The House of Bishops deliberated Monday on resolutions A054 (Adopt Resources and Rites from “Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing, Revised and Expanded 2015”) and A036 (“Amend Canon I.18 Marriage”). Deliberations ended with the passing of the resolutions, which authorized new liturgies for the blessing of same-sex marriage and removed reference to the sex of couples in the Episcopal Church’s canons.
The development of the conversation, however, was as important as its results.
An initial comparison with the House’s deliberation on allowing lay distribution of Communion in the absence of clergy is instructive (“Bishops Wary of Lay Presidency”). During that debate, the bishops were concerned to express their pastoral concern for those who had gone up to six months without receiving Communion, but they were unwilling to change sacramental practice to accommodate desires for more frequent reception in rural, reservation, and Latino churches that lack priests.
Bishops from across the theological spectrum engaged in substantive debate: they cited Scripture, the rubrics of the prayer book, their own ordination vows, and the Constitution and Canons, all of which were deemed relevant to the issue. They also worried about regularizing non-standard practices, and instead urged creative solutions that stayed within the canons and rubrics.
The deliberations on the marriage resolutions were different in some ways. The majority of the bishops were only concerned with clarifying the resolution’s language. Few comments were directed towards the theology of proposed rites, and constitutional objections were at least partly brushed off.
A significant minority, however, offered substantive challenges.
Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana said that “as a matter of conscience and Christian conviction, I must vote no.” He noted that a Christian theology of marriage was rooted in a deep understanding of “creation and redemption.”
Bishop William Love of Albany exhorted his fellow bishops: “You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the church.”
These references to theology and vows echoed similar statements in the debate on lay distribution of Communion.
When it came to passing the marriage canon, Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh said that he could not support the resolution, not least due to the lack of theological rationale. He also disputed a common claim: “We have not been talking about this for 40 years; we have been having a pitched battle.”
Bishop Daniel Martins of Springfield noted his opposition to the canon change, saying, “It is important to have been on record on this.”
Bishop Little rose again to say, “The issue before us is not whether we welcome gay or lesbian Christians. That issue was settled.
“It was settled in our baptism,” he said, which he described as a “profound and indissoluble” basis of unity.
He continued: “The issue is the nature of our welcome of gay and lesbian Christians and whether we should alter the canons and the received faith of the Church [which is] the base from which we reach out to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
This particular emphasis on baptism was disputed by retired Bishop Gene Robinson, who said that the LGBT community “would not have been clawing our way into this church for several decades if that had been clear.”
He spoke instead of baptism as a sign of inclusion and holiness:
We have this resolution before us because we have come to understand that indeed our baptism makes us welcome, and this is another step in that. … I think it’s time that we declare how far we’ve come and where we are at the moment and where we need to go in the future.
Save for a few key bishops, much of the House seemed unconcerned about the change in the church’s marriage canon and the removal of any reference to the sex of the couple to be married.
Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee rose to note that:
The difference between the two sexes, unlike all other differences between persons, had this unique quality (at the very least): the potential to be fruitful in the procreation of other, third persons. No other difference between persons does this. That potential is, I believe, close to the heart of the origin of marriage. I am concerned in our discipline and doctrine that we will detach marriage, in its definition, from the partnership of the two sexes.
Bishop Love rose to offer one of the few engagements with Scripture during the deliberations. He wished to remind the Church of the words of “God Incarnate,” Jesus Christ, who cited the book of Genesis in response to the Pharisees’ questions on divorce.
“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6-9).
Bishop Julio Holguin of the Dominican Republic sounded a similar note, saying of holy matrimony that “it may stand against the laws of this country,” but it’s in the Scriptures.
The other bishops of the House most commonly rose to “move the question,” that is, to end debate.
However, among several key progressive bishops, there was a clear and deliberate strategy of accommodation to traditional views on marriage. The Task Force on the Study of Marriage had urged an immediate adoption of authoritative liturgies, as well as a canon that not only removed reference to “a man and a woman” but also bore little relation to the current or proposed liturgies of the Episcopal Church.
The House of Bishops moved for a slower (if, in the end, potentially more definitive) process of trial use leading to prayer-book revision. The bishops’ amendment to the resolution on the canons also includes the opening exhortation. If passed by the deputies, the revised canon will explicitly name the traditional “goods” of marriage: fidelity, offspring, and permanence, presented within a sacramental framework.
The passage of these amended resolutions gained the full-throated support of a member of the task force: Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont. Key testimony was also given by the retired Bishop of Texas, Claude Payne, and the Bishop of Virginia, Shannon Johnston.
Johnston, especially, was opposed to any movement that would have him “vote against the prayer book.” He noted his concern:
I agree that it is certainly true that there are many arguments for and against whether we are putting canons in conflict with the prayer book. … But I must suggest that I speak in favor of this motion. I must suggest that we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Bishop Johnston noted his support for same-sex marriage, as well as his commitment to the canons and the constitutional process, and he said the resolution “is something we can support.” In closing, he said that if he were to put something in danger, “I’d rather it be a canon than a couple.”
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The contrast between the debates on marriage and on lay distribution of Communion is considerable. It would suggest that, for many bishops in the Episcopal Church, the question of same-sex marriage no longer presents a difficulty of conscience. Tradition is no barrier. Theological arguments, often of considerably greater substance than those on lay presidency, were frequently of little interest.
However, the bishops were undoubtedly concerned about procedure and canonical propriety, to do things “decently and in order,” as one of the essays in advance of Convention argued. This was true, even when some worried they put the canons in a state of tension.
These two debates probably did more to reveal the character of the House of Bishops than any other discussion at General Convention, at least as of today. The bishops struggled with both issues at length.
They did not give equal weight to Scripture, tradition, and current liturgical forms and rubrics in each debate. In both, however, they exhibited an overwhelming and stereotypically Anglican preoccupation with questions of authority and procedure.
The featured image of the Salt Palace Convention Center was uploaded to Flickr by jnshaumeyer. It is licensed under Creative Commons.