I could listen to our bishops all day, which is basically what I did on Monday.
This Convention has been marked by thoughtful, fruitful, faithful conversation in the House of Bishops, even around issues on which some hold profound disagreement.
On Monday our bishops approved A054 (Adopt Resources and Rites from “Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing, Revised and Expanded 2015). They also approved A036 (Amend Canon I.18 Marriage). Both resolutions were discussed extensively by a special committee appointed for this Convention (Committee 20), with several public hearings. All of this conversation took place in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision last Friday.
I typed an unofficial record of the conversation, currently 11 pages! Rather than post the entire conversation, I’m sharing what I think were the most significant comments made by our bishops in their open conversation on these resolutions. These are listed in chronological order, not order of importance, to reflect the flow of conversation.
To set the context, Bishop Ely of Vermont presented both A054 and A036 to the House. In presenting A036 (the one on changing the canons), he explained that the current version is a significant improvement over what was offered by TFSM (Task Force on the Study of Marriage). The current version reflects a more practical ordering of the Canon and provides a more robust declaration of intention. It reflects theological views expressed in work of TFSM, that see marriage as a matter of pastoral and moral theology. It reflects the conclusion of TFSM that same sex couples are as capable of holy marriage as different sex couples. He expressed his view that there was no conflict between this canon and the BCP. He then invited the bishops into 15 minutes of table conversation about both resolutions, which was a great gift.
After table conversation, Bishop Thom of Idaho, Chair of Committee 20, moved A054. It was divided into two sections. The first section, focused on the rite approved in 2012 and updated at this convention, was approved fairly quickly. Conversation began on the second section of A054, the proposed new rites.
- Little, Northern Indiana – He explained that he would not be voting in favor of this portion of the resolution. “I do not believe we have authority to alter the sacrament of Holy Matrimony – that is one of God’s gift to humankind. I am deeply grateful to the committee in that this gives bishops and clergy the option. It honors our theological diversity. And I offer a prayer for the future since corporate memory is short. I pray that in 6, 9, or 18 years we will continue to honor the diversity of this church, and those who honor the traditional understanding of marriage will continue to find a place in this community.”
Why this matters: Bishop Little and others who agree with him have been unfailingly gracious in their conversation. He and others are asking our church to continue to offer a wide tent.
- Robinson, New Hampshire, resigned. “I am very sensitive to those for whom this is still not acceptable. When invited to offer these liturgies in other dioceses I’ve been very careful to follow the direction of the bishop of that diocese. However, I remind the House that in addition to being pastorally sensitive to bishops we also need to be pastorally sensitive to gay and lesbian couples. We’ve been talking about this for a very long time – 40 years, longer I think than our Parliamentarian has been alive (Bishop Sean Rowe)! I’m concerned that this will go another triennium and another and another. We’ve also seen in the ordination of women how difficult it can be when the position of the church is different from the majority of the church.”
Why this matters: Bishop Robinson eloquently defended the pastoral needs of gay and lesbian couples in the church, and he injected some humor into the conversation, which helped this continue to be a conversation among friends who love the church and love each other.
- Ely, Vermont, moved to change the directive to bishops to provide these liturgies to all couples from “urged” to “will.” “The way the committee brought this forward is fine as long as it provides the opportunity for all couples to have access to these liturgies. Changing language means bishops will have to provide access to these liturgies. There are ways for bishops to do that within the spirit of this resolution. Glad to work with other bishops to find ways for that access to be provided. Committee was clear about leaving the word “access” vague so as to give bishops latitude. But urge is different from direct.” This amendment to the amendment carried.
Why this matters: This change in wording clarified the mind of the House. From what I understand, even if a bishop does not allow clergy to offer these liturgies in his or her diocese, the bishop is directed to provide access for couples in some way.
- After Benefield of Arkansas moved to strike two of the proposed liturgies because he was concerned about couples picking and choosing liturgies rather than be challenged by them, Glasspool, Suffragan of Los Angeles, spoke against his proposal. “There are almost infinite ways we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, one of our central sacraments. Yet the sacramental theology and essence of the sacrament are the same. With more services, that might encourage people to engage with the liturgy more and study what they are actually committing to. I hope we vote down this amendment.”
Why this matters: Her comments demonstrated precedent for multiple forms of rites, justifying the existence of additional options for these liturgies. The amendment was voted down and the additional liturgies remain.
