[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City] Applause broke out in legislative committee meetings around the Salt Palace Convention Center here when General Convention participants received word about the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling June 26 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to be married.
The ruling came just as Episcopalians began debating the church’s understanding of sacramental marriage and the accompanying canonical definition of marriage, and whether to extend that definition to include same-sex couples.
The court’s 5-4 ruling settled the issue of access to civil marriage and fulfilled one of The Episcopal Church’s long-held public-policy stances. The Episcopal Church officially has advocated for equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both the civil and ecclesial arenas for years.
The church’s advocacy for civil equality for LGBT persons began in 1976 with Resolution A071 in which it said “homosexual persons are entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens, and calls upon our society to see that such protection is provided in actuality.”
That same convention said (in Resolution A069) that “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.”
(A complete list with links to all related General Convention resolutions from 1976 to 2012 on liturgy, marriage and ordination in addition to resolutions on LGBT civil rights is here).
However, it was not until 2012 that the General Convention voted to consider anew the church’s theology of marriage, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians’ access to the sacramental rite. Those are the questions facing this meeting of convention.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori cited 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 about love in reacting to the decision.
“I rejoice that the Supreme Court has opened the way for the love of two people to be recognized by all the states of this union, and that the court has recognized that it is this enduring, humble love that extends beyond the grave that is to be treasured by society wherever it exists,” she said. “Our society will be enriched by the public recognition of such enduring faithful love in families headed by two men or two women as well as by a woman and a man. The children of this land will be stronger when they grow up in families that cannot be unmade by prejudice or discrimination. May love endure and flourish wherever it is to be found.”
House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings issued a statement saying “As we Christians are known to say from time to time: ‘Alleluia’.”
“I am elated that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. In March I had the great privilege of signing on to an amicus brief urging the justices to make the decision they announced today, and I am deeply grateful that they have granted a fundamental human right to people whom had been denied it for so long.”
Jennings said she supports marriage equality “not in spite of my faith but because of it.”
“In more than 35 years of ordained ministry, I have known many faithful, committed same-sex couples whose love gave me a deeper understanding of God’s love and whose joy in one another testified to the goodness of God’s creation,” she said. “I have also learned through simple, everyday experience that same-sex couples make vital contributions to our common life, and I rejoice at the security today’s ruling affords them.”
The Supreme Court cases that the justices ruled on attracted much attention and at least 145 amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs were filed. Nearly 2,000 individual lay and ordained religious leaders, led by Jennings and Episcopal Church bishops in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee (the states included in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals), filed one of those briefs.
Those bishops included Kentucky Bishop Terry Allen White; Lexington Bishop Douglas Hahn; Michigan Bishop Wendell N. Gibbs Jr.; Western Michigan Bishop Whayne M. Hougland Jr.; Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford J. Ray; Eastern Michigan Bishop Todd Ousley; Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth Jr.; Ohio Assisting Bishops David C. Bowman, William D. Persell and Arthur B. Williams Jr.; Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal; retired Southern Ohio Bishop Suffragan Kenneth L. Price Jr.; Southern Ohio Assisting Bishop Bavi Edna Rivera; West Tennessee Bishop Don E. Johnson; and East Tennessee Bishop George D. Young III. All of the bishops have authorized the blessing of same-sex couples in their dioceses, including for couples who have already entered into civil marriages in other jurisdictions.
Diocese of Vermont Bishop Tom Ely, Diocese of Hawaii Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick, Diocese of Southeast Florida Bishop Leo Frade, Diocese of Maine Bishop Steve Lane, Diocese of Atlanta Assistant Bishop Keith Whitmore and nearly 200 ordained and lay Episcopalians also signed onto the brief.
The court’s ruling clarifies the work facing the General Convention’s Special Legislative Committee on Marriage, according to Ely, a member of that committee who also served on convention’s Task Force on Marriage.
The Rev. Ruth Meyers, who chaired the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in the last two triennia and is a consultant to the Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music legislative committee this convention, said the decision “changes the context” of the special committee’s work because the ruling changes the law of the United States.
The committee, which is handling all of the marriage-related resolutions coming to this meeting of convention, was meeting when the ruling was announced. Ely said the members applauded and also reflected on how the news would bring joy to some and difficulty to others.
Meyers and Ely chaired the blessings subcommittee of the legislative committee at the 2012 convention, when convention approved Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing, the liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships and accompanying resources whose provisional use was authorized in 2012.
Episcopalians react to the court’s decision
“I believe that God works for justice night and day, and when the church doesn’t follow God’s lead, God sometimes works in the culture. And so, this is a victory for God. Now, The Episcopal Church gets to decide if it wants to join God in that justice,” retired Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson told Episcopal News Service just before convention’s daily Eucharist began.
The Eucharist’s prelude was a rousing rendition of “We are Marching in the Light of God” complete with a conga line, and numerous participants hugging each other.
