Some same-sex couples will still face hurdles accessing church’s marriage rites

August 15, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] There are times when the Episcopal – and Anglican – tendency toward compromise makes for differing interpretations on how far the church’s big tent has been stretched, and what it all means for the people seeking shelter under its flaps.

The latest example is the recent 79th General Convention’s passage of often-rewritten and often-amended Resolution B012, designed to give all Episcopalians unfettered access to two trial-use marriage rites that were approved in 2015, days after U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. B012 was passed in response to the refusal by eight of the diocesan bishops in the church’s 101 domestic dioceses to “make provision for all couples asking to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies.” They did not authorize use of the rites and required couples wanting to use them to be married outside their diocese and away from their home church.

When Resolution B012 becomes effective on the First Sunday of Advent, Dec. 2, same-sex couples in most of those dioceses still will have to go through some steps that are not required of straight couples, even though the resolution moved the authority for deciding to use the rites from the diocesan bishop to their parish priests.

The compromise that B012 represents is a “classically Anglican solution” to help same-sex couples in all dioceses use the rites in their home parishes and give bishops who oppose such marriages “a way to live within the canons of the church and yet still not violate their theological conscience,” according to the Rev. Susan Russell, a deputy from Los Angeles and longtime leader in the effort for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

Russell, who worked for what she has called the “hard-won compromise” of B012, told Episcopal News Service that “bishops are going to do what they’re going to do, but that doesn’t mean that that isn’t what the resolution says, that isn’t what the resolution is requiring. They’re making those choices on their own.”

She said there is a “relatively broad continuum of how [the resolution] is being interpreted or misinterpreted or framed and/or distorted.”

The Rev. Susan Russell, a deputy from Los Angeles, has called the final version of Resolution B012, among other things, “a great teachable moment for the wider church about actually how our polity works, about the reality that the rector does have the prerogative or the charge to make those choices.” Photo: Screenshot from on-demand video

The pertinent part of B012 says that when a bishop “holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites.”

For the bishops who have prohibited same-sex marriage in their dioceses and denied use of the trial-use rites (and required same-sex couples to go elsewhere in the church to get married), it comes down to the interpretation of the words “shall invite, as necessary.” Six of the eight bishops have publicly said that they would require the assistance of another bishop for clergy who want to use the rites.

They are interpreting B012 as requiring – or allowing them to require – the involvement of another bishop. Some of those bishops have said that mission congregations in their diocese, where the bishop is effectively the rector, will not be allowed to use the rites.

California Deputy Christopher Hayes told Episcopal News Service that he believes General Convention overwhelmingly passed Resolution B012 to give bishops with a theological objection to same-sex marriage a place to stand within the order and discipline of the Episcopal Church while giving same-sex couples “an equal place in the church.” Photo: Screenshot from on-demand video

California Deputy Christopher Hayes, who helped lead the revision of B012 and then proposed it to the House of Deputies, agreed with Russell’s sense of the hard compromise that the final version of B012 represents.

“Some of us who had hoped to see these liturgies become part of the prayer book or at least be on track to become part of the prayer book did not get as much as we would have liked to see,” Hayes told ENS. “People on the other side of the issue prevailed on that issue, but they do not get to have entire dioceses where same-sex couples are forbidden from being married. I’m concerned that these are efforts to undermine the compromise.”

Russell, Hayes and other framers of the revised resolution say that B012 does not require the involvement of a bishop, except to deal with a canonical provision about remarriage after divorce. 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. Resolution B012 specifically notes that this requirement applies to same-sex couples as well as opposite-sex ones and requires a bishop who opposes such marriage to invite another bishop to provide the needed consent.

The framers changed the original version of B012, proposed by Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, to remove its requirement that congregations wishing to use the rites but whose bishop objected could ask for the 14-year-old option of Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) and the bishop would have to grant it. The House of Bishops devised DEPO in 2004 for congregations that so severely disagree with their diocesan bishops on matter of human sexuality and other theological matters that their relationship is completely broken.

“We worked really hard to not use DEPO language in that resolution,” Vermont Bishop Tom Ely, who also worked on the resolution, told ENS. “We did not feel it was necessary because we kept hearing in the hearings [at convention] from those bishops that they had great relationships with the congregations. There were just some who didn’t agree with them” on this issue.

