Diocesan bishops who blocked same-sex marriages take reluctant first steps toward allowing ceremonies

Deputies, bishops and visitors packed a meeting room in the Austin Hilton Hotel the afternoon of July 5 to testify on three marriage-related resolutions. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention first approved trial rites for same-sex marriage ceremonies in 2015, but the bishops of eight domestic dioceses still refused to allow those ceremonies in their congregations as of this month, heading into the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas.

Then Resolution B012 happened.

After a back-and-forth negotiation between the House of Deputies and House of Bishops, both houses approved an amended B012 that struck a compromise on the issue of granting Episcopalians across the country access to the liturgies, regardless of their bishops’ stance on gay marriage.

The new requirement doesn’t take effect until the first Sunday of Advent, Dec. 2, and it remains to be seen how those eight dioceses will implement the process outlined by B012. They are the dioceses of Albany, Central Florida, Dallas, Florida, North Dakota, Springfield, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands. Five of the eight bishops said before General Convention they would implement Resolution B012 if passed. None of the eight has said explicitly he will defy the resolution’s mandate.

joint statement signed July 13 by 11 acting and retired bishops, members of a group of traditionalists who call themselves the Communion Partners, sounded a conciliatory note. Though warning that “challenges to our communion in Christ are profound,” they praised efforts to find common ground at General Convention, citing as an example Resolution A227, which ordered the creation of a Task Force on Communion Across Difference.

The Communion Partners, including seven of the eight bishops who had blocked gay marriage in their dioceses, affirmed their desire to “maintain the communion of our dioceses within the Episcopal Church,” despite differences over Christian teachings. “We recognize that other Christians of good will and commitment hold contrasting convictions about marriage. There is deep disagreement, which leads to a difference in teaching and practice among dioceses and congregations of our church.”

One of the core compromises of B012 was to allow bishops who object to gay marriage to request that another bishop provide pastoral care and oversight for same-sex couples who wish to be married by priests in their home churches. The resolution also makes clear that no clergy member can be forced to preside over any marriage ceremony.

“The meaning of B012 for our church remains to be discovered, and we recognize that the contexts of our dioceses vary, as well. We continue to seek, through the Task Force on Communion across Difference [in A227] and in other ways, more lasting means of walking together within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, preserving and deepening our communion in Christ,” the Communion Partners’ statement said.

The bishops’ level of acceptance of the compromise has varied, with Albany Bishop William Love and Florida Bishop Samuel Howard opposing it at General Convention and even raising concerns it could lead to further schism in the church over homosexuality, according to Religion News Service.

Episcopal News Service surveyed post-convention statements from the bishops and sought additional clarification about their stances on B012. Their reactions so far to the question of implementation range from noncommittal to proactive.

Diocese of Albany

Love was one of the most vocal bishops opposing the resolution, speaking for 10 minutes during debate in the House of Bishops on the final amendment to B012. He said passage would put him in the awkward position of violating parts of his ordination vows.

“There has been a lot of discussion as we have struggled with this issue over the past several years on whether or not sexual intimacy within that of a same-sex couple was appropriate,” he said July 11. “There are many in this church who have proclaimed that it is and that this is a new thing that the Holy Spirit is revealing and that the Episcopal Church is being prophetic in putting this forward and ultimately the rest of the body of Christ will come to understand that.”

Love said he wasn’t convinced, adding, “we have not had an honest look at … what God has said about this issue and how best to help people who find themselves in same-sex relationships.”

A spokeswoman told ENS that Love was on a brief vacation and had not issued any additional statement since General Convention ended July 13.

Diocese of Central Florida

Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer summarized the effect of Resolution B012 for his diocese in a July 13 news story on the diocese’s website.

“We can expect to see some changes happen and it really will be up to the bishops in each of those dioceses, including the Diocese of Central Florida, to figure out what that may actually look like because it raises a lot of questions as you can certainly imagine,” Brewer said.

The bishop has not issued a statement on the subject since then, though he is scheduled to hold a “General Convention Debrief” from 10 a.m. to noon July 21 at the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Peter in St. Cloud, Florida.

Diocese of Dallas

Dallas Bishop George Sumner supported the resolution, telling The Dallas Morning Newsthat he would abide by the process of reaching out to the bishop of a neighboring diocese when asked to oversee a same-sex marriage ceremony.

“I think we’ve come out of this with something that lets everyone stay true to their conscience,” he said. “That’s not bad in America in 2018.”

Sumner also released a video statement July 16 saying he was “grateful for some good things that came out of this convention.”

