The 79th General Convention will debate a proposal to introduce same-sex marriage into the Book of Common Prayer. Statements have been made for and against the resolution, and there are hints at potential separation. TLC conducted extensive interviews with prominent leaders on both sides of the issue, and gathered excerpts from written statements by a variety of jurisdictions.
TLC will report further on Resolution B012, which was proposed after this story was published in the July 1 edition.
By Kirk Petersen
At General Convention, one side’s major goal is to authorize same-sex marriage liturgies throughout the church, even when a local bishop objects.
The other side wants General Convention to refrain from revising the doctrine of marriage in the prayer book.
Most of the bishops of Province IX (the dioceses of Central Ecuador, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Litoral Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela) signed a letter saying they will have to “learn how to walk alone” if General Convention approves such revision to the prayer book , creating echoes of the division seen a decade ago. Other churches in the Anglican Communion — which has already disciplined the Episcopal Church for taking previous steps without awaiting consensus in the Communion — have restated their opposition.
The church has traveled a long road to reach this place.
Same-sex marriage and other gay-rights issues have been on the agenda of every General Convention since at least 1976, when resolutions were passed declaring “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church,” and are “entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens.”
Another 1976 resolution authorized a study of “The Matter of the Ordination of Homosexuals.” Nobody was talking about same-sex marriage, either at General Convention or in society at large.
Forty-two years later, same-sex couples may be married by Episcopal priests throughout the Episcopal Church, exceptin eight domestic dioceses. (In addition, there are dioceses outside the United States where same-sex marriage is not legal.)
A 2015 resolution established same-sex liturgies for trial use, with the approval of the bishop diocesan. The bishops of 93 domestic dioceses have given approval. Eight bishops forbid use of the liturgy in their dioceses:
- Albany Bishop William Love
- Central Florida Bishop Gregory Brewer
- Dallas Bishop George Sumner
- Florida Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard
- North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith
- Springfield Bishop Daniel Martins
- Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt
- Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs
The Task Force for the Study of Marriage, created in 2015, issued a report earlier this year that called on General Convention to eliminate the bishops’ veto and make same-sex marriage rites legal throughout the church. The main resolution “presents a road map” for General Convention to “40 years of promises of full inclusion in the life of the Episcopal Church for LGBTQ+ individuals.”
The resolution would approve the liturgies “as additions to the Book of Common Prayer (to be inserted following page 438).” To take effect, the resolution would have to be ratified by the 80th General Convention in 2021. Another resolution from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music calls for a possible “comprehensive revision of the current Book of Common Prayer.”
The difference between trial use and additions to the prayer book involves more than mere semantics. The Book of Common Prayer expresses the doctrine of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Martins says that adding same-sex marriage rites to the prayer book would be a step across the line between erroneous practice and heresy. (Martins is secretary of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation.)
The other seven domestic bishops opposed to the rites did not respond to attempts to reach them.
The task force offered a separate resolution that would authorize “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” in jurisdictions that prohibit same-sex marriage by law.
The task force proposes a third resolution “calling for the development of resources that provide pastoral guidance and teaching on relationships that involve sexual expression” for people who choose not to marry. The Rev. Susan Russell, a task force member and LGBT activist, said this “may be the most controversial” of the resolutions.
One of the 15 task force members opposed the resolutions and filed a minority report.
Will Same-sex Marriage Enter the Prayer Book?
Bishop Daniel Martins: ‘I’m Still Hopeful that Can Be Avoided’
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is Bishop of Springfield and one of eight bishops who do not permit the use of a same-sex marriage liturgy in their dioceses. TLC asked all eight of the bishops for comment; Martins agreed to talk. The interview has been edited for clarity, brevity, and narrative flow.
Why do you oppose the same-sex marriage liturgy?
Jesus quotes Genesis: “For this reason a man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” So the whole anthropology of sexual polarity, that human beings are created male and female, is an essential component of what marriage is. That’s not to say that there can’t be various goods that come from other kinds of relationships between two persons of the same sex, but it’s not marriage. It’s something else for which we don’t have a catchall name, perhaps, but it’s not marriage.
I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but let me see if I understand you. Your objection is to the idea of redefining what marriage means, contrary to the Scriptures, it’s not about disapproval of homosexual actions?
Well, it’s probably both. Thanks for that clarifying question, but the immediate questions that come before General Convention, which cause me to think in very defined, clear terms, are related to the redefinition of marriage.
I’m not at the place where I can accept homosexual actions as something that doesn’t fall short of God’s design for human sexuality.
That’s not to say that anything falling short of the target is necessarily evil, it just falls short, and is therefore sinful. It’s less than what God desires and what God has designed human sexuality for.
