There are headlines today, even in such august magazines as The Living Church, that say that the Episcopal Church’s “Bishops Redefine Marriage.” Understood as a headline, that is probably the best way to say what happened yesterday. But details matter, and they matter here. It is probably more accurate to say that the bishops redefined marriage insofar as the constitutional process of this church allowed them to at this time, and if the deputies concur (which they will). Next General Convention, three years from now in Austin, will be the first opportunity for that headline to be accurate without qualification. But for now, the church will live with a mixed economy, and what remains to be seen in the next few years is whether a mixed economy of conservatives and progressives will be retained in a comprehensive church, or whether the majority will ensure that a redefinition will be enforced in the dioceses and parishes that still hold the traditional view.

I’ll put it this way: Yesterday, the bishops voted to implement in church canon law and in trial-run liturgies the situation that obtained in this country before last Friday. That is, there will be a majority of dioceses that perform same-sex marriages, and a minority that will not. Next General Convention in Austin, the bishops and deputies will have to decide whether they will rule with Justice Anthony Kennedy or with Chief Justice John Roberts: does God’s justice demand same-sex marriage in all dioceses? Or will it instead be left to dioceses to decide?

Like I said, details matter, so I’ll get into the weeds a bit. The church’s specially appointed Task Force on the Study of Marriage had originally proposed canonical changes that would have redefined marriage as gender-neutral and authorized liturgies for use. But many voices on both right and left objected to this course, since it would have placed the church’s constitution and canon law at odds with one another. The church constitution requires that worship services in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) cannot be altered at one General Convention, nor can alternatives to them be authorized except for “trial use” (Article X). To change canon law by itself, therefore, was not sufficient to provide alternative services to BCP liturgies. Therefore “trial use” was the course taken by the bishops, some of whom (such as Bishop Shannon Johnston, of the influential Diocese of Virginia) argued that precisely because same-sex marriage is so important, it needs to be passed in a way that is constitutionally beyond question. Other bishops, such as Thomas Ely of Vermont, eventually came around to this view and a consensus was reached early on in committee.

Trial use was last used in any significant way to test material for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. There were “zebra books” and “green books” (so named for the color of their covers) that were used before the 1979 text was authorized as the church’s new book of worship. As veterans of that period know, “trial use” of a liturgy is not necessarily a seal of inevitability in every detail. However, it does set a clear trajectory. One authorizes trial-use liturgies because one plans to see them included in the BCP. And the prospect of that will be cause of much discussion and likely some anxiety for the next three years.


What happens now from a constitutional perspective is that all dioceses of the church must consider this at their conventions. While their vote diocese-by-diocese does not carry legal weight as such, it is expected that their deliberations will be taken seriously. In 2018, the next General Convention will vote again, and a majority of all lay deputies, priests, and bishops must vote again to approve the liturgy. At that point, the Book of Common Prayer is officially revised. There is no real provision, so far as I am aware, for the BCP to be authorized in its fullness only in some dioceses but not in all.

It is at that point, should the revisions be approved in 2018, that conservatives on the issue of marriage will have some very searching and difficult decisions to make. For bishops and priests are vowed to uphold the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the church, and that is nowhere defined for Episcopalians as centrally as in the BCP. It is probable (and I think all fair-minded people will admit this) that a consequence would be the resignation or departure of most if not all of the remaining conservatives in the church.

Why so? While it is true that clergy will probably retain a “conscience clause,” by which they retain the option to decline to marry couples for any reason, most will likely conclude that this clause was not designed to permit clergy to decline to follow the teaching of the Episcopal Church with respect to same-sex couples who are in all apparent respects quite well prepared to enter into a loving and lifelong Christian commitment to one another. That is just what it means to uphold the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the church. Priests are not free agents; they’re more like McDonald’s franchise holders. So long as they hold the franchise, they’re vowed to keep to the franchise standards. Priests are obliged to teach what the prayer book teaches. If they can’t, then they need to move on. And they would.

