[Episcopal News Service] On June 26, 2015, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the 78th General Convention was in its second day.
A few days later, convention authorized two new marriage rites for trial use (Resolution A054) by both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The bishops and deputies also made the canonical definition (via Resolution A036) of marriage gender-neutral.
Indie Pereira asked her priest, who was at convention in Salt Lake City, if this meant she and her then-fiancée could finally get married at their parish in Tennessee.
It wasn’t until November 2015 that the answer to Pereira’s question became clear. Diocese of Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt told the diocese that he would not allow the use of the rites and that only marriages between men and women could be performed in the diocese. He said that same-sex couples could work with Diocese of Kentucky clergy, whose bishops said they could use the rites.
“From my perspective, I don’t really want to have a destination wedding in Kentucky, not to insult Kentucky,” Pereira told Episcopal News Service.
Thus, “almost three years later, we still haven’t had access to a church wedding, which we had been hoping for,” said Pereira, who attends St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nashville. She and her partner had a civil marriage but, she added, “I still hope that I can have my marriage blessed in my parish.” And blessed by the priest who, she said, “has walked with me through some of the most difficult moments of my life.”
When convention authorized the liturgies in 2015, bishops and deputies said individual diocesan bishops had to approve their use. And convention directed diocesan bishops to “make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies.”
General Convention’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage has since monitored the use of the trial liturgies and is aware of concern about unequal access to the trial use liturgies. Its Blue Book Report, released April 3, says it found that eight diocesan bishops in the church’s 101 domestic dioceses have not authorized the trial liturgies.
The Episcopal Church includes 10 dioceses in civil legal jurisdictions that do not allow marriage for same-sex couples. Since church canons require compliance with both civil and canonical requirements for marriage, convention did not authorize the trial liturgies for use in those dioceses. The task force received a statement that was signed by five Province IX diocesan bishops and one retired bishop representing the dioceses of Ecuador Litoral, Ecuador Central, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Honduras. Their statement criticized the task force’s recommendations and threatened that approval would “greatly deepen the breach, the division and the Ninth Province will have to learn to walk alone.” The bishops of Colombia and Puerto Rico did not sign the statement.
The task force is proposing that convention require bishops in authority to “make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have reasonable and convenient access to these trial rites.” It also would have convention say that bishops will “continue the work of leading the church in comprehensive engagement with these materials and continue to provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.” The reference to “generous pastoral response” echoes Resolution 2009-C056, which forms part of the history of the church’s move toward marriage equality.
Essentially, the task force is saying that, in the words of the Rev. Susan Russell, a task force member who helped research the acceptance and use of the trial liturgies, “it shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code to have access to the rites.”
The eight bishops who have prohibited same-gender marriage in their dioceses are Albany Bishop William Love, Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer, Dallas Bishop George Sumner, Florida Bishop John Howard, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, Springfield Bishop Dan Martins, Tennessee’s Bauerschmidt and Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs, according to the task force.
Love, Brewer, Sumner, Martins and Bauerschmidt prohibit clergy canonically resident in those dioceses to use the liturgies inside or outside of the diocese, the report said.
“At this point it’s very unclear whether canonically resident clergy could actually use the liturgies [anywhere] without the permission of their own bishop,” Bauerschmidt told ENS before the report was released. “So, that’s not so much my idea, but I think it’s implied by the 2015 resolution.”
The bishops in Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Florida and Tennessee have told same-sex couples who wish to be married to go to a neighboring diocese, according to the report. Smith has provided Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) for a parish that asked to use the liturgies. The task force said it could not determine whether Gumbs has made provisions for Virgin Islands couples to access the liturgies.
“I was honestly quite surprised to find that the liturgies were being so overwhelmingly received and overwhelmingly authorized with so few restrictions,” Russell, a longtime advocate for the full inclusion of LBGTQI people in the life of the church, told Episcopal News Service.
“I couldn’t have imagined those numbers 10 years ago,” she added.
Task Force Chair Joan Geiszler-Ludlum agreed. She told ENS that the group found that the restrictions some bishops have placed on their use are “fairly innocuous” and include such things as approval of both the rector and the vestry or use after a congregational discernment process.
The overwhelming majority of task force members agreed to call for the whole church to have equal access to the rites, Geiszler-Ludlum and Russell said.
