Episcopal Church on its way towards adopting gay marriage

The 78th General Convention is likely to adopt trial rites for the blessing of same-sex marriages, but also will allow dissenting dioceses and clergy the legal right to opt out.

The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church will endorse some form of same-sex marriage at its 25 June to 3 July meeting in Salt Lake City, but at the midpoint a clear pattern of compromise and accommodation has emerged in the debates in the House of Bishops.

It is within the legislative power of those supporting same-sex marriage to pass an immediate and mandatory rule requiring same-sex marriage. While the conservatives are not able to block gay marriage, the threat of their of defection to another Anglican entity exists. However the game of prisoner’s dilemma being played out at GC 78 sees left and right accommodating their opponents.

The bishops began debate on A054, “Adopt Resources and Rites from Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing, Revised and Expanded 2015” — a resolution creating liturgies appropriate to the changed marriage canon.

The Rt. Rev. Stephen Miller, Bishop of Milwaukee rose and offered an amendment dividing the resolution, having the bishops consider paragraphs 1 through 14 and 15 through 21 as two distinct resolutions. The House then turned to the resolution which had been amended overnight by the Rt. Rev. Brian Thom, Bishop of Idaho, and the Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, Suffragan Bishop in Europe. The bulk of the first half of the resolution consisted of technical and grammar corrections to the text of the provisional rite for the blessing of same-sex unions adopted by the 2012 General Convention and its reauthorization for use.

The second half of the resolution asked the three liturgies created by the marriage task force be authorized for trial use, under Article X of the church’s constitution. It further allowed bishops and clergy to opt out of offering the rites and stated that no one could be “coerced or penalized in any manner, or suffer any canonical disabilities” as a result of their support or opposition to same sex marriage.

The resolution further asked bishops to “make provisions for all couples desiring to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies.”

After brief debate the bishops endorsed the first half of the original resolution, reauthorizing the current provisional rite, and then turned to the second half.

The Rt. Rev. Edward S. Little II, Bishop of Northern Indiana rose and addressed the house stating that as a “matter of conscience and Christian conviction” he could not vote in favor of the resolution. The Episcopal Church “did not have the authority to change the sacrament of marriage,” he stated.

However, he thanked Bishops Thom and Whalon for the “wonderful generosity of spirit” in “allowing clergy and dioceses” to say no to same-sex marriage and retain their place within the church.

He hoped that that in “three, six, nine or eighteen years time” the House would not forget this “generosity” and continue to allow “those who hold a traditional view to have a place in this church.”

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey Henderson, Assisting Bishop of Florida rose and offered an amendment strengthening the language of the bishop’s authority to opt out of gay marriage for his diocese. The suffragan bishop for the Armed Forces offered a technical correction to the Henderson amendment, which was passed by the house.

The Bishop of Georgia, the Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase asked for clarification of the Henderson amendment, questioning the right to dissent. Could a priest who wanted to conduct a same-sex marriage do so even if his bishop forbad it? Would the conscience clause protect them from the consequences of violating their bishop’s injunction?

The president of the meeting, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, responded that a priest did not have the authority to celebrate the rite without the permission of their bishop.

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire, rose to object saying that it had been his practice when officiating in other jurisdictions to be “sensitive” to the views of the local bishop.  

“Could we also remember that we are to be sensitive to the pastoral needs of same-sex couples, not just bishops,” he said. The church had tolerated bishops who had refused to ordain women for too long, he argued, noting that the pains of those denied ordination had been outweighed by the desire to accommodate traditionalists.

Bishop Whalon rose to object to the amendment, noting that the resolution before the house had been changed to state that the three rites in question were to be trial rites. Trial rites he argued were authorized for use by the whole church, not parts.

The Bishop of Central Florida, the Rt. Rev. Gregory Brewer agreed with Bishop Whalon’s distinction between provisional and trial rites, He urged they be renamed provisional rites. “Whether a bishop approves or opposes” the rites on “theological or liturgical grounds”, mandating their use across the whole church robs the bishop of his role of “chief liturgical officer” for his diocese.

The Bishop of Florida, the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, concurred, saying if they are mandated for use, then the bishop “can never say no.”

The Bishop of Vermont, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Ely (pictured) the chairman of the Marriage Task Force, offered a second technical correction, which was approved by voice vote. He was followed by the Bishop of Albany, the Rt. Rev. William Love who rose to state he “appreciated the generosity of the committee to make provisions for those who cannot support provisions of marriage” outside the church’s traditional teachings

A bishop was “called to guard the faith and unity of the church,” he said. While the “overwhelming majority of the Episcopal Church supports” changing the teachings on the sacrament of marriage, the “overwhelming majority of the Anglican Communion” did not.

Allowing the bishop the right to refuse for his diocese “gives us the ability to have flexibility.”

The Bishop of Tennessee, the Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt, concurred. The Henderson amendment “conveys the spirit of the committee” by “offering a generous pastoral response to another constituency in the church” … conservatives.

The Bishop of Arkansas, the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield, offered an amendment striking two of the three proposed trial rites. His amendment was amended by motion of the Bishop of Missouri, the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith, striking only one of the three proposed rites. Bishop Benfield stated the doctrines of the Episcopal Church are taught through the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Offering five potential marriage rites: the existing rite, the provisiona rite, and three trial rites, muddied the doctrine of marriage.

The Henderson amendment was passed by voice vote, with no audible dissents. The house then broke for lunch.

The Bishop of Springfield the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, and the Suffragan Bishop of Dallas, the Rt. Rev. Paul Lambert, told Anglican Ink during the lunch break they were discouraged by the whole debate, and one expressed concern that what was given today could be taken away in three years by another General Convention.

Bishop Whalon told AI that it was inconceivable that in light Friday’s Supreme Court ruling the Episcopal Church would not adopt some same-sex marriage rite. However, partisans for same-sex marriage would not be happy that the issue would now proceed according to Article X of the constitution, requiring two successive meetings of General Convention to pass gay marriage liturgies for inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer.

Fears that what was given today could be taken away in the future, appear unlikely due to the composition of the House of Bishops. The animosity, grandstanding, and disorder that accompanied the debates of the last two decades has all but disappeared. Whereas pride was once considered the defining mark of the House of Bishops, the current mood is one of reconciliation, accommodation and dialogue.

No one wants “Ed Little, John Bauerschmidt, Bill Love” to leave one episcopal supporter of the liturgies told AI. This was not a political issue, he noted, but a theological one.

“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.

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