First I offer a preface that introduces the upcoming 78th General Convention (GC’15) of The Episcopal Church (TEC) and that provides links for learning about and following it online. Then in the bulk of this blog post I offer my hunches on whether, and if so how, this Convention will approve same-sex marriage. In my personal opinion – at this point, having no insider knowledge – it is not a slam-dunk. Still, anyone making odds would have to predict we will do it. If we don’t, I would wager it will be because the House of Bishops decides not to concur with the House of Deputies in doing it now, based on its sense, as it evolves over the next several days in their House, of how we should care for our loyal minority, not to mention how we should position ourselves relative to the many more socially conservative parts of the Anglican Communion and non-Anglican Christian churches.
In my opinion, there are strong arguments on both sides, which I attempt to outline briefly below. In some important respects, the tension is between (a) giving full standing in TEC to a historically oppressed and mistreated LGBT minority, which has now gained the clear legislative majority in recent General Conventions and in the larger culture, especially among young adults and youth, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, (b) providing a bit more time to adjust for those Episcopalians who believe same-sex marriage would be a fundamental departure from biblical teaching and the long tradition in the Church, but who have remained loyal to TEC when many of their like-minded [former] Episcopalians have abandoned ship. It is a difficult call if you’re not already sworn to one side or the other. Bishops face this choice in a special way, because the job of bishops is not only to provide for the care of all of us but also to guide their dioceses to a greater unity in witness to the love of Christ for a broken world.
Warning: This initial blog post is a good bit more tedious than my other GC'15 blog posts will be.
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The 78th General Convention (GC’15) begins early next week. Charlotte and I depart for Salt Lake City on Monday morning (June 22). Legislative committees hold their first public meetings on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. (June 23, Mountain Time, which is 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time). Most or all legislative committees have already been meeting by conference call and via email, beginning April 1 in the case of my committee, which is Committee #20 on Marriage. Please pray for all of us.
The Media Hub for the 78th General Convention:
The outline schedule for GC’15:
Homepage for the 78th General Convention:
Legislative committee list:
Bishop Breidenthal’s overview at a recent forum at St Timothy’s, Cincinnati (25 min., available in HD):
Many would agree that the three most watched actions of GC’15 will be (1) the election of the next Presiding Bishop (Bishop Breidenthal being one of the four nominees), (2) the response of Convention to the proposals of TREC (the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church), and (3) the actions of Convention relating to the theology and practice of marriage in The Episcopal Church (TEC).
On the nominees for Presiding Bishop, see:
and for videos of the four nominees, see:
The TREC proposals are here:
And the omnibus page for all reports to GC’15 is here:
I write this post, prior to the beginning of GC'15, primarily to outline what I see as the basic questions that will be considered by the legislative committee on marriage. That committee will then present to the relevant Houses of Convention (House of Deputies, House of Bishops), for consideration and action, its best recommendations.
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MARRIAGE: Backstory (recent only)
The Episcopal Church (TEC) has been moving toward our current discussions of same-sex marriage for decades.
Some Episcopalians believe that marriage was established in creation by God as a union between one man and one woman, and they have a strong argument based on biblical texts and a solid and very long history of interpretations of, and theological reflections based on, those texts as warrant for their belief.
Other Episcopalians read the same texts differently. They believe that things have changed and that it is now possible to recognize (perhaps unjust not to recognize) that some same-sex couples are blessed by God. Such same-sex couples offer sufficient evidence that their love for and support of each other are wholesome and exemplary signs of God’s love for and support of humans. Episcopalians who see things this way may say this has always been so, or they may say that the Holy Spirit is showing us something new.
I would have to oversimplify a lot if I suggested that there are two and only two positions on same-sex marriage. The two groups I described are each internally diverse, and there are sub-groups within each group, but I’ll not go into all that now.
Three recent General Conventions may be highlighted as providing our immediate context.
In 2003, the 74th General Convention confirmed the election of the then Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop IX of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Bishop Robinson would become the first openly partnered gay bishop in TEC, and this was well known at the time GC’03 confirmed his election.
In 2009, the 76th General Convention (Resolution C056) charged the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to collect and develop theological and liturgical resources relating to the blessing of same-sex unions and to consult about these issues widely within TEC and the Anglican Communion, and it directed the SCLM to report to GC’12.
In 2012, the 77th General Convention (Resolution A049) commended the SCLM resources for study and authorized for provisional use a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, and (in Resolution A050) it directed appointment of a Task Force for the Study of Marriage (TFSM) which was to collect and develop resources, to consult widely, and to report to GC’15.
On both, see: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/sclm-c056_flyer_-_august_2012_-_english_-_revised.pdf
So the special committee on marriage at GC’15 will consider reports both from the SCLM and from the TFSM.
SCLM report (including Resolution A054 on pp. 4-5):
SCLM Liturgical Resources:
TFSM report (including Resolutions A036 & A037 on pp. 4-8):
I have commented on the TFSM report here:
Committee #20 on Marriage will also consider several resolutions submitted by dioceses, bishops, and/or deputies.
