By Kirk Petersen
In 2018, the General Convention reached a compromise on same-sex marriage that defused a potentially serious conflict in the church.
Resolution B012 authorized the use of same-sex marriage liturgies wherever such marriages are legal. At the same time, it created a mechanism for conservative bishops to maintain their traditional teaching. It provided a framework for agreeing to disagree and launched a robust and respectful discussion on “communion across difference” featuring some of the most prominent advocates on both sides of the issue.
No compromise satisfies everyone, of course. One bishop eventually left the church in protest, and as the next General Convention approaches in July 2022, a disagreement about the scope of the resolution has surfaced.
Tensions over the resolution have played out to greater or lesser degrees across the church, as was evident after more than two dozen interviews or email exchanges over several months with bishops, priests, and lay leaders, including representatives of all eight dioceses affected by B012.
When same-sex marriage rites were first approved for “trial use” by the 2015 General Convention, the rites could be used only with the approval of the diocesan bishop. Eight diocesan bishops declined to allow same-sex marriage rites in their dioceses, while 93 other bishops consented. Most of the eight bishops were members of Communion Partners, a fellowship that supports the traditional teachings of the Church.
Three years later, Resolution B012 provided that bishops who do not embrace marriage for same-sex couples “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 worshiping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites.”
The provision to involve another bishop allowed conservative bishops to continue to teach that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, while acceding to the contrary decision of General Convention.
An uncomfortable result for some priests in these dioceses is the requirement to notify their bishop if they want to perform a same-sex marriage, knowing in advance that the bishop disapproves of the practice. In every other context, these priests continue to be bound, as they promise at ordination, to “obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work.”
Bishop of Albany William H. Love rejected B012 and continued to forbid same-sex marriages, arguing that God’s law, as he understood it, trumped the General Convention. He eventually was convicted by a church court of breaking his vow of obedience for defying the resolution. He resigned as diocesan bishop before a penalty hearing, and now serves as a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America.
The diocese is only beginning to come to grips with B012, as it embarks on a search for a new bishop. The bishop search, which typically takes 18 months, will be closely watched well beyond the boundaries of the diocese.
“We believe that there is a way forward for Albany as an orthodox diocese within the Episcopal Church,” said the Rev. Scott Garno, president of the Albany Standing Committee. He said one church in the diocese, which he declined to identify, had plans for a same-sex marriage.
In the Diocese of Dallas, there are three priests who have performed same-sex marriages, and all of them gave Bishop George R. Sumner high marks for making the arrangement work smoothly. Sumner, in turn, said “there is no strain that I know of. [B012] has modeled ‘communion across difference.’”
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas hosted a blessing ceremony for 15 civilly married same-sex couples in January 2019, just weeks after the resolution took effect. “The service was attended by over 500 and ranks as among the most joyous and emotional in our church’s history,” said the Rev. R. Casey Shobe, rector of Transfiguration. The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, preached at the service. Transfiguration clergy have performed five same-sex marriages since then.
The diocese’s B012 bishop is the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith, retired Bishop of Missouri. Smith said Sumner has been “very generous and open-hearted toward the parishes that I’m taking care of on his behalf.” In addition to Transfiguration, the Rev. Paul Klitzke, rector of Church of the Ascension, and the Rev. Christopher Thomas, rector of St. Thomas the Apostle, both in the city of Dallas, agreed that the arrangement is working well.
The tone is different in some other dioceses.
“I don’t think it has provided a resolution to the conflict,” said the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, speaking before he retired as Bishop of Springfield at the end of June 2021. “Those in the theological minority, I think, have accepted it as the least of the available evils, but that doesn’t make it not an evil,” he said.
Martins told TLC that only one church in the diocese, the Chapel of St. John the Divine at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, had made arrangements for same-sex marriage.
“If you go to their website, under the tab ‘Our Bishop,’ it shows Matt Gunter,” he said, referring to the Bishop of Fond du Lac, in Wisconsin.
The Rev. Sean Ferrell, rector of St. John the Divine, said: “I think B012 has not functioned to offer appropriate access to marriage rites. Other clergy and congregations in Springfield have expressed to me a desire to be able to offer marriage rites,” but clergy serving in “missions, and clergy serving in non-parochial roles have been excluded.”
Another priest in the diocese, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that he had turned away a lesbian couple who sought to get married at his mission-status church, even though he was willing to perform the ceremony, because he knew the bishop would not allow it.
