GC2012: HOB Passes Provisional Blessings for Same-Sex Unions
By David W. Virtue in Indianapolis
July 9, 2012
To no one's surprise the House of Bishops passed a provisional rite for the blessing of same sex unions. By a vote of 111 to 41 with three abstentions the HOB changed the definition of marriage, approving a liturgy to bless homosexual couples of both sexes, something that has never been done in 2,000 years of church history.
Resolution A049 was passed by the bishops on the 5th legislative day of the 77th General Convention. The text of the resolution states that the bishops "authorize for provisional use I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing for study and use in congregations and dioceses of The Episcopal Church."
The language got worked over. The original resolution asked the church to "authorize for trial use" the gay-blessing liturgy. However, the committee renamed it a "provisional" rite.
The committee further amended the resolution to permit bishops to adapt the materials to suit local needs. The resolution also contains a conscience clause permitting clergy to decline to preside at gay blessings.
In those states where same-sex marriage is allowed, the church has allowed a "generous pastoral response" for bishops whose clergy demand rites for gay marriage. This has occurred in the Diocese of Massachusetts under Bishop Tom Shaw.
The committee's resolution also asks the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to undertake further study during the next three years on how the blessing of lifelong, committed same-sex relationships relates to Christian theology and scripture, and to reflect on the matter with their sisters and brothers throughout the Anglican Communion and with TEC's ecumenical partners.
The resolution proposes that the liturgy be authorized for provisional use in Episcopal churches beginning on December 2, 2012, which is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of the church's liturgical year. Congregations and clergy that wish to use the liturgy must have the permission of their bishops.
Reaction to the actions of the House of Bishops was swift and mixed.
Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana urged a no vote because the resolution would "put the Episcopal Church out of the Christian mainstream. The Christian world is going to understand us as having changed the nature of the sacrament of holy matrimony," he said. "The Christian world will look at that liturgy world and see vows, and exchange of rings, a pronouncement and a blessing and they will understand that to mean the Episcopal Church has endorsed same-sex marriage and changed a basic Christian doctrine. I do not believe that we are free to do that."
Bishop Bill Love of Albany noted that in all likelihood the 77th General Convention would reject the Anglican covenant and reduce giving. Along with A049, they constitute a "triple whammy" to the Anglican Communion from the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Russell Jacobus of Fond du Lac stated he was inclined to vote no, as he believed the current language of the resolution would still permit its use for opposite-sex couples.
Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina argued the concept of gay marriage was theologically incoherent and urged the defeat of the resolution on doctrinal, moral and Scriptural grounds. "I do not want to lose the symbolism of the of the holy marriage feast of Christ and his bride" by wrenching marriage from its traditional moorings.
Steven Miller of Milwaukee said he didn't think he could vote for the measure because "I believe it is contrary to our polity. I cannot commit the Diocese of Milwaukee without an action of convention to pay for something and I don't believe any other bishops in this house can.".
Bishop Gregory Brewer, Central Florida, spoke against the measure. He said that he has heard from close friends, Anglicans who live in totalitarian countries, who say that they fear retaliation for being associated with the Episcopal Church's policies on marriage and sexuality. "These decisions could be catastrophic for them, and I have to oppose the resolution," Bishop Brewer said.
"People will die because of what we do today." By endorsing gay blessings, the Episcopal Church is letting down its side in the Anglican Communion and putting "our friends at risk of death" in Africa and Asia from extremists who will not distinguish between the actions of the General Convention in Indianapolis and those in a village in Nigeria. Bishop Brewer further stated that adopting gay blessings would not bring people into the church, but "drive them out" and hasten its decline.
Bishop Daniel Martins of Springfield spoke against the resolution, stating it would violate the clear call of the instruments of the Anglican Communion to not to go ahead with gay blessings. The distinction between blessings and marriage would also be lost on the media, he declared. "We can say blessings, but CNN will say marriage."
One member of the committee, the Very Rev. David Thurlow of the Diocese of South Carolina, submitted a minority report recommending rejection of the resolution.
"Whereas, for two thousand years the Church has had clear teaching regarding Christian marriage and Biblical norms of sexual behavior; and has upheld a standard consistent with God's Word as taught by Christ's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church," he wrote.
Thurlow added, "And whereas, through previous statements and resolutions the Church has pledged itself not to make any change to this traditional teaching until such time as the Provinces of the Anglican Communion and other ecumenical partners have reached a consensus on the subject in accordance with Holy Scripture and guidance of the Holy Spirit;
"And whereas, Resolution A049 is a clear break and departure from 'the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this Church has received them' (BCP, p. 526) introducing and acting upon a new theology of human sexuality inconsistent with the clear teaching of Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution & Canons of The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and the wider Church, I recommend rejection of this resolution."
Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee requested the roll call vote before urging bishops to defeat the resolution. "It is reasonable to believe that vowed fidelity that is exclusive and lifelong to one other person is predicated on sexual difference," he said. "This liturgy that is proposed does not have the basis in scripture, tradition or reason for us to authorize its use."
"To head down this path of legislation is simply not necessary," said the Rt. Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, Bishop of Florida, because such blessings were already taking place in the church as a pastoral response.
The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III, Bishop of Mississippi, said he would not authorize the provisional rite in his diocese, but that it probably will be adopted General Convention. "I know I see through a glass darkly," he said, asking that people who are for the rites "walk beyond this vote with a sense of humility and less of a triumphant note."
