September 28, 2013

Preëmptive Resolution Presented to Board of Old St. Luke’s

Old St. Luke’s is an historic church of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh that had its origin in colonial times and played a role in the Whiskey Rebellion. The present stone building dates from 1852 and contains what is said to be the first organ west of the Alleghenies. The instrument is still in use.

Old St. Luke’s
Old St. Luke’s, Scott Township
Although Old St. Luke’s has not had a congregation since about 1930, various ecumenical and Episcopal services are held there. Most notable is the popular Easter sunrise service and Saturday services run by my own parish, St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, at certain times of the year.

Old St. Luke’s is a popular wedding chapel, and weddings provide most of the money for the upkeep of the building and its historic burial ground. The people who keep Old St. Luke’s running are all volunteers. This includes the Rev. Canon Richard Davies. Davies, who is well past retirement age, has devoted many years to the preservation and operation of Old St. Luke’s. (He claims not to know what his title is, though perhaps “priest-in-charge” would be appropriate.)

Weddings conducted at the church need not be, and usually are not, Episcopal affairs. Weddings must be Christian in nature and presided over by an legitimate, ordained Christian minister. (The church has turned away “clergy” whose “ordination” was obtained for a modest fee paid over the Internet.)

At the September 15, 2013, meeting of the board that oversees Old St. Luke’s—having no congregation, the church has no vestry—a board member, the Rev. Richard Pollard, apparently at the suggestion of Davies, introduced a motion that would preclude using the church for same-sex weddings.

Pennsylvania currently allows neither same-sex marriage nor civil partnerships for same-sex couples. It is expected that Bishop of Pittsburgh Dorsey McConnell will soon announce whether same-sex blessings will be allowed in the diocese, and it is widely expected that such blessings will be permitted with appropriate permissions of the church and clergy involved.

I have not seen the the original resolution presented to the board, but I was given the transcription below. Errors are apparently in the original.
Old St. Luke’s has always sought t to follow liturgy and practice which are faithful to its historical purpose and mission. It is the desire of the Board of OSL that it only host traditional Christian weddings, consistent with OSL’s its long-standing practice…As the definition of marriage is being expanded in some contexts, the matter presents a problem for facilities which make their facilities available to the public.

How, then, if OSL is available to the public for weddings can OSL decline to allow weddings which are lawful but which are not in accordance with OSL’s historical practice. Declining then may be purely and patently discriminatory on a basis which the courts will not allow and as the Supreme Court has recently ruled. OSL must sate its policy clearly, grounded in traditional practice.

Thus, OSL should enact a resolution/by-law prohibiting the use of its facilities for activities such as weddings which are contrary to its historical practices and biblical dictates.

“…These facilities may only be used for weddings that are consistent with the traditional and historical practice and understanding e of this Church for over 200 years. Moreover, under no circumstances may any clergyperson officiate or participate at any ceremony at Old St. Luke’s that is not consistent with OSL’s historical practice…”
Pollard is a lawyer, which no doubt accounts for his concern for avoiding charges of discrimination. It is unclear, at least in his proposal, whether he meant to ban the blessing of same-sex unions, the demand for which could be imminent. Limiting ceremonies to “traditional and historical practice,” however, seems to imply that the blessing of the unions of same-sex couples would be prohibited by the proposed bylaw revision.

The board discussed the motion but took no action on it. Instead, it adopted a resolution that simply explained current practice. Pollard indicated that he would revisit the resolution if Bishop McConnell permits same-sex blessings in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. It appears that he had hoped to preëmpt any move by Bishop McConnell that could lead to the Episcopal Church’s provisional liturgy for blessing same-sex unions—or similar ceremonies in other Christian traditions—being used at Old St. Luke’s.

Davies and Pollard seem to have assumed that the board would be comfortable with a very conservative stance regarding same-sex ceremonies. Either that was not the case or the board believed that taking action was premature.

I hope that the Old St. Luke’s board eventually will allow same-sex blessings/weddings in its charming chapel. I am distressed that the discussion regarding such ceremonies began not with the question of whether they should be allowed but with a proposal that they should not be, particularly with a proposal whose rationale amounts to “we have always done it that way.”

The Old St. Luke’s property is owned by the diocese’s Board of Trustees, although it has long been run without the interference or oversight of the diocese. Old St. Luke’s is often the face of The Episcopal Church for couples seeking to be wed in the Scott Township chapel, however. I hope that face will be a friendly one in the future.

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