“The right of a rector found in the canons to oversee the liturgical life of his or her parish in his or her own building was affirmed,” Sumner said in the video. “New rites cannot be imposed on a priest or on a congregation which does not wish them.”

He also said he had sent a letter to clergy about accommodating the same-sex marriage rites.

“If a rector and vestry after deliberation decide that they want to use the rites of same-sex marriage, I can no longer hinder them. They will remain, I hasten to add, part of the diocese,” he said while noting the deep theological differences that remain. “We are doing what we can to work them out collegially, so as to maintain our communion as much as we can, so as to honor convictions and conscience.”

Diocese of Florida

Howard opposed the compromise B012, though he mentioned the resolution only briefly in a newsletter to the diocese before the final vote.

The diocese told ENS that it was working to coordinate a follow-up comment from Howard as soon as possible, but a statement was not available in time for this story.

Diocese of North Dakota

North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith said in 2015 he could not “in good conscience authorize the use of these trial liturgies for the Diocese of North Dakota.” When reached by email on July 17, Smith said he intended to release a statement to the diocese about B012 by the end of this week.

Diocese of Springfield

Springfield Bishop Daniel Martins supported the compromise resolution, saying during debate that he was “immensely and seriously grateful” for it, though he also expressed concerns that it could alter the bishop’s role as chief liturgical officer of the diocese and will begin to “erode the sacramental relationship between a bishop and a diocese.”

Martins followed up July 15 with an extended message to the diocese on the subject, titled “Toward Generous Faithfulness About Marriage.”

“This most recent General Convention has constrained the authority of bishops to simply prohibit same-sex marriage within the diocese,” he said. “This is deeply lamentable. It undermines and erodes the ancient and appropriate relationship between a bishop and a diocese as chief pastor, teacher, and liturgical officer.”

Martins also said B012 didn’t give “carte blanche” for same-sex marriage. He noted that priests may refuse to preside over marriage ceremonies, and the bishop remains rector of “all unincorporated Eucharistic Communities,” so Martins’ prohibition on same-sex marriage remains in those communities.

And he called the process of requesting an outside bishop’s assistance “harsh” and “a source of deep personal sorrow – indeed, heartbreak – for me.”

“I profoundly love all our worshiping communities, and it would be a grievous loss to be in an impaired relationship with any of them. Nonetheless, these painful measures are vitally necessary.”

Diocese of Tennessee

Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt told The Tennessean he planned to write a message to the diocese about Resolution B012 this week. He expressed support for the compromise.

“The resolution allows access to the liturgies for same-sex marriage in the Diocese of Tennessee while preserving the rights and responsibilities of the parish clergy for the use of their buildings for any liturgy,” Bauerschmidt said. “In other words, there is much to work out. It also preserves the ministry of bishops as chief pastors and teachers in our dioceses.

“We will be working out what it means for our diocese with clergy and congregations in the coming days.”

Diocese of the Virgin Islands

Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs was absent from the hearing July 5 on B012, according to The Living Church, which spoke with him earlier in Austin and quoted him as warning against adding the trial liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer because parishioners in his diocese “can’t condone this type of behavior.”

Gumbs, when reached July 17 by email, told ENS that he would accept the compromise contained in B012 and said he had just communicated the details of the resolution with diocesan clergy.

“If a same-sex couple asked to be married at their parish, they cannot prevent the marriage from taking place. While they are not obligated to marry any one, WE must make provision for a priest to perform the ceremony,” Ambrose said. “That is the law, and I have to abide by it, whether I like it or not.”

He was not among the bishops who signed the Communion Partners’ statement.

Diocese of West Texas

West Texas was among the majority of dioceses that chose to allow same-sex ceremonies, under former Bishop Gary Lillibridge. Bishop David Reed, who took over leadership of the diocese in 2017 after Lillibridge’s retirement, was among the bishops who signed the Communion Partners’ statement on B012, though a diocesan spokeswoman indicated Reed had not changed the policy put into effect under Lillibridge.

Reed and West Texas Bishop Suffragan Jennifer Brooke-Davidson issued a joint message to the diocese on July 16 that provided a summary of Resolution B012.

“The most significant change is that a bishop’s authority to not allow the use of the same-sex rites in his or her diocese is removed,” the bishops said. “We will be reviewing our diocesan marriage policies this fall to see what, if anything, will need to be changed.”

So far, four congregations in the Diocese of West Texas have taken the steps required to hold same-sex marriages in their churches, according to the diocese.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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