Good Order And The Re-Definition of Marriage

On the eve of a General Convention that will consider several important proposals to change the definition of marriage in the Church’s doctrine, discipline and worship, much attention is directed, perhaps belatedly, to the question of good order. Several bishops generally sympathetic to the idea of same sex marriage have expressed concerns that the way in which that innovation is now being proposed violates “good order.” Rejecting this charge, the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, also sympathetic to same sex marriage, has offered an amendment to the marriage canon that it claims will promote rather than undermine “good order.” The Task Force’s secretary, who states that he was “one of the members most closely involved in …the wording of the canon,” responds to the question of order:

Far from “directing clergy to disobey” the BCP, the canon change addresses the current situation, in which we have clergy, operating under “generous pastoral provision,” solemnizing same-sex marriages in those states in which the civil law permits, in violation of the current canon, and, if you accept the logic of Benhase and McConnell, in conflict with the BCP as well. It is true that the canon change will do nothing to change the BCP — or to authorize any other liturgy, for that matter — but it will remove the problem of clergy being in violation of the canons. And it is only the canon we are proposing to change.

So if the bishops are interested in “good order” as they say, this is a step they should applaud. It introduces no new conflict with the BCP — that conflict is already there, if you accept their logic — but it does remove the canonical dissonance, which is actionable under Title IV, in spite of the wink and nod of “generous pastoral provision.”

[Emphasis in the original, including the emphasis that the current practice is in violation of the canons.]

Notwithstanding this debate, “good order” is not that difficult to define. Indeed, it is defined, at least in part, in the definitions of Canon IV.2, which state that the “Discipline of the Church shall be found in the Constitution, the Canons and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer.” Canons IV.3 and IV.4 then go on to specify that violation of any of these instruments subjects a member of the clergy to discipline. Whatever else “good order” may be, it surely requires at a minimum that the Church comply with its own fundamental instruments of governance as defined in its disciplinary canons. In the context of re-defining marriage, therefore, good order would require that any proposal not be inconsistent with the Constitution, the canons or the rubrics of the BCP.


One might add that good order also requires the Church to comply with its own defined doctrine, which too is specified in Canon IV.2:

Doctrine shall mean the basic and essential teachings of the Church and is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.

Canon IV.4 requires a member of the clergy to “abide by the promises and vows made when ordained,” one of which—constitutionally mandated—is the undertaking to conform to the doctrine of the Church. Thus, “good order,” even in the minimalist sense of avoiding violation of church disciplinary canons, requires conformity to “the basic and essential teachings of the Church” as found in four specified places: the Creeds, the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and the Catechism.


What are the implications of these canonical provisions for the consideration of “good order” in the re-definition of marriage?


  • First, the marriage rubric (BCP, p.422) begins “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God.” This rubric is part of the “discipline of the Church” as defined in Canon IV.2.

  • Second, the Catechism (BCP, p. 861) provides that “Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage, in which the woman and man enter into a life-long union, make their vows before God and the Church, and receive the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows.” The Catechism also defines (BCP, p. 860) “sacramental rites” of the Church to include Holy Matrimony. Both the Catechism and the sacramental rite of marriage are thus part of the “doctrine” of the Church as defined in Canon IV.2, conformity to which is canonically required.

  • Third, the marriage canon (I.1.18) requires clergy to conform to “the laws of this Church governing the solemnization of Holy Matrimony” and provides that “Holy Matrimony is a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman.”

  • Fourth, Art. X of the Constitution specifies the procedures by which the BCP, containing the sacramental rites and rubrics for Holy Matrimony and the Catechism, can be amended: affirmative votes at two successive General Conventions, the second by a majority of all bishops entitled to vote and a majority in a vote by orders of all dioceses entitled to representation.


Introducing same sex marriage into the Church in good order would require honoring all of these provisions until they are amended in accordance with the required constitutional procedures.


ACI opposes the re-definition of marriage for several reasons, not least because it is an unwarranted departure from the teaching of Scripture as understood by the Church throughout the ages that would have profound internal, Communion and ecumenical consequences. Nonetheless, if TEC is determined to proceed on this course the way to re-define marriage in good order is the following:


Step 1: propose a revision to the BCP, including the rubrics, the marriage rite and the Catechism and pass this proposed revision on first reading in 2015; or alternatively, adopt a proposed revision to all of these parts of the BCP for trial usage.


Step 2: prepare a revision to the marriage canon for consideration in 2018 when and if the second reading of the BCP revisions are passed by the required vote or whenever the proposed revision is passed by the constitutionally specified majorities.


Step 3: prohibit all clergy from violating the rubrics, canons and Catechism until they are revised by proper procedures.

None of this is obscure; to the contrary, it is obvious. Yet the most remarkable thing about the many resolutions offered on marriage (ten so far) is that not a single one even proposes the obvious first step required of good order: amending or revising the BCP. To be sure there are four resolutions (C017, C022, C026 and D026) that reference the BCP, but none of them attempts to comply with the constitutional requirements for amending it. Instead, they flagrantly attempt to circumvent the Constitution by re-interpreting the language of the BCP:

the language “man and woman” and “husband and wife” therein shall be equally applicable to two people of the same gender, and all gender-specific language shall be interpreted to be gender-neutral, and may thus be modified as necessary for the purposes of the said Canon, and of the said rites. (C017.)

The Constitution is explicit on changing the BCP: “no alteration” of the BCP is permitted except in accordance with the specified procedures. By their own terms, these “interpretation” resolutions purport to “modify” the BCP rites. Passage of any one of these resolutions would thus reflect the Church expressing its collective contempt for its own Constitution.