“I am so excited, I’m very, very proud to be a part of The Episcopal Church, which has been dealing with marriage equality in a variety of different forms for a long number of years,” said Bishop Suffragan of Los Angeles Mary D. Glasspool.
“Of course my excitement is couched by other areas of our life together where there isn’t such equality, but every bit helps. We’ve been moving toward trying to say all really means all, the (U.S.) Constitution applies to everybody. When The Episcopal Church says we are open to everybody, and all of the sacraments are available to all of the people, that’s what we mean, so we are living into that.”
Glasspool said the decision will “change, and really call attention, to the conversation we are having in the church because we need to really look at, and perhaps, tease apart what is the civil aspect of our lives doing, what does civil union look like, what is the appropriate responsibility of the state to guarantee civil rights and what does the church want to say sacramentally to the people of God, where are we pointing to God’s presence and God’s holiness and God’s love and God’s justice, and how that gets manifested in our lives.”
The Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime advocate for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, called the ruling “a momentous win for freedom, for equality, for inclusion and, most of all, for love.”
“It is a day to celebrate with deep joy that our country is one step closer to keeping the promise of the pursuit of liberty and justice for all. Today’s historic ruling means same sex couples will soon have both the freedom to marry and equal respect for their marriages across the country – it is a triumph of justice over bigotry.”
The last meeting of General Convention in 2012 passed Resolution D018, which Russell sponsored. The resolution noted that The Episcopal Church “is a period of discernment about the meaning of Christian marriage, with faithful people holding divergent views,” and urged Congress to repeal federal laws that discriminate against same-sex civilly married couples; and pass legislation allowing the federal government to provide benefits to them.
Russell said “as momentous as today’s historic decision is, we must now harness the momentum from marriage conversation to the work of securing additional advances towards equality especially nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans. It is absolutely unacceptable that LGBT people can still be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes and denied service in restaurants and shops simply for being who they are.”
Noting the convention’s on-going marriage debate, Russell said she prays “for justice to roll down like waters in Salt Lake City for The Episcopal Church just as justice prevailed today in our Supreme Court” and give same-sex couples access to the sacrament of marriage.
The Rev. Jon M. Richardson, Integrity (http://www.integrityusa.org/) vice president for national affairs, said in the group’s official statement that Integrity members and leaders “can hardly contain our emotion on this day of jubilee throughout the nation.”
“We are thrilled that LGBT Episcopalians can know full civil marriage equality everywhere, and we continue in our fervent hope that the church will answer the call to equality with the same prophetic witness as the U.S. Supreme Court has,” he said.
Russell, Richardson and others also couched their reaction in the context of the discrimination people will continue to face because of their color and sexual orientation.
“Personally, I’m overjoyed; it’s a long time coming,” said Lizzie Anderson, a deputy from the Diocese of Michigan, a youth minister at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak. “For The Episcopal Church, it’s fitting as we are discussing what changes to make to our prayer book and canons to include all of our brothers and sisters in the right to marry.”
“At the same time, I recognize the diversity of The Episcopal Church and that there are people in our church and our country who are hurting because of this decision. As members of the church, I hope we can hold them in our prayers and be compassionate toward them in this difficult time they’re facing,” Anderson said.
Diocese of Michigan Deputy Emily Wogaman, a high school student, said “it’s about time” the court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, canon for congregational vitality for the Diocese of New York said she is “so proud of our nation. The decision was a strong defense of the constitution. I don’t expect everyone to agree, but this was a fight for basic human rights.”
And, with tears in her eyes, she added: “I didn’t think I would see it in my lifetime, but I thought it should pass because it is a basic constitutional issue. It renewed my faith in that branch of government.”
Anne Brown, Diocese of Vermont, said the decision “allows me to celebrate our marriage more openly,” she said of her 25-year marriage to the Rev. Lee Crawford.
Crawford said the decision is “like the Berlin Wall coming down.”
“I can’t help but think about how it will affect our conversations at General Convention about marriage equality,” she added.
“My heart does go out for those for whom it is not celebratory news. I’ve been at conventions like that. I know what it feels like to stand in that place,” she said. “But, I think the time has come and the time is now. I’m so glad to be able to offer this up at the Eucharist.”
Bishop Raul Tobias of the Philippine Independent Church, with whom The Episcopal Church is in full communion, said that while he “rejoices in as much as it is an answer to prayers for many, it is not yet time for us” in the Philippine Independent Church to consider these discussions.
He said the decision “created an opening for joy. I rejoice for their joy. Because we’re not ready doesn’t mean we’re against it. We’re just not ready for it.”
Convention faces various same-sex marriage proposals
The General Convention is considering a number of resolutions urging it to move toward greater clarity in its understanding of the availability of the sacramental rite of marriage to both different- and same-sex couples.
The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music asks in its report (beginning on page 3 here) that convention authorize an expanded version of Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing, the liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships and accompanying resources whose use was authorized in 2012. The new version (on pages 2-151 here) includes three additional liturgies: “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage”; “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage 2”; and “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony.” Those rites offer the option of using “wife,” “husband,” “person,” or “spouse,” thus making them applicable for both heterosexual and same-sex couples.
