Task force’s resolutions affirm ‘big tent’ church despite lingering same-sex marriage divisions

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 4, 2024

[Episcopal News Service] A task force of church leaders on both sides of the theological debate over marriage equality has proposed a series of canonical changes intended to affirm a place in the church for Episcopalians of all beliefs – including those who believe marriage is intended solely for a man and woman.

The Task Force on Communion Across Difference has asked the 81st General Convention to consider five resolutions, each at least partly in response to an earlier measure passed in 2018 that ensured marriage rites would be available to same-sex couples in all Episcopal dioceses where same-sex marriage is legal under civil law.

One new proposal this year, under consideration by the Prayer Book, Liturgy & Music committees, is Resolution A090, which would explicitly permit the continued use of the version of the Book of Common Prayer that was first authorized in 1979. Its marriage liturgy specifies a male-female couple.

The three resolutions that propose canonical changes were assigned to General Convention’s Constitution and Canons committees of bishops and deputies, which have scheduled an open hearing for noon Eastern April 10 on Zoom. Anyone interested in testifying or observing the hearing is asked to sign up in advance.

One of those three, Resolution A091, aims to further define use of the 1979 prayer book as an accepted statement of the doctrine of the church. The task force explained that A091 would protect “members of the clergy who believe that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman” from allegations they are violating their ordination vows by using older marriage rites.

If recommended by the committees, the task force’s resolutions then would advance for consideration at the 81st General Convention when it convenes June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

The 79th General Convention first created a Task Force on Communion Across Difference at its 2018 meeting to help bridge the theological divide between progressive church leaders and more conservative bishops and other clergy, who now are in the minority across The Episcopal Church. In 2022, the 80th General Convention passed a resolution renewing the task force. One of its stated goals has been to affirm “the indispensable place that the minority who hold to this church’s historic teaching on marriage have in our common life, whose witness the Church needs.”

General Convention specified that half of the task force’s members must hold the belief that marriage is a “covenant between a man and a woman,” citing the language from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and the other half of the task force should hold that marriage is a “covenant between two people.”

Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt, known as one of the church’s more conservative bishops on the issue, and Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe, who previously assisted an LGBTQ+-inclusive congregation in the more conservative Diocese of Albany, co-chaired the task force.

“I’m grateful for the good work done by the task force in the shortened period between General Conventions in 2022 and 2024,” Bauerschmidt told Episcopal News Service by email in response to an inquiry for this story. “Members represented the broad theological diversity present in The Episcopal Church. We were grateful to have this opportunity to serve the church.”

Duncan-Probe, in a phone interview with ENS, described the work of the task force as filed with grace and “people really seeking to understand each other.”

“It’s always hard work to come together when there’s difference of beliefs and opinions and life experience,” Duncan-Probe said. “There was a quite a bit of learning … learning to recognize that while there are differences of opinion and beliefs, at the heart of this is the dignity of every human being.”

The task force concluded its work with a 16-page Blue Book report to the 81st General Convention. It can be found here. Bauerschmidt said its five proposed resolutions “are attempts to ensure that The Episcopal Church remains the ‘big tent’ community that it has always been. In the face of our differences, we need to make room for each other.”

One of the other canonical changes, proposed by Resolution A092, would address what the task force said has been “the perception, and often the reality, of discrimination within the discernment and employment processes of The Episcopal Church” when a prospective employee’s beliefs on marriage differ from those held by the bishop or diocese.

The resolution would add language to Canon III.1 stating “no person shall be denied access to the discernment process or to any process for the employment, licensing, calling, or deployment for any ministry, lay or ordained, in this Church because of their conscientiously-held theological belief that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, or that marriage is a covenant between two people.”

The task force summarized its discussions on this issue in its Blue Book report. “In dioceses where there is little to no internal disagreement regarding same-gender marriage, this may not be an issue of major concern,” the task force wrote. “However, the problem can be quite acute for parishes who affirm a theology of marriage that is not the same as that of their diocese or its bishop.”

A separate resolution, A093, would add the compromise language from General Convention’s 2018 Resolution B012 supporting same-sex marriage to the church’s marriage canon. The addition would specify that bishops who believe marriage is solely intended for a man and a woman “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 other community of faith.”

The fifth proposed resolution, A094, calls for the creation of a third Task Force on Communion Across Difference to continue this work for the next triennium. It is assigned to the Governance and Structure committees.

“Building ‘communion across difference’ implies that there’s going to be disagreement and difference,” Duncan-Probe said, but the task force members developed “mutual respect” for each other. They also grew to appreciate the difference between respecting someone’s theological belief on marriage and affirming a person’s right to be who they are, regardless of their sexuality.

“There was a recognition that what we’re seeking is to recognize God’s work in each of us,” she said.

Same-sex blessings and marriage rites have been among the most hotly contested issues at the past several meeting of General Convention. This year, no major new changes to marriage liturgies have been proposed, though the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has asked that the trial-use marriage rites for same-sex couples be added to the Book of Common Prayer. A hearing has not yet been scheduled on that resolution, A116.

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