Celebrations planned, tension lingers a month after marriage equality resolution takes effect

Press release from Episcopal News Service


[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church’s five-week-old plan to give same-sex couples unfettered access to marriage in all of its domestic dioceses is still clouded by requirements not envisioned by the enabling resolution and has broken the relationships of some congregations with their bishops.

Yet, in the midst of what more than one person has called “heartbreak,” there soon will be celebrations in some of those places. A parish in the Diocese of Central Florida is planning in February to witness the marriage of two men who have been partners for 30 years.

And two of the three congregations in the Diocese of Dallas whose pastoral relationships with their bishop have changed because of their support of same-sex marriage are planning services the weekend of Jan. 19-20 to bless couples who had to leave the diocese to get married in the last three years.

Eight bishops in the church’s 101 domestic dioceses previously had blocked access to the rites.  Then in July, the 79th General Convention passed the often-rewritten and often-amendedResolution B012. Reactions among the eight bishops have run the gamut, from one outright refusing to comply to one making an about-face on the issue. The six other bishops are at various points in between.

Bishop William Love of the Diocese of Albany has said he will not allow same-sex couples to be married by priests in that diocese. He acknowledged that he could face disciplinary proceedings by the church for refusing to obey the resolution’s requirements.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has affirmed General Convention’s authority, saying that “those of us who have taken vows to obey the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church must act in ways that reflect and uphold the discernment and decisions of the General Convention of the church.” He and other church leaders, he said in mid-November, were “assessing the implications of [Love’s] statement and will make determinations about appropriate actions soon.”

Of the eight bishops, only Diocese of the Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs has told his clergy to offer the rites without further obstacles. Gumbs previously had blocked use of the rites, which General Convention approved in 2015 (via Resolution A054).

“The clergy are aware that if a same-sex couple presents themselves for pastoral care leading to marriage they are obligated to accommodate the request,” Gumbs said in an email to Episcopal News Service just after B012 took effect on the first Sunday of Advent, Dec. 2. If a priest refuses to officiate at such a wedding, the priest must “provide another priest to facilitate the process.”

How the church got to this point

The 2015 resolution said that the bishops of the church’s domestic dioceses needed to give their permission for the rites to be used. They were also told to “make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies” even if they opposed same-sex marriage. (The Episcopal Church includes a small number of dioceses outside the United States in civil jurisdictions that do not allow marriage for same-sex couples.)

The eight bishops did not authorize use of the rites in their dioceses and required couples wanting to use them to be married outside their diocese and away from their home churches. Some refused to allow their priest to use the rites anywhere. This year, Resolution B012 moved the authority for deciding to use the rites from the diocesan bishop to parish priests. It said that diocesan bishops who do not agree with same-sex marriage “shall to invite, as necessary,” another Episcopal Church bishop to provide “pastoral support” to the couple, the clergy member involved and the congregation. Some of the bishops have interpreted B012 as requiring – or allowing them to require – the involvement of another bishop.

Christopher Hayes, who as a deputy from California proposed the amended version that convention passed, told ENS the key phrase is “as necessary.” Hayes thinks some bishops are misinterpreting that to mean necessary by mere fact of the bishops’ disagreement, whereas he understands it to mean pastorally necessary. Such pastoral necessity, he said, would be rare.

“Most of the time, the bishop isn’t involved in giving pastoral support to a couple getting married,” Hayes said, adding that pastoral oversight is a different matter not addressed by the resolution.

However, some of the eight bishops have argued that being involved in the use of the rites is part of their role as the diocese’s chief pastor. Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt put it this way an October essay:

“It is because the bishop is concerned with every marriage as chief pastor of the diocese that his or her explicit permission must be sought in the extraordinary instance of the remarriage of a person with a previous spouse still living.

“Additionally, the little-noticed requirement (Canon I.18.2) that clergy who waive the 30-day notification period before officiating at any marriage must report this waiver to the bishop is a similar reminder of the bishop’s role in the everyday pastoral ministries of clergy.”

B012 specifically notes that the canonical provision about remarriage after divorce that Bauerschmidt cites applies to same-sex couples. Canon I.19.3 (page 60 here) requires priests to show their bishops (or the bishop in the diocese in which the service is planned) that they have verified the annulment or dissolution of a divorced person’s previous marriage, and that they discussed with the couple the need to show “continuing concern” for the well-being of the former spouse, and of any children. The resolution requires a bishop who opposes same-sex marriage to invite another bishop to provide the needed consent to remarry.

Responses across the spectrum

Bauerschmidt said in a July letter to the diocese that B012 sets up “a particular structure that upholds the bishop’s unique role as chief pastor and teacher and presider at the liturgy,” even when the bishop cannot support same-sex marriage.

Bauerschmidt said in July that he “holds the traditional teaching on marriage” so he intended to ask another bishop to provide the “pastoral care” that he said would be necessary to ensure that the trial liturgies will be available in his diocese. He told ENS in an email this week that he would wait until “sometime in January” to announce a specific implementation plan.

Meanwhile, he has issued two “pastoral teaching” essays, one on the bishop’s role and one on the “church’s traditional teaching on marriage.”

Florida Bishop John Howard, despite objecting to B012 at General Convention, told his diocese in August that he intended to implement the resolution.  A subsequent meeting with clergy on the issue left some confusion about what that process would look like.

In a Dec. 4 email to ENS, Emily Stimler, the diocese’s director of communications, said the diocese has established “a process of collaboration and transparency” for implementing the resolution as outlined here. Rectors or priests-in-charge who want to perform same-sex marriages, and their wardens, must first meet with Howard and he will “find a bishop willing to undertake pastoral oversight in accordance with the provisions of B012,” Stimler said. “The oversight would only cover marriage, and the other bishop would not take over all pastoral oversight of the congregation.”