The commission’s proposed Resolution A054 says diocesan bishops must approve use of the rites. It also says that bishops within civil jurisdictions where same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal may continue to provide “generous pastoral response” to meet the needs of church members (an echo of Resolution 2009-C056).
And the proposed resolution repeats the provision in Resolution 2012-A049 that “no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities” as a result of his or her theological objection to or support of the resolution. The resolution also would extend to these new rites the provision in the church’s Canon I.18.4, which says that clergy may decline to solemnize any marriage.
The Task Force for the Study of Marriage asks that The Episcopal Church go further, proposing in its Resolution A036 to revise Canon I.18 titled “Of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony” (page 58 of The Episcopal Church’s canons here).
Among many edits, the revision removes references to marriage as being between a man and a woman.
The revision would recast the requirement in the canon’s first section that clergy conform to both “the laws of the state” and “the laws of this Church” about marriage. The rewritten portion would require that clergy conform to “the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also to these canons concerning the solemnization of marriage.”
And the proposal preserves the canon’s provision that clergy may decline to solemnize any given marriage and extends that discretion to include the choice to decline to bless a marriage.
Among the six diocese-proposed actions, Resolution C017 from the Diocese of Chicago and Resolution C0022 from the Diocese of California both ask the convention to authorize the use of the marriage rites in The Book of Common Prayer 1979 and in Liturgical Resources I “for all marriages legal in the civil jurisdiction in which the liturgy takes place.” In civil jurisdictions with same-sex marriage, the rites’ language would be interpreted as gender-neutral. C022 also proposes a rewrite of the solemnization canon, as does Resolution C024, also proposed by Chicago, and Resolution C026 from Northern California.
The Diocese of Rochester, in Resolution C007, and the Diocese of Los Angeles in C009 simply ask that convention “take any and all steps necessary to make the Rite of Holy Matrimony available to same-sex couples throughout The Episcopal Church immediately.”
The Rev. John Dwyer, deputy from the Diocese of Minnesota, has proposed Resolution D026 that would have General Convention declare that the terms “man and woman” and “husband and wife” in the services of The Book of Common Prayer are equally applicable to two persons of the same gender.
All of these resolutions, and other related ones that might arise, have been assigned to Special Legislative Committee on Marriage, formally a bishop committee meeting alongside a deputy committee but voting separately. The resolutions assigned to that committee are here.
The night before the Supreme Court announcement, the marriage committee held its second resolutions hearing, this one on five resolutions suggesting changes to the church’s marriage canon.
The proposals would remove gender-specific language from the canon, and would streamline and reorder it, according to the Rev. Brian Taylor, chair of the marriage task force.
“What it does by using gender-neutral language is open the door, so that should we authorize new rites or should continue with the generous pastoral response option, their use would be supported canonically,” Taylor said at the hearing.
More than 300 people filled the Radisson Hotel ballroom for the hearing. Twenty-two people offered testimony, 16 in support of the various proposals and six against.
The Rev. Jim Papile, Diocese of Virginia alternate deputy, also urged support. “For all our trials, I believe we are a stronger church today than before. We can deal with the challenges if we will do what is right. We are so close. It’s time for us to finish this thing and get on with building the body of Christ, all of us together,” he said.
Diocese of Albany Deputy the Ven. David Collum spoke against the measures, asking that the church’s unity and allowance for diocesan discretion be taken into account.
Referencing the rite for blessing same-sex unions that the General Convention approved in 2012, for use at the discretion of local bishops, Collum said, “It’s hard to be a gay or lesbian person in the Diocese of Albany because we’re not using that rite. It’s hard for people who are on the other side of the issue because we’re still talking about it. It’s tough, but we’re talking,” Collum said. “I would just ask that any resolution you put forward to advance this agenda, think about the unity of the church in addition to how important this specific issue is.”
His colleague, the Rev. Canon Robert Haskell, the Diocese of Albany canon to the ordinary, said the changes would amount to The Episcopal Church “turning its back on 2,000 years of Scripture, history, the history of the church’s interpretation of marriage.”
“It breaks my heart to see this church, the wonderful Episcopal Church that I love, departing from this,” Haskell said.
Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston spoke against canonical changes and urged instead revision of the Prayer Book and Constitution as a stronger and better means for accomplishing the task force’s goals. “I want to say first of all that I am absolutely and utterly committed to full marriage equality in the life and witness of The Episcopal Church, full stop,” he said. “I want the strongest possible witness this church can make for marriage equality, and doing it simply by canonical means, I think, is the weaker case.”
The committee holds its third and final hearing in the Marriott Hotel Downtown at City Creek at 7:30 p.m. MDT on June 26.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. ENS reporters and correspondents Lynette Wilson, Pat McCaughan, Sharon Sheridan and Tracy Sukraw contributed to this story.