Month: July 2015

Six Myths About Gay Marriage in the Episcopal Church

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I’ve been answering a lot of questions and explaining away a lot of nonsense about the work we did in Salt Lake City. Here’s a few common misconceptions people have about marriage and the Episcopal Church:

Myth #1: The church was already doing same-sex marriages

This is partially true. In 2009, General Convention directed the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music (SCLM) to look into possible blessing rites for same-gender couples. At the same time the church directed the bishops to exercise “generous pastoral response” when it came to the issue of gay marriage. So while the SCLM was researching and writing the rites, some bishops were already letting similar rites be used for marriage. In 2012 General Convention authorized the blessing liturgy to be used throughout the church, and the pastoral response became even more widely used. However even when the rites were being used for a same-sex marriage in a state that allowed it, the official canons for the church still contained gendered language, and the rites being used were not officially approved as marriage rites.

Myth #2: The canons and the prayer book conflict now

It’s true that marriage as described in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) still refers to a male and female, and the canons will no longer describe it that way. However the canons are the laws of the church, while the BCP is where we get our liturgy. Both are necessary, but they fulfill different roles. Among the broader changes we made to the canons, in terms of gender all we did was remove the specificity. The words “couple” and “parties” are used now, which are the sort of legal terms appropriate for a set of laws. So how come the specificity of the prayer book doesn’t override the canons and make gay marriage impossible? Well…Sign and photo op

Myth #3: They changed the prayer book

No part of the current marriage liturgy in the BCP has been changed. Instead, several new liturgies have been added and are currently under “trial use.” In accordance with the canons surrounding the BCP, trial use liturgies can be used throughout the church as though they were a part of the prayer book. This allows people to try them out and suggest improvements before they are made permanent. Because these liturgies are on the trial use path, the marriage rite currently in the BCP is no longer the only rite, and therefore it is no longer the only definition that can be used in accordance with the canons to perform a marriage. By declaring an intention to add these liturgies, the church gives bishops the ability to treat them like regular prayer book liturgies. The final changes to the prayer book are likely to take years, and will probably be part of a larger revision. In the 230 year history of the Episcopal Church we’ve only done a major revision of the prayer book twice, so it’s kind of a big deal.

Myth #4: It doesn’t count because bishops don’t have to do it

While in trial use, these liturgies are still only to be used in dioceses where the bishop has allowed them. This is so more conservative diocese can choose not to participate and retain their personal beliefs on marriage. However, the resolution also states that a bishop must make provisions for any couple in his or her diocese to have access to these rites. This section was left intentionally vague, and is intentionally contradictory. It’s how we like it in the Episcopal Church – we want there to be room for everyone. Making provisions could be as simple as getting the couple in contact with a neighboring diocese that already performs gay marriages. It could mean allowing certain priests to perform the rites within their diocese. The point is that no one has to feel forced into this (clergy can still refuse to marry any two people, a right they’ve always had), yet everyone can get married if they want.

Myth #5: We’re getting rid of blessings

The future of blessings is unknown. The blessing liturgy was specifically left out of the list of trial use liturgies this year. Instead, it remains available for use with permission from the bishop, same as it has been for the last several years. There is a strong pastoral need for blessings. Not only are there still plenty of countries in the Episcopal Church where gay marriage is outlawed, but many heterosexual couples have chosen to use the blessing ceremony as well. The most common example is retired couples who would lose pension and retirement benefits if they were to re-marry. However to put the blessing liturgy into the BCP implies a strong theological backing for the concept of blessings, and we just haven’t been looking at it that way. Perhaps it would be better suited for the Book of Occasional Services, but that’s a conversation we have decided to put off for now.

Myth #6: The church is just following the Supreme Court

This one is so impossible I wonder if I should explain it or just post a series of reaction gifs. People have been working towards full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people for the last FORTY YEARS. And this most recent inclusion train started in 2003 with the election of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. The fact is, if you had been there at our convention in 2012, you would have known this was coming up in 2015. We had already assigned these canonical changes to the Marriage Task Force to study. And as anxious as some of us have been about this, very few had any doubt that the changes would pass and we would leave Salt Lake City with marriage equality. The majority of Episcopalians were onboard with gay marriage in 2012, even though most of the states were not. If the Supreme Court release schedule had been a week later, we would have looked down-right prophetic.

