June 17, 2014

Bishop Answers Questions, Explains Same-Sex Marriage Delay

More than 70 people attended the Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) event in the parish hall of Calvary Church last night to hear and question Bishop of Pittsburgh Dorsey McConnell. Starting time was 7:30 PM, but the program was preceded by refreshments and lively conversation among the early arrivals.

Joan Gundersen, one of PEP’s vice presidents, presided. After an opening prayer, she explained that the bishop had a particular topic he wanted to address and that we would discuss that matter before moving to a question-and-answer session.

What Bishop McConnell wanted first to explain was where the diocese stands in light of the recent court decision declaring the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional and Governor Tom Corbett’s announcement that the decision would not be appealed. The topic was a welcome one for the audience, as there had been some consternation over the bishop’s failure to at least indicate his approval of the altered legal landscape. Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania Sean Rowe, who is also provisional bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem had made such a statement, yet the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could only report that Bishop McConnell “plans to consult with clergy and lay leaders on the implications of the court ruling.” That had led to fears that the path from same-sex blessings to same-sex marriage in churches might be a long one. The bishop, in response to a question later in the evening, apologized for the delay in clarifying the status of same-sex marriage in the diocese, explaining that he is not a “let’s-make-a-statement kind of guy.” (Unfortunately, given the recent history of our diocese, we tend to be no-news-must-be-bad-news kind of Episcopalians.)

In any case, the delay in announcing a policy about same-sex marriages is the result of legal ambiguity, as Chancellor Andy Roman explained. It is important that any such marriage conforms both to Pennsylvania law and to Episcopal Church canons. The chancellor is consulting with his counterparts in other dioceses in an effort to avoid unintended consequences, such as couples learning years after the ceremony that they aren’t really married at all.

I had planned to discuss the perceived problems with conducting same-sex marriages in the diocese, but, in the cold light of day, I don’t think I understand them, particularly as regards the civil law. It seems clear that 2012 General Convention Resolution A049 allows bishops to authorize clergy to perform same-sex marriages in states where marriage equality exists, but it is equally clear that what would be done thereby is not, for the church at least, “marriage” as we find it in the prayer book and in Canon I.18. (Both speak of a man and a woman.) Stay tuned; the bishop and the chancellor are trying to resolve the perceived problems as quickly as possible.

After some further discussion on the mechanics of implementing same-sex marriages in the diocese, we moved on to other issues. PEP had advertised the meeting as being about the state of the diocese, but Bishop McConnell did not give a state-of-the-diocese address but merely responded to questions. The main questions had been developed by the PEP board and were asked by Dr. Gundersen. The bishop’s responses led to other questions from the floor, however.

The first question concerned divisions in the diocese. What are the greatest dangers and the greatest signs of hope?

The bishop suggested that the most serious divisions are between large and small parishes, between urban and rural parishes, between rich and poor parishes, and so forth. We do not, he asserted, want to go through what we went through earlier. He said that, under the “previous regime,” parishes got “siloed.” To improve communications, he has established The Listening Committee (TLC, cute), which has been going to parishes and simply listening to what people have to say. About a third of the parishes have been “listened to.” Bishop McConnell indicated that one of the findings of TLC is that some of the numbers that have been appearing on parochial reports are “not accurate.” (One might imagine other, less charitable descriptions.) Anyway, he said that the diocese is getting a handle on this problem.

Dr. Gundersen’s next question was about how we can accommodate theological diversity in the diocese.

Bishop McConnell answered that we are called to unity, even when we disagree. Relationships between people are more important than agreement on issues. We need to know what makes people tick, even if they come to awful conclusions. A number of questions were asked from the floor, one of which elicited a story of the bishop’s discussions with labor leaders leading him to raise the issue of income inequality at a meeting of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania. The response of the assembled religious leaders was dead silence. Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik, however, is planning to meet with our bishop to explore the matter. (Earlier, I had suggested to the PEP board that income inequality is an issue that the organization and the diocese should take on. Could this become a major diocesan project?)

PEP’s next question concerned lay leadership, one of the foci articulated in the bishop’s address to last year’s convention. What are we doing about lay leadership?

The bishop said that our church is too clergy-centric, but he admitted that, although he thinks of himself as lay-leader-oriented, that is not always a good description of how he acts. He mentioned two specific lay leadership programs, one from The Episcopal Church and one from The Leadership Development Initiative. I noted that Dwight J. Zscheile recommends greater communication between parishioners of different parishes in People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity. How can such communication be encouraged? The bishop responded that laypeople had to make that happen. Another question—really more of a comment—suggested that parishes often have individuals who refuse to relinquish control. In response, the bishop explained that he was seeking a canon to allow him to intervene in parishes on the brink of disaster. (The idea of such a canon was raised when I was on the Committee on Constitution and Canons. We seem to be no closer to formulating such a canon.)