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MARRIAGE: Summary of Two Principal Issues
For convenience, so that we have a single, answerable question, I will approach this as follows: What would have to happen at GC’15 for same-sex marriage to receive approval? That is, what motions or resolutions would have to pass to move from the current, provisional use of a rite for blessing same-sex unions to endorsement of a rite for same-sex marriage?
Simplifying, in my opinion, there are two broad questions before us. The first is the theological question whether TEC should at least in principle endorse same-sex marriage and not only same-sex unions. The second is whether same-sex marriage could actually be approved by GC’15 without violating the Constitution and/or Canons of TEC.
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The Theological Question:
On the theological question, I cannot here adequately address the merits of either side (“yes” or “no” to same-sex marriage). But I can say that, in my opinion, there are at least two ways to look at this. On one way, TEC has already approved same-sex marriage by approving the blessing of same-sex unions.
The principal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) marriage rite (pp. 423-432) divides the moment when civil marriage takes place (pp. 427-428) from the moment when the blessing of the union takes place (pp. 430-431). These are distinct moments in the rite in which distinct functions are performed.
On this first way of thinking, when the 77th General Convention (GC’12) approved for study and use “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” contained in “Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing,” it approved for provisional use a rite which for all intents and purposes means that God blesses some same-sex unions such that they are bona fide marriages from a Christian religious point of view even if they could not legally speaking be valid marriages in all states and jurisdictions. The section of the BCP marriage rite in which civil marriage takes place had to be omitted from the blessings liturgy approved in 2012 because in the U.S. the states control legal marriage; however, because of the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the states cannot control church blessings. So GC’12 approved a rite which offers blessing and, in effect, according to this way of thinking, therefore approved the theological idea if not the legal reality of same-sex marriage.
Resolution 2015 A054 from the SCLM proposes liturgies that add the civil function (legal marriage) to the ecclesial function (blessing) so that, in states or jurisdictions where same-sex marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership is allowed, and at the discretion of bishops exercising ecclesiastical authority, TEC may offer, in a combined rite for same-sex couples, both marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership, and blessing, in rites that can be used by both same-sex and different-sex couples. Hence, "marriage equality."
If this is correct, then adoption of resolution A054 would not represent a change in our theology of marriage except in a nominal sense, because what is proposed is not substantially different theologically from what was already approved at GC’12.
It could certainly feel like a significant difference, but that feeling would – according to this way of thinking – be based on a misunderstanding of the distinction between the civil and ecclesial functions of our current BCP marriage rite and of the rites proposed for use in the third Resolved of A054.
On an alternative way of thinking, however, the BCP marriage rite is a single sacramental act, even if the part where civil marriage is pronounced is in a distinct section of the liturgy from the part where God’s blessing of the couple is pronounced by the church. From this point of view, what was approved in GC’12 was at most partial and preliminary.
The sacrament cannot be divided in the way suggested by the analysis above. So GC’12 did not approve same-sex marriage but only a measure of pastoral accommodation for LGBT Episcopalians who seek the church’s recognition of their lifelong, monogamous, self-giving unions.
Therefore, on this second way of thinking, to approve A054 at GC’15 would constitute a substantial and fundamental break with church tradition and the biblical witness about God’s design for marriage.
To put the question as one of liturgical theology, then, the crucial issue is whether the BCP marriage rite is a single sacramental act or a sacramental blessing added onto, and following, a civil marriage. One way to address this question would be this:
If the ministers of TEC were to cease altogether performing the function of civil marriage, as some have proposed, no longer seeking authorization by the various states or jurisdictions to perform legal marriage as part of our church ceremonies, would we retain the vows made by the couple (BCP pp. 427-428), after which the Celebrant pronounces the couple married, or would we omit them?
If we would retain the vows, then we must regard the blessing alone, without the vows, as an incomplete part of a Christian marriage ritual, and that would suggest that A054 may indeed propose something substantially different theologically. To adopt it, on this interpretation, would be the real break from a traditional theology of marriage.
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The Constitutional Question:
The Living Church (June 28 issue) has published an article by Bishops Benhase (Diocese of Georgia) and McConnell (Diocese of Pittsburg) in which they argue that resolution A054 is out of bounds constitutionally.
If I understand their argument, they believe that Article X of the Constitution of TEC does not allow authorization by a single General Convention of rites which would function as a matter of fact as substitutes for or additions to BCP rites, unless they are authorized for trial use in preparation for Prayer Book revision – even when those rites are only to be used with approval of the local bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority. With respect to the BCP, both “alteration thereof and addition thereto” (Article X, para. 1) are forbidden except as part of Prayer Book revision, or in a process that requires approval by two consecutive General Conventions.
Their interpretation seems accurate to me, though I am neither a lawyer nor a canon lawyer.
