July 4, 2014

Pittsburgh Bishop OKs Priests Officiating at Same-Sex Marriages

Rings on rainbow background
After some delay—see “Bishop Answers Questions, Explains Same-Sex Marriage Delay”—Dorsey McConnell, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, wrote a letter yesterday, July 3, 2014, explaining that priests in the diocese may now officiate at same-sex weddings. His earlier permission to use the Provisional Rite for the Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant authorized by the 2012 General Convention via Resolution A049 has been modified in light of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania resulting from a recent court decision. (The bishop’s revised guidelines are here.)

What held up Bishop McConnell’s pronouncement about same-sex marriage was his concerns—or his chancellor’s concerns—about the legality and canonicality of allowing Pittsburgh priests to marry same-sex couples in church. I didn’t quite understand what the problem or problems were when Andy Roman, the diocesan chancellor, explained the delay at the June meeting of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. Everything became clear, however, in the letter from the chancellor that the bishop released along with his letter and guidelines.

The chancellor offered the bishop answers to three questions (quoting from the aforementioned letter):
  1. What is the source of the civil law authority granted to priests of the Diocese to solemnize a marriage for civil law purposes, and does that source require the marriage to be solemnized using the rite of Holy Matrimony contained in the Book of Common Prayer?
  2. Would the use of the Provisional Rite, “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing,” without modification, in conjunction with execution of the civil law marriage certificate by the priest, serve to solemnize the marriage of a same-sex couple for civil law purposes in Pennsylvania?
  3. If you as Bishop Diocesan authorize priests of the Diocese to use their civil law authority to solemnize same-sex marriages for civil law purposes using the Provisional Rite, are you upholding the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church?
Notice that answers to these questions turn both on canon law and civil law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The answers, then, cannot be universal for Episcopal Church dioceses. Nonetheless, I do think Andy Roman’s analysis is of general interest.

As it happens, Pennsylvania law provides two descriptions of who can perform a marriage and does not specify the exact form of the ceremony. A “general rule” allows “a minister, priest or rabbi of a regularly established church or congregation” to do the job. (What about imams? Who knows.) A separate provision provides that
Every religious society, religious institution or religious organization in this Commonwealth may join persons together in marriage when at least one of the persons is a member of the society, institution or organization, according to the rules and customs of the society, institution or organization.
Perhaps this second provision exists to make it easier from a religious institution to refuse to perform a marriage. If it were the only source of authority for performing a civil same-sex marriage, it would be problematic for Episcopalians, as both the prayer book and Canon I.18 “define Holy Matrimony as between ‘a man and a woman.’” Given the general rule, however, we can forget about this latter provision. An Episcopal priest can perform a same-sex marriage, but it cannot be Holy Matrimony as The Episcopal Church now defines it.

The chancellor’s answer to the second question is lengthy—Andy Roman is very thorough—but he concludes that the use of the provisional rite, without modification, and a marriage license are  pretty much all a priest needs to satisfy both canon and civil law with respect to a (civil) same-sex marriage.

The third question is really whether Bishop McConnell will get into trouble with the church for allowing same-sex marriages to be performed in Pittsburgh churches. This seems a reasonable concern. Resolution A049 clearly anticipated the use of the provisional rite in states where same-sex marriage is legal, and the chancellor concludes, without too much trouble, that the bishop will be on solid ground if he approves same-sex weddings in Episcopal churches.

So, based on the advice of his chancellor, Bishop McConnell will allow diocesan priests to use the provisional rite. The couple, however, must have earlier been married in a civil ceremony or must have a valid marriage license. The provisional rite must be used without modification, except as provided in it own rubrics.

A ceremony following the guidelines provided by Bishop McConnell, then, will certainly effect the marriage of two women or two men. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States government will consider them married. (Louisiana and some other states, not so much.) Technically, the church will not consider the couple married in the traditional sense. In practice, I doubt this will make much difference. The couple is blessed in the provisional rite, and that’s about the only benefit of substance a heterosexual couple gets out of a church wedding anyway.

The same-sex couple will not be pronounced—what should they be pronounced, anyway?—husband and wife or married or whatever. But the Pronouncement from the provisional rite should seem just fine:
Inasmuch as N. and N. have exchanged vows of love and fidelity in the presence of God and the Church, I now pronounce that they are bound to one another in a holy covenant,
as long as they both shall live. Amen.


  1. Lionel,

    Just fyi, the provision about a marriage witnessed by a "religious society, religious institution or religious organization" is rooted in our state's Quaker heritage. Since the Quakers are a religious community without ordained clergy, the marriage statute was developed so that members of such a laity-only denomination may be married in their churches according to their own customary. Ordinarily the "Stated Clerk," perhaps like our Senior Warden, will sign the license on behalf of the congregation. It's not limited to Quakers, of course--but would include any "regularly established church or congregation" where there is no recognition of clergy . . . . I believe, for example, some Buddhist sects would fit this definition--though others do ordain clergy.

    Bruce Robison

    1. Thanks, Bruce. Not being a native Pennsylvanian, I would not even have thought of that explanation.

  2. I'm curious that you note the blessing is the only thing that a heterosexual couple get out of a church wedding. What about sacramental grace? It is very much he case, as the bishop notes, that the blessing rite for a same sex couple is not a sacramental rite, and I would definitely see this as a bit of unfinished business for the next General Convention. Still, very happy with were we have gotten to today.

    1. What, exactly, is sacramental grace, and how is it different from a simple blessing? That said, I, too, would like to see the General Convention put both same- and opposite-sex unions into the same category.


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.