PEP’s next question was how can he, in good conscience, do mission in Uganda, where both the government and the local Anglican church have appalling attitudes toward gays.

The bishop replied that Jesus said to love your enemies, and he insisted that he engages with clergy in Uganda, trying to get them to see that their attitudes are less than Christian. (Bishop McConnell has long been associated with Pilgrim Africa and makes regular trips to Uganda.)

For PEP’s final question, Dr. Gundersen asked where we stand on recovering property 5½ years after the diocese split.

No one expected a very detailed answer to this question, and we were not disappointed. Unsurprisingly, it was Chancellor Andy Roman who answered the question. He pointed out that we recovered all diocesan property—I later pointed out that we didn’t get back our telephones and desk chairs (or computers, for that matter)—and that we own a number of properties that we are allowing Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh congregations to use. An additional 15 properties or so are titled in the name of their congregations, and ownership of these churches has yet to be resolved. I asked if it was our intention to reclaim all off our property. (I particularly want us to recover the property of Ascension in Oakland and of St. Stephen’s, Sewickley.) The inquiry received no real answer. The decision, the chancellor declared, will be made by diocesan leaders.

Bishop McConnell closed the meeting with prayer, and people resumed their individual conversations before heading home.

11 comments:

  1. While I disagree with the delay in working out the legal aspects of marriage as they relate to liturgy, I understand them. What I can't understand is why Bishop McConnell isn't allowing clergy in the diocese to officiate at same-sex marriages outside of a church liturgy (i.e., acting as agents of the state for same-sex marriages). Did he happen to comment on that at all?

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    1. That did not come up, but it doesn't see to me to be a very logical thing to do. If the ceremony were purely secular, I don't see the point of it being done by clergy. If the ceremony were religious, but not using the approved liturgy or some variation thereof, I would think that there would be an even greater problem with canon law. It should be noted that the bishop and the chancellor seemed optimistic about resolving the issue of being able to perform a blessing ceremony that counts as a civil marriage.

      Bill Ghrist

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    2. It's less the point of it being done by clergy than by their ability to do it - the state doesn't care whether it's a civil or religious ceremony, and if a member of the clergy is authorized to perform weddings by PA they are authorized to perform all weddings - the limitation is solely placed on them by the church. As for not using the approved liturgy outside the church, I feel pretty sure that that happens on a regular basis for gay and straight couples.

      In any event, I'm glad that it sounds as though things are moving forward to allow clergy to perform same-sex weddings. I do wish that Bp McConnell had made a brief statement immediately after the court decision that he was exploring the options, rather than remaining silent.

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  2. It sounds to me like poor planning that the diocese is not ready for marriage equality. Before they could blame the state for not extending the right to marry to same-sex couples. At the very least, this is a disappointment. If they cared about the dignity of the human person they would have prepared something by now.

    Clergy should be allowed to bless same-sex couples who have married.


    Gary Paul Gilbert

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    1. Clergy are already allowed to bless the long term commitment of same sex couples--that was decided last year by Bishop McConnell (I assume that would include those who have had a civil marriage). The issue now is whether clergy will be able to conduct a same sex blessing ceremony which is also a marriage under civil law.

      Even those of us who assumed that the federal courts would invalidate Pennsylvania's anti-marriage equality law were stunned that the state chose not to appeal the ruling. This resolved itself a lot sooner than anyone really expected.

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  3. Thank you for the detailed report of the meeting. It is very helpful for those of us who were not able to attend. I can only echo the concerns raised in this article, but I will amplify them anyway. The Bishop may not want to make a statement about the results of the same-sex marriage litigation, but he has a job to do and he did not do it, by failing to step up to the microphone. The rest of us can make our statement to the Bishop. It is very curious and troubling that the Bishop was not willing to make any public statements in support of the legal outcome, and even more troubling that the diocese seems completely unprepared to approve a liturgy for same-sex marriage. Actions do speak louder than words, and the lack of action seems to indicate a conscious or subconscious unwillingness to endorse same-sex marriage. The diocese seems to want it both ways, and is giving disproportionate weight to more conservative views. I fail to see the legal ambiguity that the diocese claims, and we need more than a general CYA claim of legal ambiguity to explain away the silence and inaction of the diocese. The hesitancy of the diocese on the issue makes the Bishop's involvement in Uganda even more curious.
    I am also very troubled by the recent inaction on property recovery. It seems to the average uninformed observer such as myself that all of the property recovery was initiated under the leadership of the last Bishop. If this Bishop is sitting back and simply waiting for the thieves to return the property, then he is even less of a leader than I thought. It is absolutely the case that St Stephens and Ascension as well as the other property holders need to return the property, unless the diocese can make a case why a few of the lesser attractive properties should be abandoned. A deadline needs to be set with the Anglican parishes. If not met, then new legal action must actually taken. Otherwise nothing will happen. I know some attorneys who would jump at the opportunity to take these property issues back to Common Pleas Court, even possibly on a contingency fee basis. The Court should not be sympathetic to the Anglicans if it can be shown that they are stalling endlessly. Is it possible that the Bishop is waiting for Duncan's successor to be named, in the naive assumption that his successor would take less of a hard line?
    I for one will never forget that the election of this Bishop was rammed down the throats of the lay representatives, after the clergy took a unified stand in favor of Bishop McConnell. This Bishop was not the first choice of the lay electors, but he must have promised something to the clergy. Perhaps the clergy needs to be reminded that the lay membership relied on their beliefs that this Bishop would do the job. On the two most essential issues before us, namely same sex marriage and property recovery, this Bishop and his staff appear to the average uninformed outsider such as myself to be very weak. The clergy's electoral support of a weak and inactive leader is a reflection on whether the clergy is doing its job.
    The faint good news is that this Bishop does seem to care about income inequality. Again, we will judge by his actions whether his concern translates into any real efforts. (Continued in next post)

