[Episcopal News Service] Albany Bishop William Love, in a Nov. 10 pastoral letter to his diocese, forcefully condemned the Episcopal Church’s adoption of same-sex marriage rites, vowed to reject a General Convention resolution intended to offer the rites in all dioceses and suggested Episcopalians in his diocese would leave the church if his directive were overturned.
Using Biblical citations from Leviticus to Romans to support his belief that sexual intimacy between two men or two women was never God’s plan, Love’s eight-page letter labeled homosexuality “sinful and forbidden,” and cast the long-simmering Episcopal debate over same-sex marriage as a kind of existential crisis for the church, which he argues has been “hijacked” by a powerful, secular “Gay Rights Agenda.”
“There is no doubt the Episcopal Church and now the Diocese of Albany are in the midst of a huge storm that can rip us apart if we are not careful. That is exactly what Satan wants. We don’t have to play his game,” Love said. “If we focus on what divides us, we will be destroyed. If we focus on what unites us – our Lord Jesus Christ – He will get us through to the other side.”
Resolution B012, when it was approved by the 79th General Convention in July, was seen as a compromise between conservative bishops like Love and advocates for greater LGBTQ inclusion in the church. It passed with broad support in both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies.
It wasn’t immediately clear what steps church leaders might take in response to Love’s directive, which specifically forbids diocesan clergy from using the trial rites supported by B012. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a statement Nov. 12 saying all clergy are required to “act in ways that reflect and uphold the discernment and decisions of the General Convention of the church.”
“I have read the recent statement from Bishop Bill Love of the Diocese of Albany and am aware of the deep hurt on all sides of the issues it addresses,” Curry said. “I have been, and will continue to be, in conversation with Bishop Love about this matter. Along with other leaders in the Episcopal Church, I am assessing the implications of the statement and will make determinations about appropriate actions soon.’
Episcopal News Service was unable Nov. 12 to reach clergy in the diocese to speak about Love’s letter on the record, and a diocesan representative said the bishop wasn’t immediately available to answer a reporter’s questions by phone.
Despite the impasse in Albany, the Episcopal Church has made steady progress toward marriage equality in recent years, said the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies.
“We recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the marriages of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” Jennings said in a written statement. “And we know that there are Christians who have been drawn further into fidelity and service to the world by living in committed same-sex partnerships and marriages based on holy love and the gift of seeing Christ in one another. When we celebrate these marriages, the entire church is blessed by the love and fidelity of these faithful couples.”
Love’s decision already has generated backlash in Albany and churchwide among supporters of same-sex marriage.
“Parishioners at St. Andrews, Albany, burned the bishop’s letter while it was being read at church,” parishioner John White said in a Facebook post. “How did your congregation ‘celebrate’?”
The Rev. Susan Russell, a priest from the Diocese of Los Angeles who has advocated for years in favor of greater LGBTQ inclusion in the Episcopal Church, said Love exceeded his canonical authority, and she expects the church to hold him accountable.
“In a moment when we’re being led by a presiding bishop who prophetically proclaims on a worldwide stage that if it’s not about love it’s not about God, we have a bishop named Love who is drawing lines in the sand, who is explicitly excluding people from God’s blessing,” Russell, senior associate rector at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, told ENS by phone.
Leading up to General Convention this year, Albany was one of eight dioceses that refused to offer trial rites to same-sex couples wishing to marry in their own churches, because the bishops held to theologically conservative interpretations of scripture, church canons and the Book of Common Prayer. With B012, General Convention intended to let those bishops opt out personally, without blocking the rites. The solution was to ask another bishop to provide pastoral oversight for the marrying couples.
B012 takes effect Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent, and in most of the eight dioceses, the bishops, though reluctantly, and have made plans for implementing it. Love, however, objected to B012 when it was approved and repeated his objections in his Nov. 10 letter. He said he raised those concerns in a recent meeting with Curry, warning the resolution’s mandate would do “tremendous damage” to the church and his diocese.
Love’s letter begins by citing his authority as bishop, which the Book of Common Prayer says includes a call “to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church” and to “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ.” It concludes by affirming his “respect for the authority of General Convention as an institutional body” but pledging his “ultimate loyalty” to God.
His letter enumerates seven reasons for his rejection of B012, starting with biblical teachings that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“The fact that some in today’s sexually confused society (to include 5 of the 9 U.S. Supreme Court Justices in 2015) may have broadened their understanding of marriage to be more inclusive, allowing for same-sex marriages, doesn’t mean that God … has changed His mind or His purpose or intent for marriage.”
Albany remains the exception to church’s support for marriage equality
The reference to the Supreme Court invokes the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex civil marriage in all 50 states. It already had been legal by law in New York since 2011.
However, tensions in the Episcopal Church over homosexuality stem back even further. Those tensions flared up in 2003 with the ordination of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop, and after several years of theological disagreements, some bishops, priests and lay Episcopalians left the church, causing protracted legal battles in some places over diocesan property.
Separate efforts to welcome same-sex couples more fully into the life of the church took a major step forward in 2015 when General Convention created and authorized two trial marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
“For more than 40 years, the Episcopal Church has prayed, studied and discerned and, in doing so, we have seen the evidence of God’s blessing in the lives of LGBTQ people,” Jennings said in her written statement, calling General Convention “our highest temporal authority.”
