By Daniel Martins
The Task Force on the Study of Marriage was created by General Convention in 2012, and extended for another triennium in 2015. The legislative fruit of its most recent labor has now been made public. It consists of three resolutions that will be fed into the General Convention sausage machine in the first week of July as the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops convene in Austin.
All three resolutions are substantive, but the one that stands out is A085. It proposes what has been called a “surgical” amendment of the Book of Common Prayer — that is, regardless of how convention responds to the question of comprehensive Prayer Book revision, if A085 passes in something like its current form, it will constitute a first reading of a short list of amendments to the prayer book. If General Convention approves a second reading in 2021, the changes will be fixed.
The strategic goal of the task force is to ensure that same-sex marriage is available to anyone who wants it, in any domestic diocese of the church, with or without the permission of a bishop. There are, of course, already authorized rites that can be used for such occasions. These were adopted in 2015, but the enabling resolution specified that their use is subject to the consent of the ordinary. It appears that there are at most a couple of handfuls of dioceses whose bishops not only decline to permit same-sex marriage within their dioceses but also forbid clergy from outside the diocese from coming in to preside at such rites, and most of these also prohibit their clergy from traveling outside the diocese to do so. (Full disclosure: I am among this number.)
Another element in the 2015 resolution is that bishops who withhold permission for use of the new liturgies should “make provision” for those who wish to avail themselves of them to find a way to do so. However, it never defines what “provision” looks like, and this has led to consternation among the advocates of same-sex marriage. When asked how I “make provision” in the Diocese of Springfield, my response has been that I would assist those wishing to arrange for a ceremony in making contact with a priest in a neighboring diocese, who could come into the geographic territory of the diocese and preside at some venue not owned by or associated with any of our churches. Some have told me that this satisfies the “make provision” language, others that it does not. (For the record, no one has made any such request in my diocese.) In any case, the task force’s goal is to effectively remove any authority I have in this area.
How does A085 set out to accomplish its objective? Its linchpin is to insert the two extant gender-neutral marriage liturgies into the prayer book without changing the form of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage (p. 423). This is amendment by addition, not subtraction or revision. The marriages of heterosexual couples could still be solemnized using the familiar rite. That is quite strategically savvy on the part of advocates for change. People are a lot less likely to complain about change when they don’t actually have to experience it. (The hoped-for addition also includes two new Proper Prefaces for the celebration of a nuptial Eucharist that speak of “two persons” rather than “husband and wife.”)
The devil, as always, is in the details. In addition to implanting the two new marriage services into the prayer book, A085 proposes amending An Outline of the Faith, commonly referred to as the Catechism, by removing references to “a man and a woman” and substituting language about “two persons.” This is in keeping with the canonical gender-neutering of marriage that was accomplished in 2015. So, while those who continue to hold to the traditional definition of marriage would still be able to point to the language of the opening paragraphs of the liturgy on p. 423 and say, “See, this is what the Episcopal Church teaches about marriage,” the language of the catechism, which is an official doctrinal formulary, would undercut that claim.
A number of important considerations are at stake here. It is difficult to rank them, but one is certainly the authority of bishops as chief pastors, chief teachers, and chief liturgical officers of their dioceses. As co-heirs of the Catholic tradition of leadership by bishops, we would be acting inconsistently with our ecclesial identity if we straitjacketed bishops from doing the job they are ordained to do. We are, after all, the Episcopal Church — the church of bishops. The Book of Common Prayer carries constitutional weight. Even bishops are subject to its texts and rubrics, and any priest is presumed free to use any liturgical material it contains.
A related concern is the undermining of our long tradition of behaving as a federation of dioceses rather than a monolithic entity. General Convention is a gathering of dioceses, and we have not only allowed but expected dioceses to develop distinctive cultures and characters. The bishops who decline to permit same-sex marriage do not exist in a vacuum. They were elected by dioceses, with their theological predilections quite transparent at the time of election. This may not always have been true, but we have reached a point now that these dioceses, were they to suddenly lose their bishop, would be likely to elect a successor in a similar theological mode.
One cannot plausibly ignore, of course, the implications that the passage of something like A085 would have on the Episcopal Church’s relations with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Provinces representing a great majority of Anglicans worldwide already consider themselves out of communion with us, and if they talk to us at all, will do so only with a diocese led by a Communion Partner bishop. Will our actions in Austin sound a death knell for even these fragile threads of connection?
To its credit, the task force made an effort to consult with our Anglican Communion sister churches. The responses are published in the task force’s Blue Book report. It is well worth noting that not only is no other province inclined to follow our lead on this, but we have been virtually universally discouraged from going down this path. And it’s not just the Global South’s “usual suspects” who are joining this chorus. Churches in generally progressive “developed world” countries, like England, Ireland, and Australia, are voicing their skepticism as well. From the position of the rest of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church is about to go really rogue.
Finally, there’s the question of whether the Episcopal Church wants to be the “big tent” it purports to be, or whether it is set on continuing to devolve into a truly boutique denomination, with a very refined and “pure” clientele. To put it more sharply, do we want to keep the relatively few theological conservatives that we have left, or do we want to drive them off? This will be my sixth General Convention — three as a deputy (from two different dioceses), and now my third as a bishop. My first was 2003, which was, of course, a momentous year. My side lost the major battle that year, as it has ever since. Many (most?) of those whom I considered my closest co-laborers in the gospel have gone other directions, mostly various shades of Anglican-ish or Anglican-like. Love them as I do, I have neither an intention nor a desire to follow them.
I hope and expect to live the rest of my days and be buried by an Episcopal Church from which I too often feel profoundly alienated. Is it too much to hope for that I, and others who march to the proverbial different drummer, could be afforded some space in this church in which we might not only be tolerated, or treated affectionately as mascots, but be allowed to flourish?
We have been defeated. We understand that. The Episcopal Church celebrates same-sex marriage. That will not change in any future that is plausibly foreseeable. We are as desirous of moving on from a consumption with sex and gender as anyone else, and we don’t wish to be thought of as threatening by anyone.
What will enable us to not only stay, but take heart that we might thrive as a loyal opposition in the Episcopal Church? Among other things, perhaps, it will require the ability to look at the prayer book, including the Catechism, and find there a faith that we recognize as that of the Catholic Church of the creeds. The passage of A085 in its proposed form would remove that ability.