Several Communion Partner bishops agree that Resolution B012 does not apply to mission-status congregations or other non-parishes, where the congregation’s priest has been appointed by the diocesan bishop.
The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee, told TLC by email: “Congregations that are not parishes are typically dealt with under diocesan canons. B012 doesn’t apply to these congregations because our [churchwide] canons do not attempt to regulate them but leaves it to the dioceses to do so.”
In the Diocese of Springfield, Martins did not recall a specific discussion, but said by email: “I would indeed have prohibited a cleric who is not a rector from officiating at a [same-sex marriage]. This is based on the fact that the bishop is, in fact, the rector of congregations that don’t have ‘parish’ status, and B012 is explicit in preserving the right of rectors to decline to solemnize any marriage and to govern what happens or doesn’t happen on church property.”
B012 was “not omnibus legislation about equity” but rather “a resolution about access to liturgical rites,” Sumner said. “It acknowledges that rectors have a canonical responsibility over the liturgical life of their parishes,” beyond care of the buildings.
Same-sex marriage proponents reject making a distinction between parishes and missions.
“It clearly violates, if not the actual text, then clearly the intention of B012, and the intent of the bishops who put it forward,” said Joan Geiszler-Ludlum, who is the chancellor (legal adviser) of the Diocese of East Carolina. She chaired the task force that developed an unsuccessful predecessor resolution, A085, which would have added the same-sex liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer.
The text of B012 does not include the terms “parish” or “mission.” It does refer to “congregations and other worshiping communities.” Geiszler-Ludlum said that phrasing was chosen deliberately to be as inclusive as possible.
The Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime LGBT activist who believes B012 does not go far enough, said the distinction “absolutely” violates the spirit of B012.
The foundation for limiting the scope of B012 to full-fledged parishes is a combination of two factors, neither of which is spelled out explicitly in the resolution.
First, there is a statement in the resolution that “nothing in this Resolve narrows the authority of the Rector or Priest-in-Charge (Canon III.9.6(a)).”
The resolution does not explain the canon’s relevance, but a convention deputy who had gone to the trouble of looking it up would have found that Canon III.9.6(a) establishes two things:
- “The Rector or Priest-in-Charge shall have full authority and responsibility for the conduct of the worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish;”
- “The Rector or Priest-in-Charge shall at all times be entitled to the use and control of the Church and Parish buildings.”
Second, there is a long-standing practice that if a congregation does not elect its own rector, the diocesan bishop is considered the nominal rector — even if the congregation has a priest who may have been there for years.
The concept of bishop-as-rector is widely accepted, but it is not spelled out in B012. It also is not established by the churchwide canons, according to Geiszler-Ludlum and another canon lawyer who asked not to be identified. They both added that the canons of some dioceses may specify that the bishop is the rector of a mission church.
When asked to respond to the criticisms by same-sex marriage proponents, Bishops Bauerschmidt, Martins, and Sumner all said B012 supports bishops in retaining some authority over the liturgical life of churches. “B012 reinforces the pastoral responsibility of the clergy. It does not create a right of couples to be married in a particular church,” Bauerschmidt wrote via email. “B012 has worked well, because Episcopalians are very familiar with the idea of finding a local congregation that suits their needs.”
Among the other B012 dioceses, the Diocese of Florida has said very little publicly about B012. The Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard issued a one-paragraph statement in January 2019 saying that a priest wishing to perform a same-sex marriage would be asked to meet with the bishop. “The wardens of the parish will also be invited to the meeting in order that the conversation can be transparent and open to all the leadership of the congregation,” the statement said.
A Change.org petition posted in January 2019 and signed by 970 people said the process is “intimidating, unduly cumbersome, and unfair to our brothers and sisters in Christ who seek to be married in this church. The process demands that the rector and wardens meet with him and further requires the rector to look into the bishop’s eyes and tell him he/she is defying his pastoral directive.”
But a priest who performed a same-sex marriage described it differently. “I didn’t have a bad experience with the bishop,” the Rev. Louanne Loch, rector of St. Paul’s by the Sea in Tallahassee, told TLC. “He just wanted to hear from the wardens.” She said episcopal oversight was provided by the Rt. Rev. Peter Eaton, Bishop of Southeast Florida.
She said of Bishop Howard, “he and I disagree on this one thing, but we have a good relationship.” Howard has announced plans to retire in 2023, and a search for a bishop coadjutor is beginning.