In the past, bishops have left the Episcopal Church over matters of gay rights. Do you feel strongly enough about this set of resolutions to do that?
I don’t know where I would go. I don’t feel permission to abandon the flockwould be another answer. William Palmer, a 19th-century Church of England theologian, described his criteria for leaving the church in which one finds oneself. A church has to be in formal heresy, which is a higher bar than erroneous teaching, or erroneous practice: that is, if the heresy is baked into the actual formularies for the church, that which defines its doctrine and worship. His second criterion is that the heresy must endure for multiple generations. I’ve always understood that to mean the biblical 40 years. If a church is in formal heresy for 40 years, then it has ceased to be a church and no longer commands the loyalty of its members.
So, where does that put us now? Has there been false teaching in the Episcopal Church? Yeah, for a long, long time. Is it yet formal heresy? I would say not yet, but we’re on the brink of it. And if indeed we amend the prayer book to redefine marriage, then in my opinion, that starts the 40-year clock. Now I’m 66 years old, so you do the math.
It sounds like if you were going to leave the church, you would already have done so.
Many of my best friends have done so.
Did you consider it for yourself?
I think you consider everything. So it comes back to where would I go?If there’s such a thing as an Anglican soul, then that’s what I have. The Anglican liturgical, spiritual, pastoral, theological, musical package is what draws me into the presence of God more effectively than anything else. So where would I go? Some might say ACNA [the Anglican Church in North America, formed a decade ago by bishops who left the Episcopal Church]. Well, ACNA is like one of those planets in the Star Trek movies that’s unstable and coming apart. Plus it is Anglican-like, but it’s not Anglican, because it’s not in communion with the See of Canterbury. I’m too old to become Orthodox. I can’t learn a whole new tradition at this age in my life.
So if the convention does decide to change the prayer book in the way that’s being recommended, what would you do in response?
I can’t say that I know. I’m still hopeful that can be avoided. I would have to take counsel with my colleagues, the other Communion Partner Bishops, and all of us collectively would be taking counsel with our friends across the Communion, both in the Global South and in the Church of England. I imagine there would be some consulting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. So I don’t have a prepackaged answer for you on that.
Will you leave the church over that?
I don’t expect that I will. How I will behave within the church remains unclear.
Canon Susan Russell: ‘It’s Likely We Will Take Another Step’
The Rev. Canon Susan Russell, a longtime LGBT activist and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, is senior associate for communications at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. This interview has been edited for clarity, brevity, and narrative flow.
What’s going to happen at General Convention?
There are three resolutions we presented. One would finish the work that we did last time on the trial use of the liturgies for marriage, and maybe some cleanup work in the Catechism to make all of our language congruent.
The second was a resolution that would approve for trial use a liturgy of blessing for those for whom marriage was not an option.
The third one, I think maybe the most controversial in some ways, was opening up conversations around pastoral resources for those who choose to live in relationships other than marriage.
Given that the Episcopal Church has been moving toward full inclusion for our LGBT baptized for decades now, I think it’s likely we will take another step forward in Austin toward finishing the work we’ve begun.
Bishops say the resolution would take away their discretion to prohibit the use of the same-sex marriage rite in their dioceses.
That would be correct. In its current form, that would be the goal.
Does this trample on the prerogatives of bishops?
The issue is, can a bishop use his or her theological perspective to prohibit those within their dioceses from using rites that have been authorized by the Episcopal Church? We gave it three years of trial use, under the authority of the bishop with jurisdiction. There was a caveat: bishops were to make the liturgies available to those under their pastoral care, even if they didn’t authorize them in their diocese. Some bishops have done a proactive job of arranging for that to happen. Others have not.
The liturgies were approved by overwhelming margins in 2015. We still have eight dioceses where Episcopalians don’t have access to those rites. It really is a kind of sacramental apartheid, where a percentage of the baptized are prohibited from receiving a percentage of the sacraments.
The canons clearly state that any clergy person can decline to preside at any marriage for any reason whatsoever. No one is ever going to be compelled against their conscience to participate in a marriage they do not consider sacramentally efficacious.
It’s less an issue of theological conscience than it is episcopal authority. When our councils for the church make a decision for the whole church, it needs to be for the whole church.
We went through this in some ways with the ordination of women, which was regularized in 1976, and it wasn’t until 1994 that we managed to finally get canonical changes that said you don’t have to ordain a woman yourself, but you do have to provide access. It shouldn’t take that long.
We still have handfuls of people who will cross to the other side of the Communion rail and receive Communion from “the real priest” instead of the woman up front. But there’s room for that! No one questions that. We still have potlucks together, and go to Dodgers Night.
The letter from Province IX talking about learning how to “walk alone” has an ominous tone to it. Are we looking at additional schisms as a result of this measure?