- McConnell, Pittsburgh – “I serve on the special committee on marriage and I have filed 2 minority reports. It surprises me that I’m rising in support of A054…. I don’t think the essay from TFSM was adequate, with the exception of marriage as vocation. But I think we have got to have this conversation. I dispute the common wisdom that we have been talking about this for 40 years. It was not conversation. It was a pitched battle for control of the church. I sense now a changed tone in which we are now able to listen to one another. I want that conversation to take place. I think establishing these rites as trial liturgies establishes a constitutionally sound process for this to happen. My vote in this way does not imply an endorsement of the theology of these rites. How I will make these available in my diocese and under what circumstances is still unclear to me. But I think this conversation has to take place, not in this House, not in committees, but in the real pastoral context of our diocese in which our bishops are called to protect the faith, liturgy, and discipline of this church. If we believe in the theological diversity clause then we need to include it and do so intentionally over the next triennium. (After this, debate ended, and A054 passed).
Why this matters: Another eloquent, generous call to continued conversation and learning in this process.
The bishops then took up conversation on A036, changing the marriage canons. Martins of Springfield offered the minority report of Committee 20 as a substitute resolution for A036.
- Bauerschmidt, Tennessee. “I express appreciation for serving on the marriage committee for this convention. I express appreciation for good conversation and action in bringing this report to you. I think in our conversation we significantly strengthened this resolution for canonical change, took care of some problems that might come back to haunt us later. I do want to speak for the substitution even while expressing appreciation for the work of the committee. I want to hold up for you in support of this minority report the difference between the two sexes. Unlike all other differences between persons this difference has the potential to be fruitful. No other difference has this potential. That potential is close to the heart of marriage itself. I am concerned that in our discipline and doctrine we might detach marriage from the partnership of the two sexes. Thank you very much.”
Why this matters: Bishops Bauerschmidt, Little, and later Love of Albany describe an understanding of marriage that is widely held by many Christians, though not by the majority of Episcopalians. We need these voices in TEC to help our church understand opposing views. The real work on marriage equality won’t be done until hearts and minds change, and that won’t happen without hearing what is in the hearts and minds of those who raise concerns. I’m very grateful for the witness of these bishops, even though I disagree.
- Ousley, Eastern Michigan – (speaking in opposition to the substitute). “The ongoing work of both TFSM and the SCLM has, in my mind, provided us an opportunity to have a more expansive understanding of marriage, rather than one definition. I see this not as a change in our understanding of traditional marriage but an expansion of our understanding of it.” He also explained that he has one child by birth and two by adoption and sees all of his children as examples of fruitfulness.
Why this matters: Helpful to define this as an expansion rather than a change in our understanding of marriage.
(The substitute resolution was later ruled out of order because it was an explanation and not a canon).
- Robinson, New Hampshire, resigned. “It is time for us to do this. There are few people in this house I love and respect more than my brother Ed Little but I would disagree with him that the welcome of gay and lesbian people has been settled by baptism. We would not have been clawing our way into this church for the last several decades if that had been clear. We have this resolution before us because we have come to understand that our baptism indeed makes us welcome. This is another step in that. There is, I’m sure, not another person in this house who has not seen gay lesbian families who are living out their lives in holy ways. This resolution allows us to include that in the family of the church, to include those people, to expect every bit as much as we expect of heterosexual couples. I think it is time that we actually declared how far we have come and where we are in the moment and where we need to go in the future.”
- Why this matters: I appreciated hearing Bishop Robinson refer to Bishop Little as his brother.
9. Smith of North Dakota. “I just want to remind the house that roll call votes are not there simply to annoy people. They are there to protect the minority from being overwhelmed by the majority.”
Why this matters: Important to remember that the request for a roll call was not mean-spirited. We are honoring the minority witness.
10. Johnston VA – I agree that is it certainly true that there are many arguments for or against whether we are putting canons in conflict with the prayer book and all that. But I speak in favor of this motion. We cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good. Before I came to General Convention I wrote a very strongly worded letter to my diocese asserting my utter commitment to marriage equality and wanted to bring the fullest statement of that we could provide. I think this is the best we can do. I came here saying that this was not the best route. But I want us to avoid making idols out of rules. I’m reminded our Lord said the Sabbath was not made for humankind but humankind for the Sabbath. If we have to wait some time to sort out a conflict between rules and that sort of thing, I would much rather it be a canon that has to wait than a loving couple who wants to honor God through the bond of marriage.
Why this matters: We all must have the courage to change our minds.
Wright of Atlanta called for an end to debate on A036. The resolution passed, 129 voting yes, 5 abstentions, 26 voting no. These two resolutions go to the House of Deputies next. If approved, the new rites become available Advent 2015.
If any of the above is not accurate, I’m happy to amend. I’m grateful to our bishops for their thoughtful, reconciling work.