Testimony on range of constitutional, canonical proposals includes support for changes relating to marriage equality

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 10, 2024

[Episcopal News Service] A series of resolutions seeking to ensure Episcopalians with diverse theological beliefs have a place in the church received strong support from some of those testifying April 10 at a legislative hearing that covered a broad range of canonical and constitutional proposals.

More than 60 people attended the Zoom hearing held by the 81st General Convention’s Constitution & Canons committees on 22 proposed resolutions. The full list of resolutions can be found here. Parallel bishops’ and deputies’ committees, though distinct, typically meet and deliberate together. This hearing was moderated by William Powel of the Diocese of Ohio, chair of the House of Deputies Committee on Constitution & Canons.

Three of the resolutions discussed at the hearing, A091, A092 and A093, had been submitted by the Task Force on Communion Across Difference, which was first created in 2018 and renewed in 2022 in response to lingering theological disagreements related to the authorization of marriage rites for use by same-sex couples.

“The Holy Spirit was at work in our open and gracious conversations,” said the Rev. Mark Michael, a theologically conservative priest and member of the task force from the Diocese of Washington. Michael, rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, also serves as editor-in-chief of The Living Church.

One of the proposals, 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 the canons that “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” because of their views on marriage.

Michael noted that he is part of a conservative minority within his own diocese. “Clergy like me are concerned about the weaponization of Title IV against us,” Michael said, referring to the church’s disciplinary canons. He did not indicate he personally felt targeted in that way, though he was encouraged that the proposals send “a strong message to clergy like me, that there will be room for us to joyfully serve this church we love.”

The Rev. Kelli Joyce testifies April 10 in favor of resolutions proposed by the Task Force on Communion Across Difference, of which she was a member.

Another task force member, the Rev. Kelli Joyce, is a priest from the Diocese of Arizona who is pursuing a doctorate in theology from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She also spoke in favor of the resolutions, saying the task force’s work was “of personal importance to my wife and me.”

While preaching at congregations in the Diocese of Tennessee, Joyce said she has been asked by some churchgoers whether she will stay in central Tennessee after she graduates. She responds that she’s uncertain whether parish roles would be available to her in what is known as one of the church’s more conservative dioceses. Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt also served on the task force and has endorsed its proposals.

“It’s true,” Joyce said, “that the mandate of our task force involved doing work to ensure there remains a place in the church for people who are conservative on the question of same-sex marriage. But this resolution is also about protections for people like me.”

Another proposal, Resolution A091, aims to further define use of the Book of Common Prayer, as it was authorized in 1979, as an accepted statement of the doctrine of the church, protecting clergy who use the older marriage rites from allegations they are violating their ordination vows. A third measure, Resolution A093, would add language from a 2018 compromise resolution to the church’s marriage canon.

If the Constitution and Canons committees recommend the proposed resolutions, they will advance for consideration by the full House of Bishops and House of Deputies when they convene June 23-28 at the 81st General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

The following are some of the other resolutions discussed at the committees’ hearing:

Several people testified in favor of A072, which would finalize a constitutional change first endorsed by General Convention in 2022. It would define the church’s prayer book as “those liturgical forms and other texts authorized by the General Convention,” allowing more flexibility to expand the prayer book’s liturgies. Constitutional changes like this must be approved at two successive meetings of General Convention.

The Rev. Ruth Meyers, a liturgy professor at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and longtime churchwide leader in prayer book revision, testified that that this resolution would not change the church’s continued use of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. “What will change is our concept of a prayer book, freeing it from the binding of a printed book,” she said.

Resolution A051 aims to broaden the church’s collection and dissemination of data to assist church leaders at all levels in planning for the church’s future. The explanatory text says the church is “woefully behind our sister denominations in the collection, study, and use of data for decision making.”

“We need to be able to adapt, but we need to know what we’re adapting to,” said the Rev. Rowan Larson, a member of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, which proposed the resolution.

Leaders of the church’s Court of Review spoke in favor of the five resolutions it is proposing. Some would clarify canonical language while others would change how the Court of Review conducts its investigations. Resolution A103, for example, would enable the court to retain an investigator to assist it when it is called on to respond to objections to bishop elections.

“These reviews are an incredible amount of work,” testified Laura Russell, a lay deputy from the Diocese of Newark who serves as president of the Court of Review. The same resolution would increase the time allotted for the Court of Review’s work from 45 days to 60 days after receiving a case.

Resolution A104 also proposed by the Court of Review would limit the time for Title IV disciplinary proceedings involving clergy to 15 months, to help ensure timely resolutions of those cases.

And members of the Task Force on the State of Membership in The Episcopal Church spoke in favor of Resolution A108. The resolution would make several changes to the canon that defines lay membership in the church, including to create the new category of “associate member.” That would be someone “who is active in the life of this church through worship, giving, and program participation, but whose official membership remains elsewhere.”

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