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Will General Convention Be Able to Approve Same-Sex Blessings?

Will General Convention Be Able to Approve Same-Sex Blessings?

By A.S. Haley
February 21, 2012

At its meeting last October, the General Convention's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music agreed to present at the 2012 session of General Convention a resolution to authorize the trial use, over a three-year period, of a rite for the blessing in a church ceremony of same-gender relationships. The rite proposed is the result of a three-year study by the Standing Commission of materials which have already been used in local ceremonies authorized by individual bishops in their dioceses, pursuant to the "generous pastoral response" language of Resolution 2009-C056 adopted at Anaheim.

In contrast to those locally approved rites, what is now being proposed is a church-wide standard rite that would have the imprimatur of General Convention itself. To adopt such a rite for trial use by the whole Church, General Convention must follow the requirements of Article X of the Church's Constitution. In relevant part, those requirements are as follows: But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article: . . . (b) Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention. Do you see those words " . . . by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops"? Where have we run into those exact same words before?

-- Oh, yes: it was in connection with the votes taken by the House of Bishops on resolutions to depose various of its members back in 2008, namely, Bishops Cox, Schofield and Duncan, for so-called "abandonment of communion." Those same words appeared in the version of the Abandonment Canon then in effect. It is now Canon IV.16 of the newly revised Title IV, and the words in question were not changed in its 2009 revision: If the House, by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote, shall give its consent, the Presiding Bishop shall depose the Bishop from the ministry . . .

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote a series of posts about the background and history of this Canon, and explained that the language "whole number of Bishops entitled to vote" had always before been read so as to include all Bishops who had resigned (retired from) their diocesan jurisdictions -- whether they were present for the vote or not.

It was Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and her chancellor, David Booth Beers, who altered this tradition all of a sudden, in 2008. No one made objection to the votes to depose Bishops Cox and Schofield by less than the required minimum number of Bishops in March 2008, because a quorum of the House was (barely) present, and that seemed to suffice. Objections to the procedure were raised afterwards, however, and rejected by the Presiding Bishop on the ground that no objection was made before the votes (as though an illegal vote could be legitimized by a failure to object to it).

In anticipation of the same objection being raised in advance of the vote on Bishop Duncan in September 2008, however, the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor made a preemptive strike. They saw that they could not muster enough votes to constitute a majority of the whole number of bishops in the House of Bishops (about 151 were required, and as matters turned out, there were only 123 Bishops present and voting, of whom only 88 actually consented to deposition). So in preparation for the deposition of Bishop Duncan, she simply ruled in advance, as Presiding Bishop, that the language "entitled to vote" meant not on account of their membership in the House of Bishops, but on account of their being present on the floor.

Notice that in her ruling, the Presiding Bishop cited the ambiguity of the language in question (and illegally resolved that ambiguity herself, instead of following Robert's Rules of Order and allowing the House of Bishops to resolve it as a body). Despite her ruling that the language in question was "ambiguous", the comprehensive Title IV revisions approved in 2009 made no proposal to clear it up.

However, in dealing with the language as it appears in Article X of the Constitution, the Presiding Bishop will not have the same opportunity to rule that it is ambiguous. For Article X itself has very clear and unambiguous language immediately before the words quoted above, which leaves no question as to what the drafters could have meant by it. This language concerns the vote required to make an amendment or alteration to the Book of Common Prayer, and says (with my emphasis added): The Book of Common Prayer, as now established or hereafter amended by the authority of this Church, shall be in use in all the Dioceses of this Church. No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed in one regular meeting of the General Convention and by a resolve thereof be sent within six months to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding regular meeting by a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops . . . .

The drafters of Article X knew precisely how to direct that retired Bishops absent from the meeting not be counted in determining the "majority . . . of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops . . ." -- they said so, in just those words. So when they used the very same language again, in the very next sentence of the Article, and this time omitted the words "excluding retired Bishops not present", they must have intended for all Bishops in the House of Bishops -- diocesan, co-adjutor, suffragan, assisting and resigned, and whether present at the meeting or not -- to be counted in determining the required majority for approval of a trial rite for church-wide use in just one session of General Convention.

And that makes a considerable procedural hurdle for the House of Bishops to approve any trial rite at this upcoming 2012 Convention. If past records are any guide, only a handful of retired Bishops will bother to attend, but their total number is almost double the number of Bishops currently serving and who may be expected to attend. According to ECUSA's official website, "the House of Bishops has nearly 300 active members" -- so it would take an affirmative vote by, say, at least 150 Bishops to allow the trial rite to be put into church-wide use. That number of Bishops has never attended any recorded meeting of the House.

I know there are many who will predict, out of cynicism, that the Presiding Bishop will simply ignore the Constitution's requirements, and declare the measure passed with the requisite number of votes. It is this very lawlessness, however, which is eroding the foundations which have thus far held the Church together. If no one is entitled to ask that the Church's leaders follow their own governing documents, then the Church might as well throw out those documents, and succumb to the Presiding Bishop's rule by fiat. At least then her Bishops would be honest about what they are allowing to happen.


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