We are long past the point of deciding if we are going to be a church that fully embraces our LGBT baptized — the question is how. There has been grace and time and opportunity for those with what is increasingly a minority theological perspective to know that they’ve been heard, to understand there is always a place at the table. Good people of deep faith read the same Scriptures and come to different conclusions. We respect that, and yet, listening to the Holy Spirit, we are continuing to move forward, and I think that will carry through in Austin.
The resolution talks about making “reasonable and convenient access” to these rites. Is there any room for an argument that going to the next diocese is reasonable and convenient?
I think that would be a tough argument to make. For me, reasonable would be if you have a parish in, let’s say, North Dakota, where the parish wants to do marriage and the bishop doesn’t, to give the Bishop of South Dakota pastoral oversight for that parish regarding those matters.
When you’re a member of a congregation, and your priest is your priest, when it comes down to getting married, the happiest day of your life, you’re told to go to some other diocese and let somebody you’ve never met marry you? That’s not reasonable.
The Task Force for the Study of Marriage:
Two Views on Inclusion
Majority Report: Moving Towards ‘Full Measure of Inclusion’ of LGBTQ+
The doctrine and practice of marriage and other relationships marked by sexual intimacy may never be settled once and for all and will need continuous attention. Full marriage equality for same-sex couples will not be complete until the liturgies for marriage reflect gender neutrality and are added to the Book of Common Prayer. Positioning these liturgies in other liturgical resources continues to send the message of separate and not equal to LGBTQ+ [persons].
Continued study and monitoring of the implementation and use of the trial liturgies to their inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer is necessary to reach the full measure of inclusion. The Task Force suggests that existing interim bodies are well equipped to see the work of the past forty (40) years through to its conclusion.
Proposal Missed Concerns of Non-White, Non-U.S. Episcopalians
Of the 15 members on the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, one dissented from the task force report: The Rev. Canon Jordan Hylden, canon theologian for the Diocese of Dallas. Hylden is also a contributing editor of TLC. These are excerpts from his six-page minority report.
I am grateful that the Province IX bishops responded to our invitation to submit a reflection. [The statement was signed by bishops representing five of the seven Latin American dioceses.] Their statement makes clear their traditional view of marriage, grounded in Holy Scripture, and urges our church to avoid revising it in our Prayer Book. “If the Church approves these changes,” they write, “they are greatly deepening the breach, the division, and the Ninth Province will have to learn how to walk alone.” These are clearly significant words, and I am troubled by a deliberative process that does not take the time to listen well to the concerns of this community. …
As a matter of principle, I submit that whenever our church undertakes revision in a substantial doctrinal matter, we ought to build meaningful conversation into our deliberative process with those who hold the received position, as well as with those who hold it should be revised. This conversation must I think take particular care to listen to the voices of non-white persons and all the nations of TEC. This I think is true not only for marriage, but also for other issues of substance, such as the evergreen question of whether our canons should permit the communion of the unbaptized. Although our enabling resolution (2015: A037) called for this Task Force to “represent the cultural and theological diversity in the Church,” I do not think this intention was realized.
Will Province IX Walk Alone?
In response to inquiries from the task force, bishops representing most of the Episcopal dioceses in Province IX signed a letter strongly opposing same-sex liturgies. The letter was signed by bishops representing the dioceses of Ecuador Central, Ecuador Littoral, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Honduras. The bishops of Colombia and Puerto Rico did not sign. Excerpts follow.
Over the past four decades, from 1972 to the present, we have witnessed with sadness and distress the rapid decrease/loss of membership of our Episcopal Church, as well as a disregard of the call to embrace and affirm what is established in the Holy Scriptures; practices that now threaten to tear apart and further divide the Church, and distract it from the true mission of proclaiming our faith and making disciples for the enhancement of the Kingdom of God, thus transforming the society in which we live. …
As leaders of the Episcopal Church in the IX Province, we are making a resounding call to all Episcopalians, clergy and laity as well, for an undivided commitment to the Holy Scriptures as the leading authority on faith and practice in the church. We call on all members to adopt practices consistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and to submit ourselves to the teachings of the Scriptures, because God designed marriage between man and woman, for the procreation of humanity, which is a blessing of God (Gen. 2:24-25; Ps. 127:3-5). The Scriptures also teach that the covenant of Christian marriage is holy, sacred, and consecrated by God and is expressed in the shared faithfulness between one man and one woman throughout their entire lives. …
Finally, we urge all delegations of our province to vote “No” to liturgical changes in everything regarding the canons about marriage. … If the Church approves these changes, they are greatly deepening the breach, the division, and the Ninth Province will have to learn how to walk alone.