Despite their earlier objections, the bishops of the dioceses of Central Florida, Dallas, Florida, North Dakota, Springfield, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands have signaled they are satisfied by the compromise reached in B012. Implementation may vary from diocese to diocese.
“I think we’ve come out of this with something that lets everyone stay true to their conscience,” Dallas Bishop George Sumner told the Dallas Morning News in July.
Like Love, Florida Bishop Samuel Howard opposed the comprise resolution, but he sent a message to his diocese on Aug. 3 saying he would implement it. If a parish wishes to conduct a same-sex wedding, Howard said he will ask a fellow bishop to step in.
“Please know that I am committed to honoring Resolution B012, as passed by the General Convention, even though my own theological position and pastoral teaching continues to be rooted in traditional Gospel understandings as set forth in our Book of Common Prayer,” Howard said. “My prayer is that both ‘sides’ of this issue will come to see the other not as a ‘side’ at all, but rather as fellow members of the Body of Christ, seeking in good faith to follow the Gospel.”
Love, however, has offered no such conciliation. “We’re in the midst of a major schism,” Love told the Albany Times-Union in a Sept. 1 story, and in a Sept. 7 letter to the diocese he said he was still considering the resolution’s meaning and collecting input from diocesan clergy before deciding how to respond and “how it will be dealt with in the Diocese of Albany.”
The diocese is based in New York’s capital city, though most of its 130 congregations are in less-populated communities between the Canadian border and Catskill Mountains. By Nov. 11, Love had made his decision, and it echoed off the walls of those churches. Parish clergy were instructed by Love to read the letter to their congregations after Sunday worship.
“B012 turns upside down over 2000 years of church teaching regarding the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and is in direct contradiction of the Episcopal Church’s ‘official teaching’ on marriage,” Love said.
Love’s letter also frames his objection to same-sex marriage by arguing at length that it is rooted in a faith-based opposition to homosexuality, and to premarital sex of any kind.
Allowing gay couples to marry does “a great disservice and injustice to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ, by leading them to believe that God gives his blessing to the sharing of sexual intimacy within a same-sex relationship, when in fact He has reserved the gift of sexual intimacy for men and women within the confines of marriage between a man and woman.” He continues by accusing the church of encouraging Episcopalians with “same-sex attractions” to sin by acting on those impulses.
Love implicates the Episcopal Church in that sin and suggests it will hasten the church’s demise.
“Not only does the same-sex couple come under God’s judgement and condemnation, but it also brings God’s judgement and condemnation against The Episcopal Church,” he said. “Recent statistics show that The Episcopal Church is spiraling downward. I can’t help but believe that God has removed His blessing from this Church. Unless something changes, The Episcopal Church is going to die.”
Bishop raises alarm over widening church schism
Implementing B012 also would require Love to violate his vows of ordination, he said, adding that others in his diocese are just as adamant in opposing same-sex marriage.
“There are many in the Diocese of Albany who have made it clear that they will not stand for such false teaching or actions and will leave – thus the blood bath and opening of the flood gates that have ravaged other dioceses will come to Albany if B012 is enacted in this diocese,” he said in his letter.
Love’s final justification for rejecting B012 expands the decision’s scope by invoking the diocese’s positive relations with the Anglican Communion, which also has grappled in recent years with divisions between its provinces, one of which is the Episcopal Church, over homosexuality.
Some in the Episcopal Church are willing to take what they see as a “prophetic” stance, Love said, even if others in the Anglican Communion don’t “embrace this ‘new thing’ that they believe God is doing.” Love calls this the devil’s deception.
“Satan is having a heyday … by deceiving the leadership of the church into creating ways for our gay and lesbian brothers and sister to embrace their sexual desires rather than to repent and seek God’s love and healing grace,” he said.
Love concluded his letter with a lengthy passage that mines a range of viewpoints on Christian outreach to people “who are struggling with same-sex attractions” while making clear he views homosexuality as a sin that requires repentance.
Curry, in his statement Nov. 12, was clear about the Episcopal Church’s official understanding of the issue.
“We are committed to the principle of full and equal access to, and inclusion in, the sacraments for all of the baptized children of God, including our LGBTQ siblings,” Curry said. “We also are committed to respecting the conscience of those who hold opinions that differ from the official policy of the Episcopal Church regarding the sacrament of marriage.
“It should be noted that the canons of the Episcopal Church give authority to all members of the clergy to decline to officiate a marriage for reasons of conscience, and Resolution B012 of the 79th General Convention does not change this fact.”
Russell, the California priest, said several fellow advocates for marriage equality and priests in the Diocese of Albany contacted her to inform her of Love’s decision. It greatly saddened her, she said.
Russell called Love “a complete outlier” among bishops on this issue, but that doesn’t take away the sting felt by gay and lesbian couples in his diocese.
“My heart goes out to the LGBTQ people in the Diocese of Albany specifically, but also to those in the wider church and community who will hear this again as another indication of how deeply homophobia runs in the veins, in the world and the church, and how much we have to do to eradicate it,” she said. “And I do think it’s up to the whole church to stand together in love and compassion.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].
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