If you have any questions about the marriage resolutions I worked on (or anything else from this year’s convention) please let me know in the comments. I love explaining things!

NOTE: This article has been updated to clarify the difference between a major revision of the BCP and a simple change. Simple changes happen all the time (we did one this year in fact), while major revisions are infrequent.

Day Nine: Miracles

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Today something happened that I thought I’d never live to see, like water being turned to wine or an ocean pushed up into great walls: On the final day of convention the House of Deputies adjourned a half hour early, having completed all of the business put before it.

Back in Indianapolis in 2012, about three days from the end of convention, the Chair of the Committee on Dispatch came before the House to move for a suspension of the rules. He proposed a set of temporary changes, such as shortening both the time each person speaks and the total time for debate on any topic. As part of his explanation for the proposed changes he added a matter-of-fact, “We do this every time.”Messy Workspace

He meant to ease our concerns by saying that it was a very normal and typical set of changes, but for me it was an indictment. What did it say about us that every time we met we had to scramble at the end, throwing in new Rules of Order and rushing through legislation to get it done in time?

But this year, we actually thought ahead. The President of the House of Deputies appointed a special committee to look at the Rules of Order and suggest changes to increase efficiency. They came to us with the new rules and we adopted them the first day.

My guess is the most impactful change was shortening the time given to each speaker from three minutes to two minutes. I didn’t notice a substantial change in the content I heard or the message I was able to share when I went to speak, so it seems we lost nothing with the time change. We also added a rule that if three people speak in favor and no one is in line to speak against, the President can call for an immediate vote. This is more helpful than it may seem to an outsider. Most of the legislation that comes before the House is not controversial, but we often spend a lot of time listening to people tell us to vote in favor of something we all already like.

Another change that seems to have helped a lot is the Resolutions Review Committee. This group looked at every single resolution for potential problems, and ensured each piece of legislation was being assigned to the proper committee for formal review.

Vote by OrderThen of course there’s the real hero, the monster we feared: the Virtual Binder. This was our first paperless convention, and it went amazingly well. There were occasional workarounds for unexpected exceptions, but on the whole the technology functioned exactly as planned. Pre-filed amendments were easy to see and reference, which meant no more time wasted reading everything aloud three times and answering a dozen clarifying questions. Supplemental calendars appeared automatically on our screens in real time, which meant no more five minute breaks just to distribute paper. No more picking up the daily calendar from the boxes at the front of the House. No more flipping back to yesterday’s calendar to see what we didn’t get to. No more getting lost because you put your pages in wrong. No more showing up 10 minutes early to get everything filed. And most importantly, no more incessant binder ring clicking during opening prayer.

There were certainly other factors, many of which are impossible to pin down. Perhaps we had fewer controversial resolutions overall. Maybe this group of deputies was just a little less argumentative. Perhaps the committee appointments were more appropriate. It could have been the more hands-on approach that Dispatch took, or the incredible ability of our parliamentarian to always have the right answer and be able to explain it clearly.

No matter how the stars managed to align, I never thought we could have a convention where we actually completed all the work we set out to do in a civil and timely manner. We even managed to have a reasonable and successful debate about the budget! Perhaps there’s hope for us yet. Perhaps the dream of a five day convention is closer than we think. Perhaps one day I’ll be part of a group of grizzled old veterans, going on about how in my day we had to take off two weeks from work to go to convention, and about how I still hear binder clicking in my sleep…

NOTE: Convention is over and I’m on my way home, however I plan to write a couple additional posts related to this year’s convention. Look for them in the coming week, as I am most certainly taking a break for the holiday weekend.

Day Eight: Worshipping Ourselves

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I am not against raucous appreciation. The occasional standing ovation is fine. It’s important to honor people, and occasionally to show our overwhelming support. But it’s time we face it. We have a problem.

Every addiction comes with enablers, and I think our biggest one is the Legislative Committee on Privilege & Courtesy. So far we’ve had 27 resolutions from this committee, and we aren’t done yet. Privilege and Courtesy resolutions exist only to commend and thank people. So there’s one thanking the volunteers, one for the people who organize worship, one about the Official Youth Presence, etc. But there also individual resolutions for the President, the Parliamentarian, the Secretary, the former Secretary, the treasurer, etc. The list goes on and on, and we’ve been giving a standing ovation for almost every single person after their resolution passes. I’m not saying these aren’t great people or that they aren’t doing great work. It just seems to be a bit…much.