This will also be true for many conservative bishops, who understand themselves as vowed to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.” And bishops, so it is understood in Anglican theology, are not just local franchise holders of the national church but are instead in a real sense ordained into the apostolic succession, made bishops in “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” And most of this Church throughout the Anglican Communion and the wider oecumene does not hold to same-sex marriage. The Episcopal Church will be the first Anglican province in the world to authorize same-sex marriage in some form. Even at our most uppity, we Episcopalians admit that we do not constitute the one church of God on our own, nor that the apostolic succession is a creature of General Convention. (One can imagine it: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men! But first, I would like to submit this resolution to the chair, please.”) Many bishops take their commitment to remaining in full communion with the rest of the Anglican Communion very seriously.

All of this is not even yet to mention the Bible, which is perhaps the deepest issue here. Anglicans historically are a church of “two books,” Bible and prayer book, with the former authoritative over the latter. Here in the prayer book, Cranmer wrote in the very first preface in 1549, “is ordained nothing to be read, but the very pure word of God, the holy Scriptures, or that which is evidently grounded upon the same.” In debate yesterday, Bishop William Love of Albany more-or-less just stood up and read Mark 10:6-9, where Jesus cites Genesis: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Say what one will about various hermeneutical schools of thought and higher-critical historical Jesus scholarship, that is nevertheless a prima facie quite powerful and straightforward argument. It should surprise no one that many Episcopalians and most Anglicans will understand themselves bound by this to reject same-sex marriage in the church.

What will happen now? Significantly, the bishops authorized the trial-use marriage liturgies “at the direction and with the permission” of diocesan bishops. If this holds up in the House of Deputies (on the docket soon), it will then mean that for the next three years bishops like William Love of Albany will be able in church law to continue their current practice of forbidding same-sex marriages in their dioceses. After that, if the liturgies become part of the BCP, it is difficult to see how that will any longer be possible.

There are in theory other ways forward for the church. Up for consideration tomorrow is a resolution to amend Article X of the Constitution, such that alternative rites could be authorized by General Convention while leaving the BCP intact. In part since that option does not constitutionally exist now, it was not taken by the bishops yesterday. If passed this year and then passed again on the second reading in 2018, it would become a fully constitutional option. With this option, the same-sex marriage rites authorized by the bishops yesterday could retain continued authorization in all dioceses whose bishops permit them. In other words, it would retain without change the “mixed economy” that will likely now exist in the church for the next three years, with conservatives and moderates retaining the historic prayer book in their dioceses, and the great majority of dioceses using the alternative rite.

One could even imagine “flying bishops,” as the Church of England has for parishes that do not recognize women’s ordination. They could, in theory, fly both ways: conservatives to liberal parishes, and liberals to conservative parishes. A shadow of that exists now (called “DEPO,” or “delegated episcopal pastoral oversight”), but parishes still have to follow the laws of the geographical diocese in which they find themselves.

There are, in other words, ways for the Episcopal Church to be comprehensive if it wants to be. It is somewhat ironic: Years ago, it was the liberals (or the “broad churchmen,” which wasn’t quite the same thing) appealing to the conservatives for comprehensiveness and roominess. Now, the shoe is on the other foot.

How should a church order its life with respect to human sexuality? Is it an essential doctrine requiring unanimity, like the Trinity or the divinity of Christ? Or is it something about which Christians may teach differently without sundering the body of Christ (even if each side regards the other as seriously in error)? Oddly, it is now the conservatives in the Episcopal Church who appear to believe in the toleration of different teaching, and the liberals who appear to believe in essential doctrine that must be taught by all clergy.

Not all liberals, it must be said. One might say that the next major step for the Episcopal Church depends upon how large and how assertive is the old-fashioned school of “broad churchmanship” in 2018. Time will tell.

The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by firemedic58. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hylden is associate rector at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana, where he also serves as a chaplain at Ascension Episcopal School.

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