese’s canons, “so this isn’t a problem for other couples moving forward.”

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