Moreover, none of these resolutions even bothers to mention the rubrics or the Catechism, which are part of the canonically-defined discipline and doctrine (respectively) of the Church. This omission points to another insurmountable problem with these resolutions: they falsely imply that the re-definition of marriage is simply a matter of changing a word here or there, “man” to “woman” here, “husband and wife” to “spouses” there. But consider these parts of the BCP marriage rite:


The introduction by the celebrant: “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”

The initial prayer: “O gracious and everliving God, you have created us male and female in your image: Look mercifully upon this man and this woman who come to you seeking your blessing….”

And the Scriptures suggested for the rite: Genesis 2:4-9, 15-24 (A man cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh); Mark 10:6-9, 13-16 (They are no longer two but one).

The covenant of marriage established by God in creation is that reflected in the suggested Scripture reading: “a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” As the Scripture lesson shows, this covenant is that referenced by Jesus in his primary teaching on marriage: “But from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’.”


As Jesus’ reference to the covenant of marriage established in creation demonstrates, this covenant also reflects the broader creation account, which is another of the suggested readings and the one quoted in the initial prayer of the BCP rite: “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Jesus teaches us that the crucial part here is that God created us male and female. What is one to make of these parts of the marriage rite when instructed that “all gender-specific language shall be interpreted to be gender-neutral”?


The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music answers this question. The alternative marriage rite it proposes (A054) simply omits any reference to “covenant of marriage established by God in creation” and the Scriptural readings that reference this covenant, including the passage from Mark just quoted. This proposed rite also truncates the crucial (in our Lord’s teaching) but inconvenient reference to “male and female” in the Scriptural creation account in the initial prayer. These proposed alterations highlight a profound point: if TEC were to adopt “marriage equality,” meaning the same understanding of marriage for opposite sex and same sex couples, that understanding of marriage could no longer be that it is the covenant established by God in creation. It would be something else. It would be something other than what TEC now understands marriage to be. And it would be something new for opposite sex couples as well as same sex couples, if the covenant were truly to be the same for both. These emendations by the SCLM show that whatever TEC may mean by marriage in the future, whatever manmade covenant of mutual support and fidelity it would be, it would not be the covenant established by God in creation. That understanding would have to be jettisoned along with the gender-specific language. Does the Church mean to change the fundamental understanding of marriage for all people?

These resolutions seeking to re-interpret the BCP without following the Constitution are not the only ones to run afoul of even the most basic understanding of good order. There are four resolutions (A036, C022, C024, C026) that would amend the marriage canon without first amending the constitutionally-mandated BCP. The advocates of amending the canon resist the objection that such an amendment would be inconsistent with the BCP. Again, Tobias Haller, the secretary of the Task Force:

The issue isn’t that “the BCP supersedes the Canons” — but they are different documents governing different aspects of marriage….If — and it is an “if” — the church continues to authorize liturgies for same-sex marriages, then the canons need to provide procedures that address that reality.

But the Church does not yet properly authorize liturgies for same sex marriage. Haller himself admits they are now done “in violation of the current canon,” meaning the marriage canon, I.18. But they are also done in violation of Canon IV.4.1(b), which requires clergy to “conform to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.” The inconsistency presented by the proposed amendment is that it permits what the BCP forbids. It is disingenuous to claim that because the BCP provision is still intact the amendment would do no harm to the good order of the Church when the sole purpose of the amendment is to circumvent that BCP prohibition. If the BCP rubric and Canon IV.4.1 continue to foreclose the celebration of same sex marriages there is little point in amending Canon I.18.

Similarly lacking in good order is the proposal (A054) of the SCLM to “authorize” a “supplemental” same sex marriage liturgy and encourage the clergy of the Church “to provide generous pastoral response” to same sex couples by using this supplemental rite. As the SCLM itself notes in another resolution it is proposing (A066), General Convention does not have the constitutional authority to authorize supplemental liturgies. In A066 the SCLM proposes amending the Constitution to give General Convention this authority and states by way of explanation that “the Constitution allows the General Convention to authorize alternative forms of worship only for trial use as a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer.” So, in A066 the SCLM concedes General Convention lacks the authority to do what it is proposing in A054. Neither that flagrant foul nor the encouragement to violate the existing canons by providing what is discreetly called “generous pastoral response” can be said to comport with any definition of good order.


In 2010 the Diocese of South Carolina amended its constitution to provide that it acceded only to the Constitution of TEC, removing its prior reference to the canons. It made

clear at the time that it was not leaving TEC by doing so, and it continued to participate in the life of the Church. With this amendment it joined 15 other dioceses, including Connecticut and North Carolina, that acceded only to the Constitution, and South Carolina continued to surpass another seven dioceses that had no accession clause whatsoever. Yet the bishop of South Carolina was certified for abandonment of the Church for this action while the bishops of Connecticut and North Carolina are candidates for Presiding Bishop.


Bishops who testified truthfully in a court of law that they agreed with a view of church polity that had a long and venerable history were accused of abandonment—not just violation of the canons, but abandonment of the Church—while other bishops openly and notoriously flout the doctrine and discipline of the Church (as defined in Canon IV.2) with impunity—and are encouraged by General Convention itself to continue to do so.


At its most basic, “good order” is adherence to the rule of law. Those in the minority have little say in the promulgation of Church constitutional and canon law, but those in the legislative majority should have no reason to disregard the very canons they write. Surely a fundamental change in the understanding of marriage and therefore in the doctrine of the Church—if possible at all in a Church that considers itself apostolic—should be done in good order, in full and robust compliance with the Constitution, the canons, and the BCP until they are constitutionally changed.


Reprinted by permission of the author.


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