Though perhaps coming as no surprise, a Hearing Panel for the Trial of a Bishop earlier this month ruled that the Right Reverend William Love of Albany violated his vow to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” by refusing to permit same-sex marriages in his diocese, as called for by the 79th General Convention’s passage of Resolution B012. A second meeting of the Hearing Panel to determine disciplinary action against the bishop was scheduled for October 26. Bishop Love, though, “recognizing that whatever disciplinary action… offered would not be anything I could in good conscience agree to,” has announced his resignation as the IX Bishop of Albany, effective February 1, 2021. “Given all that has happened and that which was still to come,” says Bishop Love, “I believe that to stay any longer would be more of a detriment to the diocese than a help.”
Bishop Love’s resignation shows a desire to help end the division between his diocese and the larger Episcopal Church. From what I know of him, he has always insisted that everything the Church does should be for the greater glory of the Lord Jesus, equipping Christians to do the work of ministry in his name. The focus should be on Jesus, not William Love. If the focus remains on the latter instead of the former because of this case, the work of ministry risks becoming less of the main priority. To prevent that from happening, Bishop Love is intentionally decreasing himself for the sake of the gospel, that it will increase.
Bishop Love resigns his see due to how B012 “turns upside down over 2,000 years of Church teaching regarding… Holy Matrimony” and “is in direct conflict and contradiction to God’s intent for [marriage] as revealed through Holy Scripture.” He bases his argument on Mark 10:6-9, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question concerning divorce: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Like Bishop Love, I believe that because these words come directly from Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, they must reflect God’s original design and purpose for marriage. Jesus saying this was God’s purpose “from the beginning of creation” implies that God is the author of marriage. Thus, who are we to change its design? Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees reinforces God’s original purpose for a husband and wife’s marital union to signify the indissoluble bond between God and his people.
Like Bishop Love and I, there are still local parishes, several dioceses, and many individual Episcopalians who hold to the traditional view of marriage. We hold this view believing Jesus’ words in Mark 10 to be clear and, because “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable… for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), we humbly submit to the truth revealed by Christ passed down through the generations to our time. The common source of all Scripture and Christian tradition is Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8; cf. Is. 40:8).
Theologically, I understand and sympathize with Bishop Love’s opposition to B012. He says that “as a bishop in God’s Holy Church,” he has been “called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the gospel… [to] testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of Lords and King of Kings,’ and to ‘guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church’” (BCP, p. 517). Anglicanism is a catholic tradition; its Christian faith and order have their foundation in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship from the Church’s early days. What Bishop Love rightly conveys is that the Episcopal Church, a member church of the Anglican Communion, is part of a larger Christian Church whose evangelical witness is meant to proclaim and sacraments to reinforce the truth of God’s Word made visible in Jesus as his Body on earth. Thus, Christians ordained in the historic apostolic tradition are called to represent Christ and preach the gospel to his people in accordance with the received teachings of the whole Church. They are to “continue in what you have learned… and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). That is why I, believing the traditional teaching of marriage to be received tradition from God, reinforced by Christ, and passed down through two millennia, sympathize with Bishop Love’s position.
While I agree that Christian marriage consists of one man and one woman united by God in a life-long committed union, I am, though, conflicted on the bishop’s protest of B012’s implementation. The resolution grants bishops holding “a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples” the option of “inviting, as necessary, another bishop… to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of [the] resolution.” The other theologically conservative bishops to whom this provision applies found it to be the best way forward, allowing them a way to accept the majority’s will without compromising their conscience. With that, considering how an “out” was given Bishop Love to not violate his conscience, I wonder if his protest was warranted. Neither he nor his fellow Communion Partner bishops were being forced to do something they did not feel comfortable doing. If Bishop Love had just accepted B012’s conscience allowance, this unfortunate episode could have been avoided.
But regardless of my conflicted thoughts on Bishop Love’s protest, his case nonetheless has brought to light that “latitude is extended to some in the enforcement of our canons, but not to others.” To be more blunt, progressive actions that skirt the Church’s canons seem to get a pass, but conservative reactions to changes to the Church’s historic faith and order do not. Case in point: offering Communion to the unbaptized. Canon 1.17.7 states that “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church.” There are, though, progressive clergy who blatantly ignore this canon in the name of “radical hospitality.” I have yet to hear of disciplinary action against clergy flouting this rule. It is not fair to see lax enforcement applied to some within the theological majority and strict enforcement upon others in the minority.
