Statement from Bishop Michael Smith declining to authorize same-sex marriages in North Dakota

July 20, 2015

Dear Friends:

What a General Convention it was! When we entered our time of council together at Salt Lake City, same-sex marriage was not legal in North Dakota and the Episcopal Church had no samesex marriage rites. As we departed, neither case was the reality.

While some celebrate and others lament, it is now incumbent on us to focus on the difference between marriage as a “civil right” and marriage as a “sacramental rite.” Though these concepts oftentimes are confused, the former has been decided and settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. As bishop and chief pastor of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota, however, my concern is primarily with the latter. Therefore, I will not engage in public arguments or speculation through social media or the secular press, but believe it my obligation to listen, consult, and lead within our own church community.

Needless to say, the issue of the sacramental rite of same-sex marriage is a divisive one for the Diocese of North Dakota. We are far from reaching consensus on the matter. While there are those in our community who strongly support the sacramental rite of same-sex marriage, there are equally strong voices against it. One of my responsibilities as bishop is to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.” This I intend to do to the best of my abilities.

In Utah, I agreed with the minority in voting “no” at the General Convention, as did our lay deputation (3-0) and clergy deputation (2-1). Our reasons for doing so are articulated in the Minority Report of the “Communion Partners Salt Lake City Statement.”

Nevertheless, the General Convention authorized for trial use two liturgies, beginning the First Sunday of Advent 2015, for the solemnization of same-sex marriages. It clarified that “[t]rial use is only to be available under the direction and with the permission of the Diocesan Bishop,” but that the Diocesan Bishop “will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to these liturgies.”

After having read the Scriptures through the lenses of tradition and reason on this matter, and having listened for thirty years to the debates over this issue, I remain unconvinced that God is doing something new by altering the order established in creation. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience authorize the use of these trial liturgies for the Diocese of North Dakota.

In order, however, to comply with the directive to “make provision for all couples … to have access to these liturgies,” I will consult with all the clergy of the diocese who exercise “priest in charge” authority in congregations about what this might look like for us. Some of the possibilities shared in the House of Bishops include: making arrangements with a neighboring diocese for clergy to officiate using the liturgies in the neighboring diocese; inviting clergy from another diocese to officiate in the diocese using these liturgies either in church buildings or other venues; and inviting another bishop from outside the diocese to exercise episcopal oversight for certain congregations through a plan of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO).

These are confusing times indeed. The “doctrine” of the Episcopal Church is understood to be found in part “in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.” The Catechism is clear in its teaching: “Holy Matrimony is Christian Marriage in which the woman and man enter into a lifelong union, and make their vows before God and receive the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows.” At the same time General Convention has authorized trial liturgies at odds with that teaching. Since those of us who are ordained have publicly vowed in ordination to “solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church,” we now find ourselves in a conundrum where the “doctrine” or our church is in conflict with the “worship” of our church.

Your prayers are most appreciated as we enter into this new season of our life together. I am,

Yours in Christ,

The Rt Rev Michael Smith

Bishop of North Dakota

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