September 13, 2015

What Might Resolution A054 Mean in Practice?

Resolved, That the 78th General Convention authorize for trial use in accordance with Article X of the Constitution and Canon II.3.6 “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage,” and “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage 2,” … beginning the First Sunday of Advent 2015. Bishops exercising ecclesiastical authority or, where appropriate, ecclesiastical supervision will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to these liturgies. Trial use is only to be available under the direction and with the permission of the Diocesan Bishop …

— Resolution A054, adopted by the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church
Seal of the General Convention
Proponents of marriage equality were overjoyed by the passage of Resolution A054 earlier this summer, but it was clear from the outset that the resolution incorporated a classic Anglican fudge whose ultimate significance remains uncertain. When this resolution was passed by the House of Bishops, it was clear that the intention was to allow bishops opposed to same-sex marriage to avoid having to authorize the use of same-sex liturgies, while at the same time making same-sex marriage available throughout the church. Interpreting this resolution appears to require doublethink.

Actually, it is difficult to determine what parts of the resolution should be taken literally. What does it mean to “have access” to the same-sex liturgies? The apparent meaning is that a couple can have a service using one of the specified liturgies if requested. A literal reading might, on the other hand, simply require that a couple can read copies of the liturgy. This may seem a perverse suggestion, but to “have access” is not really defined in the resolution.

Moreover, the requirement that the liturgies be made available to “all couples asking to be married in this Church” is problematic. Not even the marriage liturgy in the current Book of Common Prayer is available to “all couples asking to be married in this Church.” A priest may refuse to marry a couple, seemingly for any reason, and, in any case, at least one of the parties must be baptized. Resolution A054 retains these provisions, so “all couples asking to be married in this Church” is not to be taken at face value.

Another oddity in this resolution is the responsibility to make the liturgies available laid upon bishops, specifically, “[b]ishops exercising ecclesiastical authority or, where appropriate, ecclesiastical supervision.” What happens if a diocese does not have a bishop? Does the requirement devolve upon the ecclesiastical authority, i.e., the Standing Committee? The direction that “[t]rial use is only to be available under the direction and with the permission of the Diocesan Bishop” would seem to suggest that a diocese lacking a diocesan bishop cannot use the trial liturgies at all. I don’t know what was intended here or how this provision will be interpreted should a situation requiring interpretation arise.

The question that most obviously arises from Resolution A054 is what happens when a diocesan bishop declines to permit the use of the trial liturgies in his (or, less likely, her) diocese. It has been assumed that a bishop may do this, although one could argue that, at the very least, the resolution does not explicitly provide for such refusal. This admittedly minority view is buttressed by the requirement to make the new liturgies available to all comers. Nonetheless, it was assuredly the understanding within the House of Bishops that a diocesan bishop could withhold permission to use the trial liturgies if provisions were made to make them “available” to hapless couples unlucky enough to reside in such a bishop’s diocese.

I have to offer a digression here. Neither Article X nor Canon II.3.6 requires that permission of the bishop be required for the use of a trial liturgy. The provision of Resolution A054 was presumably needed to secure the votes of bishops unwilling to offend the sensibilities of the most reactionary members of that body. Clearly, however, The Episcopal Church as a whole has decided to move forward on same-sex marriage, and allowing diocesan bishops to obstruct that intention seems much like the medieval notion that the religion of the people must be that of the prince. It is a fundamentally anti-democratic idea inconsistent with the ethos of our church.

Assuming that a diocesan bishop does indeed withhold permission to use the trial liturgies in that bishop’s diocese, what will constitute an acceptable good-faith effort to make the liturgies “available” to couples who want to avail themselves of them? This if hardly a hypothetical question. Bishop Daniel Martins, of the Diocese of Springfield, helpfully blogged during the General Convention. Even before Resolution A054 was concurred with by the House of Deputies, Martins had this to say on his blog:
[Resolution A054] includes what I consider to be adequate protections for bishops and dioceses that hold a traditional understanding of marriage. I can and will prohibit their use in the Diocese of Springfield, though I will be obligated, upon request, to facilitate their availability. Referral of such requests to an appropriate neighboring diocese will be considered a good-faith response. I can live with that.
Can a same-sex couple looking to get married live with that? How is such a couple expected to feel when told that, not only can they not be married in their own church, but that they must go to an unfamiliar church, probably in another state, to tie the knot? How much more complex will be the wedding arrangements when they have to be handled long-distance? How much will friends and family be inconvenienced by having to travel to another diocese to participate in the wedding? What does all this inconvenience say about the commitment of The Episcopal Church to marriage equality? Admittedly, there are varying degrees of unreasonableness in sending couples to an adjacent diocese, and a bishop in Springfield might more easily get away with doing so than might a bishop in, say, Hawaii. Personally, I consider sending a couple to another diocese an unacceptable form of making a liturgy “available.”

