A resolution passed by the annual convention of the Diocese of Tennessee may foreshadow a dispute at this year’s General Convention on use of same-sex marriage liturgies within the Episcopal Church.

The resolution, which passed at the Jan. 19-20 convention in Murfreesboro, issues a memorial to the 79th General Convention on tension within the diocese about the place of same-sex marriage within the church. The Diocese of Tennessee is one of a few dioceses in the Episcopal Church in which the use of liturgies for same-sex marriage — authorized for use by the 78th General Convention in 2015 — has been prohibited.

The memorial, as stated in the resolution, acknowledges the diversity of opinion within the church and the diocese. It then asks that bishops and deputies of General Convention “take in account the exclusion, competing convictions, and loss of community experienced by members of this Diocese under the current terms of authorization for the texts” as they consider reauthorization of the materials.

The resolution passed nearly unanimously. It was supported by All Sacraments for All People (ASAP), a group within the diocese advocating for authorized use of liturgies blessing same-sex unions. ASAP has published video interviews of same-sex Tennessean couples seeking marriage within the church, those who turned elsewhere, and family and friends who support them. ASAP also has a presence on the web and on Twitter.

“The current terms and conditions set by General Convention for use of the Trial Liturgies have resulted in discord and pain within our diocese, and we want the experience of the people of the Diocese of Tennessee to be part of the national conversation about the trial use of these liturgies,” Connally Davies Penley of ASAP told TLC by email. “The General Convention asked for feedback, and we wanted the voice of our Diocese—our whole Diocese, despite our differences—to be part of the conversation at General Convention.”

For his part, the Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee, has consistently expressed his belief that same-sex marriage falls outside of traditional Church teachings — that marriage is between a man and a woman — and that he would not authorize use of liturgies that diverge from those teachings.

The “current terms and conditions” cited by Davies Penley is a stipulation within Resolution A054 of the 78th General Convention, which authorized trial use of liturgical resources for the blessing of same-sex relationships and the marriage of same-sex couples. The resolution requires bishops to provide access to liturgical resources like I Will Bless You, and You Will Be a Blessing — access that can be had through a Google search or an order from Church Publishing — but it places use of the liturgies under the sole authority of the bishop.

“Trial use is only to be available under the direction and with the permission of the Diocesan Bishop,” AC054 said. The General Convention resolution also made provision for clergy who decline to offer the liturgy, regardless of a wider diocesan or episcopal position.

“The resolution we adopted at our Annual Convention was a substitute for a different resolution that asked the General Convention to make the trial liturgies for same-sex marriage available in all dioceses without the need for episcopal permission, to be used by clergy according to their own conscience,” Bauerschmidt told TLC by email. “In the past I have not given this permission.”

The resolution, instead, memorialized General Convention “about our own divided state as a diocese, asking them to bear this in mind as they took up the issue of reauthorizing the trial liturgies and deciding the terms of the authorization,” the bishop said. “The resolution we adopted said nothing about the requirement of episcopal permission or about clergy conscience.”

In his convention address, Bauerschmidt shared concerns about “appealing to conscience as our authority for our actions” and excluding bishops from liturgical decisions. “I’m glad that these problematic references were not incorporated into the substitute, and that we chose to focus on the fact that we are not all of one mind,” he said.

According to Davies Penley, and as stated in the diocese’s memorial, this lack of agreement has led to division within the community. “Congregations who would like to offer these liturgies have lost some church members who have gone to other denominations where they can be married within a faith community,” Davies Penley said. “Others have simply left church after being turned away from the full sacramental life of the Episcopal Church. Many have remained in the church though they could not be married in the home parishes they serve, supported by their faith communities in their vows, or offered a blessing by the priest who walks along with them in their lives in Christ, and they report the pain of feeling like second-class citizens.”

Davies Penley also said distrust has grown within and between congregations “because this has been perceived as a dualistic choice rather than as a complex issue requiring ongoing conversation to resolve together.”

Bauerschmidt said that the diocese’s convention wanted to come together and that it did not want to “create winners and losers.” In his convention address, he called for conversation among the differing parties instead of legislation.

“I think our resolution is a sign of the limitations of the legislative process. I believe it acknowledges that many on both sides are hurting. More positively, I think it reflects a continued appreciation of the role of bishops in uniting the church.”

As General Convention approaches, conversation in the Diocese of Tennessee continues with the help of a task force on LGBTQ issues.

“The work of our diocesan task force is ongoing,” Bauerschmidt said. “Its focus is on helping us to have difficult conversations about human sexuality, with grace, without any expectation that minds will be changed on the issues or that anyone will get exactly what they want. Graceful conversation is our goal.”

Davies Penley said that ASAP sponsored the resolution that created the task force and that the group appreciates the work being done. ASAP members “expect the Task Force to continue facilitating gracious conversations in which we come together to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

She said that the work of conversation will continue alongside legislation. “We agree with the bishop that face-to-face conversation is vital, yet the Canons of the church recognize that one of the ways we talk to each other is through the adoption of ‘memorials’ from the Diocese to the General Convention.

“Nothing about this memorial closes off conversations in our diocese. In fact, the process of reaching out to discuss the memorial built bridges and initiated caring and respectful conversations among people in our diocese with a wide range of opinions on this issue. We pray that conversations at General Convention are facilitated by working through proposed legislation and bringing resolutions to a vote, just as happened in at this Diocesan Convention.”

At the end of the day, as Bauerschmidt made his decision clear, ASAP  is forthcoming in its desire to find some solution that will bring the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples in the Diocese of Tennessee.

“Our bishop has candidly acknowledged that further discussions will not change his views,” Davies Penley said. “In his address to the Diocesan Convention, he said, ‘I have been clear about my own limitations.’ Therefore, we hope the General Convention can find a via media which will allow all orders to discern God’s call on this difficult issue.”

Matthew Townsend

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