The Assistant Bishop of North Carolina, William Gregg, said he had been inclined to vote no, as he believed the proposed liturgy was weak, but had changed his thinking, mindful that this was a work in process. He said he would vote yes, as this was an "opportunity" for the church.
The Rt. Rev. Gary Lillebridge, Bishop of West Texas, rose to speak in opposition to the resolution, but thanked the committee for its "deliberations" stating it was apparent the committee had taken the views of traditionalists "seriously" in its work.
Also speaking against the resolution, the Rt. Rev. W. Andrew Waldo of Upper South Carolina said he was in favor of the "full inclusion" of gays and lesbians into the life of the church, but the "theological rationale" offered for gay blessings was "weak. I want to vote 'yes' but cannot," he said.
The suffragan Bishop of Texas, the Rt. Rev. Dena Harrison, told the House she would vote no as it would "affect" the church's "relationships across the world."
Bishops who spoke up favorably for AO49 said this.
Bishop Michael Vono of the Rio Grande urged the House to vote in favor of the resolution as it was the "Jesus thing" to do "for our time."
The Bishop of California, Marc Andrus, said he would vote yes. The church has a high "responsibility to help couples who want to follow Jesus" be they gay or straight, he argued.
Bishop William Persell, the retired Bishop of Chicago, voiced his support for the resolution, but asked Bishop Ely why the resolution had been amended, changing the words "gender" for "sex" and "trial" for "provisional" rites?
Bishop Ely told Bishop Persell the preferred term was "same-sex" not "same-gender" blessing and the committee made the change to conform to modern usage.
Bishop Joe Burnett, assistant Bishop of Maryland - a member of the committee - said that the change had been made to avoid triggering procedural issues. "Trial use" was a canonical term that could lead to "Prayer Book revision," he said. The neutral term "provisional" was used to indicate the provisional period for study and use of the rite was for the coming three years.
Bishop Thomas Ely, Vermont, episcopal co-chairman of the committee, introduced the resolution and said it allows for wide local interpretations. The resolution does not make the rites mandatory, but leaves it up to each diocesan bishop to implement them, adapt them for local use or not use them at all.
"That will mean different things in different locales," Bishop Ely said. "There is a place in this process for every Episcopalian regardless of their level of support for the material. Read it, digest it, reflect upon it, use it, but please don't ignore it."
Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama (retired) rose and moved the amendment that "honors the diversity" of views on this issue within the church, drawing upon the language of past General Convention resolutions. "As bishops we need to embrace the diversity of church and have to embrace all of God's people."
Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania called the bishops to "theological, pastoral and canonical inclusion" and to keep going a conversation that has been more than 40 years in the making. The pastoral character of the liturgy allows us "to respect the differences we have in our diocese and continue the conversation and to be strong in our mission and witness to accept that there are many religions and political neighbors who strongly disagree and in my case many, many African American pastors are upset with me (about this issue) but I really believe this is God's call to us to continue the conversation as we go forward."
Many in Baxter's diocese disagree with the Episcopal Church's move to create the rites, he said. "And in my case many, many African American pastors are upset with me. But I really believe this is God's call to us to continue the conversation as we go forward."
Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida evoked laughter and applause from both bishops and members of the crowded gallery when responding to an assertion that passage of the legislation would drive Hispanics and Latinos from the church.
"The reality is that we, like everybody else, have gay children. We have gay parents. We have gay uncles. We are like everybody else. We process things the same way. People are going to be mad ... but you cannot generalize that Hispanics are going to run away from the Episcopal Church because we have a door that's open. We are going to run from immigration that's trying to deport us, but not from the Episcopal Church."
The Bishop of Southwest Virginia, Neff Powell, rose in support of the resolution, giving voice to his whole-hearted support for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Passage of trial rites would be an evangelistic tool akin to the election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson to welcome people to the church, he argued.
Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia rose and proposed an amendment adding the phrase "in a same-sex relationship" to the phrase describing the purpose of the blessing. He stated his purpose in proposing the language is to confirm that the rite is not to be used for opposite-sex couples. Bishop Katharine Roskam, retired suffragan Bishop of New York, rose and endorsed the amendment, saying she believed the intent to restrict the use of the rite to same-sex couples needed be spelled out. It was adopted on a voice vote.
The resigned Bishop of Lexington, the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, disagreed with this characterization, saying over "fifty years ago the Episcopal Church" crafted a theological rationale "to allow divorced people to remarry." The theological arguments in favor of gay blessings were as strong as those for remarriage in church after divorce. "They are the same," he asserted.
Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts stated his state was the first in the country to authorize gay marriage. He noted the progressive stance of his diocese on gay and lesbian issues had led to "significant growth recently, in thanks to including all people." He urged adoption of the resolution as a statement of "pastoral generosity [that] makes it possible to care for LGBT people."
However recent Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) statistics for Shaw's diocese reveal a different picture. From 2007 to 2010 the Diocese of Massachusetts has consistently lost membership. From 20,121 in 2007 it has dropped to 17,903 in 2010.
The Bishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, said she would vote "yes." Gays and lesbians "only want the church to honor their relationships," she said.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori closed the debate. A roll call vote was then taken and the vote was announced by the secretary of the House of Bishops, the Rt. Rev. Ken Price.
The resolution now goes to the House of Deputies for final action.
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