Standing to SingOur desire to excessively thank people is part of a larger issue that I’ve noticed at this year’s convention. We seem really eager to pat ourselves on the back these days. We had the President give an acceptance speech even though she was running uncontested and her election was only a formality. We spent a while praising the legacy of the outgoing Presiding Bishop, despite every indication that she hates receiving excessive praise. We applauded ourselves for having more Young Adult deputies than ever before, even though the actual number is still embarrassingly small. And sometimes after we pass a resolution, someone goes to the microphone for a point of personal privilege just to thank us for passing the resolution. We haven’t even done anything with it and we are already getting thanked.

Yesterday a deputy from a nearby table asked me, “Are we doing actual business this afternoon, or is there another thing?” He wasn’t being snarky. He actually wondered if we were planning on doing work or if yet another thank you speech followed by thunderous applause was scheduled.

We talk all the time about the length of convention. With nine legislative days and two additional committee and orientation days, it’s a lot to ask of a person. Most deputies with regular jobs are using their entire vacation to be here. The length of the convention forces the average age up, because most people can’t do it until they’re retired.

This year we have been amazingly efficient due to some great procedural changes that were adopted. Yet we still had to go until 7:30PM tonight. And we are still using the full nine days. And every time the adorable chair of the committee on Privilege & Courtesy gets up on the platform, I have to ask, “Isn’t there a better way to thank someone?”

Hisako PartyI think it’s important to show appreciation, and I believe we should give a standing ovation to the volunteers. But I worry that every time we praise anyone who is currently in office, we take a step closer to idolatry. We are praising the person and the position, holding them up like the royalty we so pointedly got rid of 230 years ago.

After years of shrinking numbers and tightened budgets, I understand that it feels good to feel good about ourselves again. There’s a renewed energy around growth and mission, around fixing the world one Episcopalian at a time. But I don’t want us to lose our humility.

Humility is the greatest gift religion ever gave me. My faith tells me that there is something greater than my small concerns, and that thought keeps me honest and whole. When we’re at General Convention, the real world tends to disappear. We start to think what we’re doing is very important. We think the whole world is watching. The legislative live streaming and twitter hashtags aren’t helping, because all they do is prove that at least some of the world really IS watching. Ultimately these feelings are just a side effect of working 15 hour days and never making it more than two blocks from the convention center. In the end, we’re a small denomination and most people will never know or care about most of what we do here. Our work is unsung, un-applauded. And it should be.

I think we are a wonderful church with a beautiful liturgical tradition, some great theology, and an army of people doing good work in the world. But those things can speak for themselves. We are called to be servants, not heroes. We are here to do the work of God, and to find ways to enable and equip others to do that work. The rest is, and should be, silence.

Day Seven: The Episcopal Church Marries You

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I am too happy and tired to write much, so I will have to leave you with the cliff notes version.

It’s been a long road.

2003: Consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop.

2006: A step backward. Our membership fights with itself, and the Anglican Communion asks for restraint when we elect bishops. We tell them we’ll be careful.

2009: The Anglican Communion asks that we be more cautious with who we elect to be a bishop. Our response: God calls people to be bishops – we won’t get in the way. In addition, we take the first baby steps in the Same-Sex Blessing process, and bishops are given permission to use “generous pastoral response” to both participate in the process and adapt to the changing legal contexts.

A0362012: The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music took three years to research existing blessing liturgies and craft one of their own. We approve its provisional use under the direction of the bishop. Many bishops take full advantage of their generous pastoral response and allow variations of same-sex marriage, depending on local laws. Changes are made to ensure there can be no discrimination based on gender identity, giving safety and acknowledgment to our existing trans members and clergy.

2015: We change the marriage canon to remove gendered language, and approve several possible liturgies for trial use (meaning one day they may be in the Book of Common Prayer). Bishops are still allowed to control the use of the liturgies within their diocese, however they must make provisions for couples wishing to get married (this language is intentionally vague to give bishops a lot of wiggle room, as we still have members who wrestle with this issue).

No matter what, there is no denying it now: we have full, wonderful, complete, gay marriage within the Episcopal Church.

It’s been a long week. It’s been a long 12 years. It’s been 40 years, or maybe 230 years. But we finally did it. We finally lived up to our motto:

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.