The proposed new requirement of “reasonable and convenient access” is not the only recommendation on marriage that the task force is making to General Convention. The group is calling for continued trial use of the liturgies as additions to the Book of Common Prayer, as well as amendments to the prayer book’s other marriage rites, prefaces and sections of the Catechism to make language gender-neutral.
The task force would also have convention authorize two liturgies for blessing the relationships of couples who choose not to marry for legal or financial reasons. It also recommends that the church ponder new ways to minister to the growing number of people who cohabitate in committed and monogamous relationships rather than marry. ENS coverage of those recommendations can be found here.
Meanwhile back in Tennessee
Episcopalians who live in the eight dioceses and want access to same-sex marriage worry that the rest of the church does not grasp their situation. Connally Davies Penley, who helped form the advocacy group All Sacraments for All People, or ASAP, in the Diocese of Tennessee, says that when she travels to other dioceses and tells her diocese’s story “people are just astonished. They have no idea that this is happening. I think if people know, we can get somewhere, but they just don’t know.”
ASAP and five congregations submitted a diocesan convention resolution to have the diocese ask General Convention to allow clergy and churches to decide on access to the same-sex marriage rites, instead of bishops.
“I think the work before us is to learn how to speak to each other in a gracious way, not to engage in legislation. The trouble with legislative fixes is that in making them we create winners and losers,” Bauerschmidt said in his address to diocese convention.
In the end, the convention passed a substitute resolution to send a so-called “memorial” to General Convention asking that its 2018 deliberations “take into account the exclusions, competing convictions, and loss of community experienced by the members of this diocese under the current terms of authorization for these texts.”
ASAP supported the substitute resolution “because we thought it could pass and it did almost unanimously, and so to have something from the whole diocese with an almost unanimous vote seemed powerful,” said Davies Penley.
Pereira agreed. “It said that the way things are currently are not working well for our diocese, so we thought that was a good start,” she said.
We supported this substitute resolution which just PASSED! Only one vote against. It’s not everything, but it’s so much more than we have ever gotten before. Alleluia. pic.twitter.com/MVOd8WveDt
— All Sacraments for All People (@asaptn) January 20, 2018
“It was wonderful occasion of a diocese coming together in the face of the prospect of challenges to our unity,” Bauerschmidt told ENS.
Davies Penley and Pereira said their and ASAP’s goal is “to draw the circle bigger,” in Davies Penley’s words. “This has been drawn here as this black-and-white, either-or issue,” she said. “I’m not going to change Bishop Bauerschmidt’s mind, and that’s not my job. I just want room for all of us.”
“And while I disagree with priests in this diocese who say it’s wrong, I’m not trying to change their minds and I trust their hearts. They’re trying to do their best but leave space for us, too.”
Geiszler-Ludlum and Russell said the resolution was a compromise that “was still a win for them.” Russell added that the history of the effort to allow all Episcopalians access to the sacrament of marriage has included other compromises along the way.
A push for equal access in Central Florida
The Rev. Alison Harrity, rector of St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Winter Park, said some priests in the Diocese of Central Florida have considered what one called “a public act of canonical disobedience” after which they would face the consequences in order to draw attention to the disparity.
Harrity and others from St. Richard’s and elsewhere in the diocese attempted in late January to have their diocesan convention change a canon that restricts marriage to heterosexual couples and denies clergy the ability to solemnize same-sex marriages. They also asked the diocese to commit to “ending institutional and other forms of discrimination for LGBTQ+ people” and form a task force to study the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the sacramental life of the church.
Both resolutions were ruled out of order weeks before the Jan. 26-27 convention because, Brewer said in his convention address, they failed to measure up in what he called his grid for decision-making. The grid is based on the text of the examination (page 517 of the Book of Common Prayer) of a bishop-elect during his or her ordination and consecration. Brewer said it helps him balance coherence with the faith of the apostles with the impact of any action on the faith, unity and discipline of the church, and what he called “my global responsibility as a leader who shares that leadership with other bishops throughout the world.”
He called, instead, for a task force to reflect on the 2015 actions of General Convention on marriage, and their canonical and pastoral implications for diocesan congregations. The task force will also consider the biblical, theological and pastoral implications of convention’s actions.
Brewer’s remarks on the resolutions begin at the 27:03 mark in this video.
Geiszler-Ludlum called the proposed task force “a big step” because it means that there will be “some discussion within that diocese.”
However, Jim Christoph, St. Richard’s senior warden, told ENS that the goal of the proposed task force “is not to research how this diocese is treating gay people. It’s to react to the national church and their error.” Christoph also objected to what he called Brewer’s “denunciation” by name of the St. Richard’s vestry during his address.