Stimler said one congregation has begun that process, though she didn’t identify the congregation or elaborate on where that process stands.

Hayes told ENS he doesn’t see a need for bishop-to-clergy meetings like the ones Howard is requesting before letting the marriages proceed.

“If the bishop’s theological position is ‘I can’t give support to the couple,’ what’s the purpose of the meeting?” he said.

Breaking relationships over B012

At least three bishops, Greg Brewer in Central Florida, Dan Martins in Springfield and George Sumner in Dallas, appear to be severing their pastoral relationships with clergy and parishes wishing to use the rites by requiring arrangements that resemble Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, or DEPO, with other Episcopal bishops, even though Resolution B012 specifically eschewed a DEPO mandate in such situations.

The House of Bishops devised DEPO in 2004 for congregations that so severely disagree with their diocesan bishops on human sexuality and other theological matters that their relationships are completely broken. Not all congregations wishing to use the same-sex marriage rites are in that level of conflict with their bishop, some bishops and deputies said during the convention debate.

Sumner announced in November that three congregations intended to perform same-sex marriages: Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith has agreed to be “the visiting bishop” to those congregations.

Sumner said he and Smith “share the hope that the three parishes will continue to invite me annually to come to preach, teach, and share in worship.”

On Jan. 19 Transfiguration plans a service to renew the marriage vows of 14 same-sex couples who had to leave the diocese to get married. Retired New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church, will preach. The next day, St. Thomas plans what it calls a “celebration and blessing” of such marriages.

The Rev. Paul Klitzke, rector at Ascension, told ENS that he was pleased to have a path toward offering the rites, though the change in the relationship with Sumner gave the congregation pause.

“There’s some heartbreak, in that this is not normative,” Klitzke said. “It’s not how the Episcopal Church has operated historically.”

Martins invoked the “heartbreak” of such an arrangement in his own message to the Diocese of Springfield in July. He outlined a process in which a congregation’s priest and other leaders will meet with him to discuss their desire to offer the trial rites, and Martins will find another bishop to assume “all the routine components of spiritual, pastoral, and sacramental oversight” for the congregation.

“Because all liturgical and sacramental ministry is an extension of the ministry of the bishop, and implicates the entire diocese in whatever is done, there must be a robust firewall between a community that receives same-sex marriage into its life, along with its clergy, and the rest of the diocese, including and especially the bishop,” Martins said.

Martins offered an update of sorts in December for Living Church, saying one parish in the diocese had asked to use the same-sex marriage rites, “and we are trying to hammer out the details.” The diocese did not return an ENS email seeking more information, including the name of the parish.

In Central Florida, ENS reported in August there was little expectation that congregations would face a DEPO arrangement or disruption of their pastoral relationships with Brewer other than inviting another bishop to provide oversight of same-sex marriage.

However, in December, the Rev. Alison Harrity, rector at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Winter Park, told ENS that when she informed Brewer that two men of the parish had asked her to perform their marriage, the bishop told her, “St. Richard’s needs a broader oversight.” Brewer delegated episcopal pastoral oversight to Kentucky Bishop Terry Allen White, Harrity said.

Brewer “didn’t even say ‘let’s have a conversation; he just gave us away,’” Harrity said. However, she added that the DEPO arrangement feels freeing to her and the congregation.

St. Richard’s first same-sex wedding will take place Feb. 16 between Bob Cochrane Felix Rodriguez. Cochrane proposed to his partner of 30 years during Eucharist on All Saints Sunday, after Harrity had blessed some other couples who were celebrating anniversaries.

North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith said just after convention that DEPO will serve as “a roadmap for these matters” in his diocese and he required any rector or priest-in-charge who wanted to use the rites to first contact him for “supplemental episcopal pastoral care.” St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Fargo has had a DEPO arrangement since December 2015 and has been solemnizing same-sex marriages since then. Smith told ENS this week that the church in the eastern part of the diocese is the only one to request such permission.

Meanwhile, uncertainty remains in Albany

Love has refused to allow such marriages even in the three Diocese of Albany parishes that have been in DEPO relationships with neighboring dioceses since 2012.

The Rev. Mary White, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Albany, one of those three, told ENS that the members of her parish and others in the diocese who favor B012 are biding their time waiting to see what Episcopal Church leaders can negotiate with Love. “I think people are trying not to get their hopes up” about whether same-sex marriages will take place in the diocese, she said.

Coincidentally, Love visited St. Andrew’s the Sunday that B012 went into effect for his previously planned routine visit. Love and DEPO bishops all provide such pastoral rites as confirmation, according to White.

Love brought the controversy into his Christmas message, likening his journey to the unanswered questions that Mary and Joseph faced when they responded to God’s call. “Are we, like Mary and Joseph, willing to risk our reputations, our relationships, our jobs and livelihood?” he asked in part.

White said St. Andrew’s has always supported the stances of the wider Episcopal Church and “we look forward to the day when we can do that openly.” To have diocesan support in that effort “would be a phenomenal thing, but I don’t know if that would ever happen.” And, she said, it would “be such a gift” if the diocese stood in line with the wider church.

Asked how she would wish the controversy to conclude, White said, “the perfect ending would be if Bishop Love would acquiesce to convention and allow us allow us to marry same-sex couples, but that’s not going to happen, so I don’t know if there’s a perfect ending.

“No matter what happens, it’s going to cause a fair amount turmoil in the diocese.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter. David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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