In a historic meeting, nearly 200 Episcopal Church General Convention deputies gathered here March 18 to begin a churchwide consultation on same-gender blessings.
The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music invited one lay and one clergy deputy from each of the church's 109 dioceses and three regional areas to hear about and reflect on its work to date on the mandate given to it in General Convention 2009 Resolution C056.
The resolution, passed in 2009, directed the SCLM to work with the House of Bishops to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships. The commission is to report to the 77th General Convention in 2012 in Indianapolis.
One hundred ninety-five clergy and lay deputies from 98 dioceses registered for the gathering that began mid-afternoon on March 18 and will conclude at noon March 19. Among the deputies registered to participate, 51 will attend their first convention as deputies in 2012; for another 18, Indianapolis will be at least their fifth convention, according to statistics presented during the opening session.
Another nearly 50 people are participating as presenters and small-group facilitators. In addition, representatives of the Presbyterian Church USA, the Moravian Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are observing the process.
Calling the gathering historic, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson said during the opening session that "never before have only deputies met in a large gathering outside of General Convention for the specific purpose of church business" and to discuss a topic due to be taken up the next meeting of convention. In addition, she said, the topic itself is history-making.
Anderson said the SCLM has set a new standard in transparency by how it has done the work asked of it in C056 and how it is sharing it with the church at this point in its process.
"We're not here to debate; we're here for theological reflection," she added. "What a concept."
SCLM chair Ruth Meyers echoed Anderson in her opening remarks, saying that "our purpose is not to debate whether to develop these resources; we had that debate in 2009."
The commission will present its work on C056 to the convention in 2012, she said, and then the bishops and deputies "will debate the next steps."
Meyers also told the gathering that the materials they will consider during the gathering are "a work in progress – not a finished product," and she asked them to approach the material in that spirit.
The consultation is divided between plenary sessions and small-group discussions. The topics to be discussed include liturgical concerns, pastoral and teaching resources and canonical and legal considerations.
When representatives of the small groups reported back to the gathering about their first reflection time, one deputy noted that her group came from "very diverse experiences and are eager to know more about the how and the why of the process." Another noted that there seemed to be an "inherent bias towards blessings as a foregone conclusion" that makes it hard to talk about the issues in a way that respects the dignity of each participant.
The participants' work is being guided in part by the theological principles and principles for evaluating rites for blessing same-gender relationships that the SCLM developed for its C056 work. Summaries of those documents are here.
In theological documents the commission said that "covenantal relationships [of all kinds] are one way for Christians to live out their baptismal calling in the world." As the church discerns the fruits of the Spirit shown in faithful commitments, the document says, "these commitments become a blessing to the wider community." The church's decision to bless all such relationships "belongs to the mission of the church in its ongoing witness to the good news of God in Christ and the Christian hope of union with God."
When evaluating materials proposed for blessing same-gender relationships, the SCLM says, they "must above all be consistent with the implicit theology and ecclesiology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer," including the "assumption that the entire life of the church finds its origin in the baptismal font." In addition, the materials must "embody a classically Anglican liturgical ethos and style" and ought to "be an expression primarily of the entire church, not the couple seeking a blessing" without it becoming a "generic rite."
The Rev. Dr. Patrick Malloy, chair of the SCLM's task group on liturgical resources, told the gathering's second plenary session that his group's first step of gathering existing same-gender blessing rites resulted in "hundreds and hundreds of rites --- stacks of them."
"One thing this suggests is that in fact the blessing of same-gender relationships has been going on for a long time," he said, noting that one rite came to the group as a mimeographed copy.
The liturgical group also created a preliminary outline of a rite for blessing same-gender relationships and then sifted through the gathered material to find wording or structures that might guide the development of a proposed rite, Malloy said.
The deputies at the consultation are due to reflect on that outline, as well as the draft text of a blessing prayer itself. The text of the draft blessing was given to the SCLM earlier in the week by the subgroup.
Meyers stressed during a SCLM discussion earlier in the week that the text is a starting point for the consultation and is being given to them as a way for participants to practice applying the principals for evaluating rites. The text, she said, is "not in any way what [the church] may see in the final product."
"This text has absolutely no finality to it," Malloy told the gathering March 18, asking the group to react to it within the liturgical principals the SCLM developed as a way to guide the further work of the commission.
The draft text is:
"Praise and thanks to you, O God, Creator and Sustainer of the world. You spoke and the heavens came into being, the earth and everything therein. You looked and found it good. The world was charged with your glory and mercy.
"Praise and thanks to you, O Lord our God, Liberator and Healer of the world. You have broken down the walls of division, calling together by the law of love those who were far apart. For this, Christ died, giving birth to a new creation.
"Praise and thanks to you, O Lord our God. You renew the face of the earth. Pour your Holy Spirit upon N. and N. Let them love each other openly without fear, in justice, love and peace, a joyful sign of your new creation.
"Most gracious God, you have put in the hearts of your people a yearning for community. You call us into covenant and endow us with the will to keep faith with you and one another. Pour out your blessing upon N. and N. Deepen their joy, guide them and console them in difficult times; sustain them in the knowledge of your loving care; and bring them in the end to know you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
The March 18 plenary sessions were webcast live and those on March 19 will be as well. They can be viewed here. The March 19 webcast schedule includes sessions from 8:30-9:30 a.m. (EDT) and 11 a.m. – 12 noon (EDT), along with a news conference slated for 2 - 2:30 p.m. (EDT).
According to statistics gathered from a survey of registered pariticipants, summarized by Meyers during her opening remarks, same-gender relationships have been officially or unofficially blessed in 60 percent of the dioceses that registered to participate in the gathering.
Not all of those dioceses have officially allowed those blessings, Myers noted, and 32 percent of the participating dioceses have officially said they will not bless same-gender unions. Sixteen percent of the deputies from the registered dioceses are in same-gender marriages, civil unions or otherwise committed relationships. Twenty-three percent of the participating deputies are single.
At its October 2011 meeting, the SCLM must decide on the substance of its report that will be included in the so-called Blue Book collection of reports to 2012 General Convention.
Meyers has said that the commission envisions that the material it will present to convention will include one or more essays to provide theological foundations for its work, one or more rites, pastoral resources to assist clergy and others who prepare couples for blessings, teaching resources for congregations wanting to discern whether they will offer blessings and why the church would bless same-gender relationships, and guidance for bishops and clergy for addressing the legal issues in the various civil contexts in which the church operates. She has said that the SCLM is also discussing canonical issues, given the different civil contexts in which the dioceses find themselves.
To assist its work, SCLM established four task groups to focus on liturgical resources, pastoral counseling and teaching resources, canonical and legal considerations and theological resources. The commission also has a blog with a section on its C056 work and an e-mail inbox (the address is [email protected]) for comments and reflections.