East Carolina Deputy Joan Geiszler-Ludlum, who chaired General Convention’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage and worked on the B012 compromise, “implored” deputies on the final day of convention to adopt the final version of the resolution. She later told Episcopal News Service that “clergy have shelter” on both sides of same-sex marriage: they can choose to perform them, and choose not to, although she hopes the resolution’s provisions will encourage more priests to “begin to see their way into doing this.” Photo: Screenshot from on-demand video

A summary of where the eight bishops stand now

Albany Bishop William Love has not said whether he will require such outside support. He passionately conveyed his opposition to the resolution during debate in the House of Bishops. Love has scheduled a Sept. 6 meeting with the diocesan clergy “to discuss their concerns and the potential impact of B012 on the clergy and parishes of the diocese.”

Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer spoke on July 21 about his commitment to implement B012. However, he later told ENS that he has not yet worked out the details of his plan. Jim Christoph, senior warden of St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Winter Park, Florida, a congregation that has advocated for marriage equality in the diocese, was at the July 21 gathering and told ENS that Brewer was clear that the resolution did not call for “a DEPO mechanism” but a more limited arrangement for oversight by another bishop. Christoph said he understood that Brewer will require the vestry to agree with the clergy’s desire to use the rites.

Dallas Bishop George Sumner, likewise, is still working out the details of his plan, but he said on July 19 that any parish wishing to use the rites will need to have another bishop handle all of that congregation’s pastoral oversight, provide confirmation and manage the process of people discerning a call to ordination.

Florida Bishop John Howard told his diocese earlier this month that he is “committed to honoring Resolution B012” even though he opposes same-sex marriage. He said he would work with clergy “to find a fellow bishop willing to undertake pastoral oversight” in accordance with the resolution.

North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith said that DEPO will serve as “a roadmap for these matters” in his diocese. However, he did not say whether that “supplemental episcopal pastoral care” would involve more that same-sex weddings.

Springfield Bishop Dan Martins said that he will at first require that a congregation’s “ministry leadership team” meet with him “to discern whether there is indeed a consensus around the desire to hold such a ceremony.” If so, they will agree to “the terms, conditions, and length of the relationship” with another bishop who will provide all episcopal functions.

Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt calls B012 “a creative application of the principle of the local adaptation of the historic episcopate” that 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 he will consult with clergy and vestries that desire to use the rites and will ask another bishop to provide the pastoral care to ensure that the trial liturgies will be available in the diocese.

Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs told ENS via email on Aug. 9 that he will not ask clergy to request pastoral support from another bishop. “As the bishop of the diocese, I should be able to provide pastoral support to clergy who request it,” he wrote. “I am committed to following the mind of the church.”

Hayes said, “I commend Bishop Gumbs for stating that he will make provisions for priests to perform marriages for same-sex couples in their parishes and that he is committed to providing full pastoral support for those priests.” He noted that the diocese is in “a legally anomalous position.” The U.S. Virgin Islands has civil marriage equality, but the British Virgin Islands, which are also part of the diocese, does not.

Working out B012 in Tennessee

Indie Pereira, who serves on the vestry of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, told ENS that she is “cautiously optimistic” about the stance Bauerschmidt has taken. “We’ll wait and see about how the details work out,” she said.

Four couples at St. Philip’s hope to use the rites, but some members oppose same-sex marriage, she said.

The vestry plans to use an outside facilitator “to help us come to a consensus as a parish” before the clergy move forward, she said.

Pereira and her partner, who wed civilly during the time when Bauerschmidt required same-sex couples to be married in the Diocese of Kentucky, want to have their marriage blessed in their home church. “We’re pretty hopeful,” she said. “More hopeful than I have been in a long time.”

Connally Davies Penley, who helped form the advocacy group All Sacraments for All People, or ASAP, in the Diocese of Tennessee, told ENS that she is grateful that the bishop “is conforming to the vote taken at General Convention.”

“One of the gifts that John [Bauserschmidt] has brought to the diocese is that he really cares about unity, unity within the diocese and unity with the church,” she said. “He is really moving in a way that we can stay together. I am grateful for that.”

And in Dallas

The Rev. Casey Shobe, rector of Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, told ENS that he and Sumner have discussed the bishop’s “draft plan for how he envisions trying to implement this.”

Shobe called it “a way forward that would potentially allow us to have even greater pastoral oversight from a visiting bishop beyond just the issue of marriage.” That, he said, could mean this bishop would perform confirmation, license clergy and supervise the discernment for those considering a call to ordination, including LGBTQ persons.

“We are comfortable with this proposal, because it would result in Transfiguration experiencing a big leap forward on a set of matters that are deeply important to us, which have consistently kept us at odds with our bishop in the past,” he said.