In North Dakota, “B012 is not ‘a thing,’” said the Rt. Rev. Thomas C. Ely, retired Bishop of Vermont and a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage. He began a three-year term as bishop provisional in February 2021, after Bishop of North Dakota Michael Smith, who opposes same-sex marriage, retired in 2019. Even before Ely arrived, the Standing Committee announced in February 2020 that “in conformity with the decisions of the General Convention,” individual priests in North Dakota were empowered to make their own decisions about whether to officiate at weddings for any couple.
Regarding B012 in the Diocese of Central Florida, Bishop Gregory Brewer told TLC: “In some ways it’s a happy compromise.” There is only one congregation in his diocese, St. Richard’s in Winter Park, that has petitioned him for same-sex marriage. Bishop Terry White of Kentucky agreed to provide episcopal oversight for the purposes of B012.
Brewer said it had not affected the relationship of St. Richard’s with the diocese. “St. Richard’s does come to our diocesan convention. Alison Harrity, the rector, always comes to clergy conference. They pay their assessment,” he said. “They really do fulfill all of their canonical responsibilities as a parish in the Central Florida diocese.”
Harrity, who has performed three same-sex marriages since 2019, said by email that “St. Richard’s has been satisfied” with the relationship with Bishop White.
In the Diocese of Tennessee, Bauerschmidt said there have been three same-sex marriages under the provisions of B012, with the Rt. Rev. Brian Cole of the Diocese of East Tennessee providing oversight.
“I think that B012 has been successful in the Diocese of Tennessee,” Bauerschmidt said. He added that it has enabled progressives and traditionalists in the diocese “to hold it all together: to remain faithful and in relationship with each other.”
“B012 has also preserved the bishop’s vocation as chief pastor of the diocese, a key part of our ecclesiology,” he said.
The Diocese of the Virgin Islands is small, but parts of it are in two different countries. Same-sex marriage is permitted in the United States Virgin Islands, but not in the British Virgin Islands.
The Rt. Rev. E. Ambrose Gumbs oversees the 14 churches of the diocese, three of which are in the British territory. “So far B012 has not impacted the Diocese,” he said by email, as there have been no requests for same-sex marriage in the culturally conservative region. In the event of such a request, “we would contact our neighbor, the Diocese of Puerto Rico, for assistance.”
Bishop of Long Island Lawrence Provenzano, a same-sex marriage proponent and one of the proposers of B012, said part of the intent was “to give the church a bit more time before we dove headlong into a prayer book revision that would permanently change our understanding of how we do this.”
“We still don’t need a prayer book revision,” he said. “That’s not to say we don’t want full inclusion … but we can live into who we are as Anglicans and have that represent the full breadth of the people of God who we serve, without having to, in a sense, legislate every pastoral or liturgical action of the church.”
“Although I would not have gone to the lengths of nuanced prescription evidenced in the Diocese of Springfield, I do not believe Bishop Martins has violated B012,” Provenzano said by email. “Both Bishops Martins and Bauerschmidt have clearly made it fit and work in their particular context. Maybe we need not ask for more or expect less.”
Russell sees it differently. She supported B012, but “the reality is that whether you have access to all the sacraments still depends on your Zip Code, on your rector, and on whether or not your parish is willing to jump through the hoops that the bishop is requiring,” she said.
“There are those of us who will continue to maintain that separate but equal is inherently unequal,” she said. But she believes in celebrating “incremental victories,” and said she celebrates B012.
The resolution also called for the creation of a three-year Task Force on Communion across Difference, to include an equal number of members on each side of the marriage issue. Bauerschmidt and Russell served as coconveners, and Brewer, Ely, and Garno were members, as was Christopher Wells, executive director of the Living Church Foundation and publisher of TLC.
The task force, which was able to meet in person only once because of the pandemic, issued a 26-page report that highlights the importance of continued discussion and seeking common ground.
“We wish to live together peaceably in the same church without agreeing on marriage because adding to division in the body of Christ would be a failure both of witness and love,” the report said.
“As we have begun to experience on this Task Force, the practice of forming bonds with one another changes us over time. We learn that people with whom we disagree are not simply caricatures, but complex and thoughtful persons about whom we care.”
The report recommends that the upcoming General Convention create a similar task force to continue the dialogue.
Bauerschmidt is the president, and Martins is the secretary, of the board of directors of the Living Church Foundation, which publishes TLC. Sumner is a member of the foundation.