Here is the TEC Constitution and Canons; see p. 9 for Article X, which is p. 17 of the .pdf file:
Resolution A054 (see the third Resolved) proposes that GC’15 authorize some rites (found at the SCLM Liturgical Resources link, pp. 76-108) that would in fact function as alternatives to the BCP marriage rite (pp. 423-432), though they would be authorized only “under the direction of the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority” (third Resolved).
One piece of evidence that Bishops Benhase and McConnell are correct in interpreting Article X as they do is the following: one response to their argument has been that the canonical changes proposed by the Task Force for the Study of Marriage (TFSM) would clear up the conflict we currently have rather than creating a new conflict. In this response from a TFSM member, the Rev. Tobias Haller, BSG, states that we already approve liturgies out of compliance with a strict reading of Article X, such as the blessings liturgy approved by GC’12 when used in states that allow same-sex marriage. He has also pointed out that we have authorized additions to the BCP in the Enriching Our Worship series.
This response, as I understand it, is that conflict with Article X already exists, and since we haven’t been overly scrupulous before about such a conflict, we would have to make an arbitrary distinction to be so scrupulous now. In fact, as has been remarked lately, we have often revised our canons only after our practice has already changed.
It is not hard to imagine the following response: We should not compound our errors, especially on a matter of such great importance and one so central to the divisions with TEC, especially at this fragile moment.
In my understanding there seem to be two ways out of this predicament, both of which would avoid the conflict Bishops Benhase and McConnell raise. One is that we could approve the same-sex marriage liturgies mentioned in the third Resolved of A054 for “trial use” in preparation for Prayer Book revision.
The other is that we could use the rites mentioned in the third Resolved of A054 as common forms that may be employed when using “An Order for Marriage” (BCP 435-436), which is obviously already in the BCP. To do that we would have to change the marriage canon (I.18, see Constitution and Canons pp. 59-60, linked above) so that the gender-specific language of “a man and a woman” and of “husband and wife” would be changed or simply reinterpreted to allow same-sex marriage. This would also require approval in each case of the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority.
We would then read the explicit references to “the man and the woman” in the rubrics and in #2 and #4 of that “Order for Marriage” in a way that would allow same-sex marriage. Bishops have authority in their own dioceses to permit “such order as may be permitted by the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer or by the Canons of the General Convention for the use of special forms of worship.” At this writing, several proposed resolutions could be tailored to fit this bill, including A036, C020, C024, C026, and D026, which can be found using the search function on this webpage.
Thus, on my current understanding, in order to move from provisional use of a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions approved in 2012 to same-sex marriage and “marriage equality,” GC’15 will need both to pass a canon change that changes current gender-specific language or makes it useable as gender-neutral language and also either to authorize “trial use” of the rites proposed in A054 or to authorize the rites mentioned in A054 as proposed common forms to be used under the existing “An Order for Marriage” in the BCP, with the gender-specific language suitably modified so that bishops can authorize their use as “special forms of worship.”
In either of these two ways, even if Article X of the Constitution is a hurdle to approving same-sex marriage at GC’15, I believe it could be cleared in a way that is above board and within our existing rules.
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As I mentioned at the beginning, my hunch is that the votes are there for approving same-sex marriage at GC’15. But that does not mean we will do it. Both Houses would have to concur on the same actions with the same wording. And as I suggested, the bishops may not concur. Because even if the great majority of them along with the great majority of deputies agree that TEC should offer same-sex marriage – as a matter of sound theology given our current discernment about these issues – some acknowledge that, as a matter of pastoral care for the loyal minority within TEC, more time should be taken.
I want to be clear that I support same-sex marriage and will vote for it in Committee #20 on Marriage, as well as in the House of Deputies, if the right opportunities rise up through the legislative process. I say that because I need to be accountable to those according to whom my views on these matters are terribly in error.
I feel deeply, I should add nonetheless, as a person who in all outward appearances is nearly as privileged as any among us (white, male, professional, married, decently well off even if not wealthy, etc.) – I feel deeply that I am not in a position to make a grand gesture. I cannot propose to sacrifice the interests of one minority on behalf of another, let alone on behalf of the majority. I’m not in any recognizable way in either minority. That opportunity for grand gestures is reserved for those who are under-privileged and/or oppressed, in whatever minority they find themselves.
That said, neither am I in the position in which bishops must perform their duties as chief shepherds of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. As I stated at the beginning, the job of bishops is not only to provide for the care of all of us but also to guide their dioceses to a greater unity in witness to the love of Christ for a broken world.
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The Rev. Canon Scott Gunn, a member of the Diocese of Southern Ohio deputation, has posted thoughtful responses to all the resolutions formally submitted by standing commissions and task forces to GC’15, and I commend his analyses to you, including this one on the resolutions relating to same-sex marriage:
Anglican Theological Review Fully Alive collection:
The Rev. Tobias Haller, BSG, response to Fully Alive:
The Rev. Dr. Craig Uffman, essay from the Diocese of Rochester:
Episcopal Café overview:
And for another twist, see:
A066 from SCLM on amending Constitution, Article X
For an announcement of a panel in which Bishop Breidenthal will participate, see:
The Living Church panel on defining marriage