After convention approved the rites in 2015, Shobe said he did not ask Sumner for DEPO because he was not given assurance he and the congregation would not be punished for performing same-sex marriages even under the oversight of another bishop. The diocese’s canons prohibit same-sex marriage. Instead, Shobe and others spent the time until the Austin meeting advocating for convention to help remedy the issue.

Meanwhile, eight couples went elsewhere to be married by other clergy. Shobe says Transfiguration hopes next year to have a “significant celebration and renewal of vows” for those people. He also anticipates a number of “long-expected and hoped for weddings” taking place at the Dallas church in 2019 and 2020.

A different ecclesiology in Dallas and Springfield

Sumner of Dallas and Martins of Springfield contend that their understanding of their episcopal ministry means that any congregation wishing to use the rites must be assigned another bishop for all of their congregation’s spiritual, pastoral and sacramental oversight.

Sumner said in his letter that he cannot “by conscience and conviction” oversee a parish using these rites because “a bishop and his or her doctrinal teaching cannot be separated.”

“Let me emphasize that this referral will not [occur] because of any anger, breakdown of pastoral relation, or rejection — it is because of a deep difference in theology,” he said.

Springfield Bishop Dan Martins, shown here speaking to the House of Bishops during General Convention, says there must be a “firewall” between congregations in his diocese who want to solemnize the marriages of same-sex couples and him, because he opposes such unions. Photo: Screenshot from on-demand video

Martins summed it up this way in an interview with ENS: “The theology that runs behind this viewpoint is that all sacramental ministry, all ordained ministry, in a diocese is a derivative of the bishop’s ministry. There’s nothing that can happen that can be separated from that. There’s no way that we can have our spiritual fingerprints on it or canonical fingerprints for that matter.”

He said in his letter that “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. This does not have to mean that there is anger, rancor, or anything but sincere love between such a congregation and the diocese.”

And, he told ENS, his July 2015 prohibition against Springfield clergy using the rites outside of the diocese still applies. “I’m hoping canonically resident clergy will take me at my word,” he told ENS, and respect his teaching about marriage and respect their oath of obedience to their bishop.

Hayes, who is also the chancellor of the Diocese of California, said the view of the episcopate that Sumner and Martins hold is not supported by the Episcopal Church’s canons, which vest control of a congregation’s worship with the clergy member in charge.

“The bishop’s obligation is to provide for there to be sufficient clergy to serve the needs of the people, and to be sure that the canons and rubrics are obeyed,” he said. “The bishop does not have the right to say, ‘I disagree with the priest’s lawful use of those liturgies that conform to the rubrics and canons.’ The bishop simply does not have that right and never has, not in our tradition.”

Hayes added that “what’s of more concern to me is that they seem to be using it as, I’m sorry to say, an intimidation tactic” to force congregations to into a DEPO situation if their clergy want to these rites.

“They’re putting up hurdles that are not contemplated in the resolution or authorized by canons,” he said. “A rector does not need to consult with the bishop about the use of an authorized liturgy of the church.”

That, Hayes said, is a canonical provision that dates to 1904 and has its roots in the traditions of the Church of England. (Canon III.9.6(a)(1a) at page 91 here. More background is available in the highlighted sections on pages 818, 826, and 855–856 here.)

Vermont Bishop Tom Ely says he doesn’t think bishops who oppose same-sex marriage need to set up a DEPO-like arrangement for priests and congregations who want to use the rites. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonb erg

On its way to passage, the eight bishops called for an amendment to B012 to say that nothing in the resolution narrows the authority of the rector or priest-in-charge, as outlined in that canon, Ely said. It was meant to protect clergy who did not want to offer the rites, but, he said, it also applies to clergy who do want to use them and whose bishops not approve.

“If you need to put up 27 hoops to make your clergy jump through in order to provide local access, that’s a pastoral decision you are making,” Ely said. “I don’t think you need to, but if you believe you need to, then craft it in a way that it works but make sure it works.”

During convention, the California deputation shared a table in the House of Deputies with that of Springfield, and Hayes said the deputies spoke about belonging together despite disagreeing about marriage.

“We belong together despite disagreeing on this issue and that has been part of what defines Anglicanism for 500 years,” he said. “The issues of Protestant versus Catholic were a lot harder to bridge than this issue of marriage. They go much deeper into the creeds. To have people who agree about every word of the Nicene Creed say we can’t be in relationship with each other because we disagree about marriage is really is a misapprehension of what we’re called to be as church.”

Read more about it

  • Full ENS coverage of marriage equality is available here.
  • The two rites at the root of this debate are here and here.

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

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