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    1. Gary,

      I think you are being unfair. I see no evidence that Bishop McConnell is reluctant to authorize same-sex weddings, and I think the present delay is an honest one. Perhaps you don’t see any legal ambiguity, but our chancellor does, and I believe Andy Roman to be both honest and thorough. I would have preferred that Bishop McConnell had made a positive statement about the court decision immediately after it was announced, but I am only mildly disappointed by his failure to do so. All this has nothing to do with Uganda.

      As for the property issue, I, like many in the diocese, am frustrated by the apparent lack of movement. On the other hand, we do not know what is going on behind the scenes. Disclosures regarding negotiations with ACNA congregations would not be helpful to our cause. Be patient. I think the point was made at Monday’s meeting that we do not want the diocese to give away the store.

      As for the election of our present bishop, that is water under the bridge. We have the bishop we have, and we need to move forward without rancor. I said before the election that I would be satisfied with any of the candidates offered by the nominating committee, and I am sticking by that statement.

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  4. Continued from last post
    Reading the results of this meeting is annoying in light of today's story in the Post-Gazette about the "conclave" to elect Duncan's successor. I was glad when Ann Rodgers left the Post-Gazette because her conservative leanings shown through every article which she wrote, in which she incessantly repeated that the "majority" of local Episcopalians voted to leave (after Duncan spent years rigging the vote). We all knew that Duncan just wanted to an Archbishop of something. Yet the current religion writer for the P-G is still relating the same history in every article. At least the new writer mentions that the Anglicaners (rhymes with Afrikaners) have allied themselves with the violently homophobic regimes in certain African countries. To claim now that the Anglican split was not about homophobia and Duncan's mania for power, but rather about alleged Episcopalian attacks on the divinity of Jesus is sheer nonsense, and someone (this means you, Bishop McConnell) needs to be pronouncing loudly and clearly, even if in some polite and circuitous way, that the Anglicans are mis-representing the beliefs of the Episcopal Church for their own venal purposes. I realize that my comments are not as polite as the Episcopal Church usually expects, but McConnell needs to hear it.

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    1. I didn’t have any problems with the Post-Gazette story. We know the history backward and forward, but other readers may not or may not remember. It doesn’t for us officially to be denouncing ACNA. We have to live with these people, and we’re still negotiating about the property.

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  5. Lionel -- appreciated your quotation from Dwight Zscheile. He's going to be our St. Andrew's Lecture speaker this year, with th lecture program on Friday evening October 17 and then on October 18 a Saturday workshop day on "The Missional Church." More details later, but mark calendars now with a "save the date" for what I know will be a great weekend.

    On the topic of the legalities of marriage, as I understand it I do not have an "authorization" from the Commonwealth in my own person to officiate at a marriage, but only when I am functioning as an ordained minister under the authority of the Episcopal Church. There is a question of whether I would in fact be doing so if I deliberately officiated in a service that I was not canonically permitted to officiate in by the Episcopal Church. One could even imagine a case, say, in a dispute about an inheritance, where an argument could be made in litigation that if the clergyperson wasn't functioning canonically according to his or her denominational rules, the marriage wouldn't be legally valid. In the matter addressed here, I would just say that I would be very surprised if Canon I.18 isn't amended by General Convention in 2015, but that in the meantime in Pennsylvania anyway it's probably legally safer for people who can't be married in accordance with I.18 to have a civil marriage conducted by an authorized official--or a religious solemnization of marriage in a faith community where that marriage is clearly sanctioned by church law. That's just my opinion, of course, and I agree with you that our bishop will be well-served by Chancellor Roman.

    Bruce Robison

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