It is possible, of course, that, in a given diocese, no priest and no parish is willing to perform a same-sex marriage. In such a case, even a willing bishop might have trouble fulfilling the requirements of the General Convention resolution. And there would be some inconvenience to a couple if their own parish would not marry them, even if a nearby parish would. I suspect that all or nearly all the dioceses of The Episcopal Church contain at least one parish willing to host same-sex marriages were it permitted by the bishop, but I could be wrong.

If one assumes that Resolution A054 allows a diocesan bishop to prohibit the use of the trial liturgies, there seems to be no straightforward way to make these liturgies “available” within the diocese if, by “available,” one means being able to have a wedding in one’s own church or a nearby church. In other words, if you believe, as I do, that sending a couple to another diocese makes a mockery of trial liturgy “availability,” then either a bishop must grant permission or some more devious plan is needed to provide for the universal access envisioned by Resolution A054.

There is, I suggest, such a devious scheme that respects the conscience of the bishop while making gracious accommodation to the needs of the petitioning same-sex couple. My plan requires that some parish in the diocese—preferably the diocese of one or both members of the couple—be willing to host a same-sex wedding. The plan requires the bishop to grant such a parish DEPO (Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight), putting the parish under the “ecclesiastical supervision” of another (presumably diocesan) bishop. That bishop would then authorize the trial liturgy. The diocesan would have made the liturgy available without providing direction and permission to use the liturgy. The couple would be minimally inconvenienced, the parish would likely be delighted to be out from under its conservative bishop, and everyone would be happy.

One could quibble with my plan, but the fact is that the resolution, besides being intentionally ambiguous, is simply badly written. My solution seems no worse. Would a bishop of Daniel Martins’ ilk play along with this legerdemain? Possibly. It seems the moral equivalent of the government’s asking a church-related organization to certify that it has a moral objection to providing birth control to its employees, thereby allowing the government to provide it by other means. Just as Roman Catholics have complained that signing such a statement certifying an objection is morally burdensome—a view shared by few reasonable people, I assert—an Episcopal bishop could raise a similar objection. I would hope that no such objection would be raised.

Alas, I fear that, as was the case with the ability of women to be ordained in every Episcopal diocese, it may be decades before marriage equality is achieved throughout our church. I pray that that will not happen, and that bishops opposed to same-sex marriage will refrain from imposing their views, however sincerely held, on those Episcopalians under their care. If they do so, we will have fewer Episcopalians in such conservative dioceses.

5 comments:

  1. It was suggested on Facebook that a priest from another diocese could perform one of the trial rites in the physical diocese of a conservative bishop but not in a church of the diocese. This might be in a park or a secular building of some sort. Perhaps it could even be in a church of another denomination. This might work and might be acceptable to the couple. In this case, the bishop’s role in making a rite available would largely be a matter of ignoring what’s happening.

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  2. I think the DEPO option has a lot of merit. Though the resolution wording is unclear in some cases, what is clear is bishops do not have carte blanche to simply block same sex marriages in their dioceses. They must "do something" to provide access to these liturgies. I think mainstream Episcopalians living in the few dioceses who will block same sex marriages should proactively state what is acceptable and what is not here. We should not passively wait for a ruling from on high.

    Bob Button

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  3. A thoughtful post, Lionel, and you raise some interesting points to follow over the coming years. My one footnote is simply to remind that the "requirement " about access is expressed in the context of a GC Resolution, and is without canonical force. That simply means that as per, for example, GC Resolutions that "a 10% tithe is the standard of giving in The Episcopal Church," there are no consequences or enforcement mechanisms attached. It's what I guess we'd call a "mind of the house," and I recall George Werner once saying that the appropriate translation of the word "mandatory" in a GC Resolution is something like "recommended in the strongest possible way." When GC wants something to be truly mandatory it will place the mandate in the Constitution, Canons, or Book of Common Prayer.

    Bruce Robison

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  4. St. Andrew’s, Albany NY is a parish in a diocese that has refused to make same-gender blessings available. St. Andrew’s is also a DEPO parish under the oversight of the Bishop of Central New York. The vestry of St. Andrew’s has written a letter to Bishop Love of Albany, copy to Bishop Adams of Central New York, asking that same-gender liturgies be made available to members of the Diocese of Albany through DEPO parishes. We are hopeful that our request will be approved. Please pray for the success of our petition.

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    1. John, I was aware of the letter. Is it absolutely clear that Bishop Love’s permission is required? In any case, I will pray for a favorable outcome.

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