All of this causes me to think about the future. The majority’s allowance for “the discretion of any Member of the Clergy… to decline to solemnize or bless any marriage” is a compromise that allows me, without reservation, to still function as a priest in this branch of God’s holy catholic Church. But I wonder how long the majority’s toleration of the minority’s disagreement with same-sex marriage and, with it, their function within the Church will last. It makes me wonder, “Will what has happened to Bishop Love eventually happen to me?”
My thoughts bring my mind to the topic of mutual flourishing. I wrote in a previous post,
If the Church is serious, if it welcomes all people, then discernment, understanding, and a future marked by reciprocity and mutuality is necessary. Such…path would respect both the majority’s and minority’s theological consciences. For wherever we go, it should be together, united in the one faith and baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Mutual flourishing — the seeking of commonality with another despite the obstacles of difference — is only possible through God’s grace and a willingness to stay in communion with others. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says that though one person or group of people may observe something to a higher regard than might another person or group, as long as what is done is done “in honor of the Lord,” we should not allow the issue to divide us (cf. Rom. 14:5-9). Our willingness to remain in fellowship reflects Jesus’s desire that we all be one as he and the Father are one (cf. John 17:21). For those “Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs to be truthful, we must answer God’s call to mutual flourishing, walking with each other in the spirit of forbearance and loving friendship.
Mutual flourishing paves the way forward to Christian unity. By having open hearts and putting aside pre-conceived notions, we open ourselves to seeing the good in others, regardless of our theological differences. Mutual flourishing, when seriously pursued, helps us be better people by recognizing the goodness others bring into our lives despite our differences and, through them, God’s presence amongst all of us. In mutual flourishing is God’s call to break down the walls that separate us and work through our struggles to accomplish his purposes on earth (BCP, p. 815).
Conservative Episcopalians like me still desire to remain in the Episcopal Church and walk in Christian love with our progressive brothers and sisters. We recognize that same-sex marriage is an issue on which we will not agree. But we have chosen to stay and engage with those who disagree with our position. “Friendship,” says Aquinas, “is a kind of virtue… as it is a habit of choice” (Ethicus, VIII, 1). Conservative Episcopalians seek friendship and mutual flourishing because of our love for and faithfulness to God. Christian maturity is better reached by the intentional commitment to make room for and remain in relationship with the other.
It is from this commitment that I desire for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters to flourish in their seeking to love and serve Jesus as members of his Church. As I have said once before, I will say again: despite holding to the traditional definition of marriage, I wish to remain in communion with my LGBTQ siblings. I choose the way of fellowship, making room for them to hold to what they believe as I hope they will allow me to do. I and others who share my viewpoint want to keep alive the Christian spirit of conciliation and love toward each other.
But we must be willing to trust each other. It is a poor reflection on progressives when they ungenerously react to a minority that holds to a two-millennia-old Christian tradition, and a poor reflection on conservatives when they actively demean the majority and fail to respect their dignity as human beings. Old wounds will not heal overnight. The only way for mutual flourishing to be successful is for all members of the Church, progressive and conservative, to intentionally hold “steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
To again quote Aquinas, “Those who see the essence of God… see him more perfectly than another” (Summa Theologica Pt. 1, Q. 12, Art. 6). From Bishop Love’s unfortunate situation comes the chance for all of us to genuinely recommit to walking in love together, seeing God more perfectly than ever before. My fear, though, is that my hope is but wishful thinking. Communion across difference can be achieved. As uncomfortable at times as this may and will be, God walks with us all the way. Are we willing to work toward such communion? Are we mutually willing to allow those with whom we disagree to flourish? Those are the questions.
Will what has happened to Bishop Love eventually happen to me? I pray not. I pray that my progressive brothers and sisters will allow me to flourish as I commit myself to always acknowledging and respecting their dignity. By mutually flourishing together, as Jesus says to his followers, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23)
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.