“I felt very belittled,” said Stephen O’Connell, who is the secretary of St. Richard’s vestry. “I felt like I was a child being reprimanded in front of a whole group of people and shamed for something we felt was important.”
Brewer has not been available for comment.
Harrity said she “naively believed” that advocates of marriage equality would not have to resort to performing an act of canonical disobedience because they had a process available to them at diocesan convention to attempt to change the restrictive canon.
“But, the truth of the matter is, this church allows bishops to make up rules along the margins of canon law, both national canon law and local canon law, that circumvent any process,” she said. “The only way that we are going to get anything done in regard to canonical rights for gay people in the church is to be disobedient to our bishops? I am not interested in getting spit on or having anybody that we’re connected to getting spit on when we have a process that would work for us if it was allowed to work.”
Touching on larger issues of authority
The question of access to marriage is part of a larger one about where a diocesan bishop’s authority ends.
“There is the question of whether or not the bishop actually has the authority, canonically, to prohibit clergy under their licensure from functioning outside the diocese with liturgies approved by the General Convention,” Russell said. “There are those who argue it is not within their authority to do that. That is, for many in the church, not a settled point.”
“There’s a wide divergence of opinion about how much control bishops have, and the bishops themselves have different views of that, too,” Geiszler-Ludlum said.
There are other questions about authority. Can a bishop deny a sacrament to a group of people based on their sexual orientation? And can dioceses enact canons that restrict access to sacraments in ways that conflict with the canons of the wider church? Albany, Central Florida and Dallas have canons that restrict marriage to heterosexual couples.
— All Sacraments for All People (@asaptn) February 1, 2018
Bauerschmidt hopes that the Episcopal Church will “find a way to make room for those who hold the traditional teaching of the church on marriage,” and to acknowledge that those people are “loyal members of the Episcopal Church.” He hopes for a “robust” solution that lasts over time and doesn’t need to be renewed every three years.
“I think it’s going to require the creativity of a lot of people,” he said.
Bauerschmidt added that he hopes convention will also “preserve the traditional and canonical responsibilities of bishops,” adding, “I really don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s important, too.”
The task force’s suggested solution to the access question is part of a proposed resolution outlining how convention might make “permanent additions and revisions to the Book of Common Prayer” of four marriage liturgies and specific gender-neutralizing word changes about marriage.
Those proposals could run in tandem with convention’s consideration of whether and how to begin a process for revising the prayer book. Convention’s legislative committee that will review all prayer book revision resolutions will handle the task force’s proposals. The task force is not proposing that the prayer book would need to be reprinted but that the additional rites be published separately at first.
The task force also is proposing to change Book of Common Prayer’s “An Outline of the Faith,” also known as the Catechism, to state that Christian marriage involves “two people,” not “the woman and the man,” as it now says on page 861. It would also add a question about marriage to explain the canonical requirements for marriage, including instruction in the purposes of Christian marriage.
The task force’s report was summarized during a side gathering at the March 6-9 House of Bishops retreat. Bauerschmidt said any proposal to change the Catechism’s definition of marriage “would be of great concern to those who hold to the traditional teaching” about marriage both inside and outside the Episcopal Church.
Although the March HOB meeting is traditionally largely private, Springfield Bishop Dan Martins blogged about each day’s sessions. On March 8, he wrote that he attended the gathering and rejected the proposal to consider the trial use liturgies to be part of the prayer book.
Martins noted that while a diocesan bishop can refuse to permit use of a trial liturgy, he or she cannot prevent clergy from using material deemed to be part of the Book of Common Prayer. He said the proposal “deserved a lot more consideration than it is getting at this meeting of the house.”
He added that it was “borderline dereliction of duty” not to have the entire house discuss the proposal. If the convention’s decision in 2003 to allow the Diocese of New Hampshire to have Gene Robinson, an openly gay partnered man, as its bishop was “an earthquake,” Martins wrote, “approval of anything like the Task Force on Marriage’s proposal would be a catastrophic aftershock.”
Gieszler-Ludlum and Russell said the task force members reached their conclusions by consensus. However, the Rev. Jordan Hylden, canon theologian of the Diocese of Dallas, filed a minority report, which begins on page 116 of the report, objecting to the makeup of the task force and its process, conclusions and their implications.
The task force has written a FAQ document outlining its work. It is available here.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.