By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When the Special Legislative Committee on Marriage convened its first open hearing Wednesday night, speakers overwhelmingly favored proposals that would clear the way for same-sex marriage across the Episcopal Church.

Of the 15 who spoke to two proposed resolutions, only one said, “I do not have the clarity that others do,” and called for more study of the issue. The rest urged the panel to make marriage rites available to same-sex couples and to allow gender-specific language in the Book of Common Prayer to be used in a gender-neutral manner.

“If the diversity of loving relationships represented in our community cannot be sacramentally affirmed in a clear way, it creates not only a pastoral problem but a deep theological problem,” said the Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn. “The manifestation of God’s love for the world and God’s love for the church is only partially and not fully known.”

The hearing marked the first of three that the panel is convening over as many days. Committee members will then hammer out resolution language and vote on what to bring before the House of Bishops and House of Deputies.

Some advocates who testified made their case on the grounds of rights. Others championed the idea that a church serious about evangelism must adopt same-sex marriage rites, lest it not be taken seriously as a witness to Christ’s love.

“Our congregation welcomes young people, many of whom don’t understand what this fuss is all about,” said the Rev. Cynthia Black, rector of Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey. “This is simply an evangelism opportunity that we have before us, and it would be a shame for us to let this pass by.”

Speakers also connected the quest for same-sex marriage rites with other causes, including the quest for racial equality, which has emerged as a hot topic in the early days of the 78th General Convention. One priest compared marriage-rite language in the Book of Common Prayer with the Confederate flag, which activists have clamored to remove from statehouses in the wake of a June 17 massacre of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, South Carolina, church.

“How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?” asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. “Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.”

The hearing also addressed whether General Convention should ask a new task force on marriage to continue its work. The Rev. Philip Dinwiddie, a committee member and rector of St. James Church in Grosse Ile, Michigan, doubted that more study would have much effect on those who favor the resolutions.

“If you put a report in front of them — of doctrine, theology and history — all showing conclusively that same-sex marriage is not God’s will, … I’d be surprised if any of them would change their minds,” he said. “I’d love to read more study. I question whether it would ultimately [make] a difference in the conversation.”

Two committee members observed aloud that the work of the task force on marriage had suffered from a lack of diversity. The result was a corpus of essays whose biblical and theological depth was “not compelling,” said Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh. A reconstituted task force, he said, should perhaps have four or five times as many members in order to give the resulting report sufficient richness to become a leading ecumenical resource.

“A substantial range of voices was excluded in this task force,” Bishop McConnell said. “Trying to imagine what traditional commitments look like — and they did a lot of work in that regard — that’s a different thing from actually having somebody who has deep traditional commitments on the task force.”

Echoing a call for more work by the task force, Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee noted: “We need to have the traditional mindset as one of our conversation partners.”

What’s more, committee members said, the current task force has discovered how ill-equipped the church is to minister to unmarried people, who represent the majority of adults in America. In its next phase, the task force would consider a host of issues unrelated to same-sex marriage, including how to reach and care pastorally for those who cohabitate or do not ever intend to marry.

“People who are talking about marriage are asking for a very conservative alternative,” said Michael Wood, a deputy from the Diocese of New York. “The progressive position is much more a position of not marrying at all. … What is the church’s response to the call to give to that new cultural reality?”

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