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.

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14 thoughts on “Six Myths About Gay Marriage in the Episcopal Church

    Rich Cronin said:
    July 11, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    No response required, I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the wonderful work you have done and your work to include us LGBT folk under the umbrella of Christ’s love in my wonderful Episcopal Church. Thank you again.

    Anna Marion Howell said:
    July 12, 2015 at 5:38 am

    This is really helpful. Thanks.

    Katrina Soto said:
    July 12, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Thanks. That was clear and certainly makes it easy for us to explain it to other people. Especially the part about priests being “forced” to marry couples.

    Daniel Pawa said:
    July 12, 2015 at 9:13 am

    The Book of Common Prayer was written with scriptures from the Holy Bible. Changing the BCP will suggest that scriptures from the Holy Bible on marriage -“a man will leave his parents and clings to his wife and the two shall be one”- will not be used at wedding ceremonies. I am opposed to changing the BCP, because it will silence the bible written by Inspired men. If churches want to marry gay couples, let the Episcopal Church draft a separate prayers book for the marriage of same sex couples and don’t change the original BCP.

      Katrina responded:
      July 12, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      The current prayer book marriage rite, the one that quotes that particular scripture, still exists and will continue to exist. What we are doing is essentially what you suggest, which is creating separate liturgies for same-sex couples to use. However rather than put them in a separate book, were suggesting they be added to the existing book, which gives all couples more than one option for their marriage liturgy (this isn’t unheard of, since we already have more than one service for Eucharist). Also as a point of clarification, the new liturgies still use scriptures from the Bible as the basis for the ceremony, they just don’t use all the same passages. The Bible talks about love and relationship many times, and I don’t believe any one passage to be greater than the others.

    mobr59noW13 said:
    July 12, 2015 at 11:11 am

    How can you say the prayer book has only been changed TWICE? I have an 1869 edition; a 1928 edition; and a 1979 edition. Weren’t there prayer books BEFORE 1869? Thanks for correction or clarification!

      Katrina responded:
      July 12, 2015 at 6:06 pm

      I should have clarified the difference between changing the BCP and major revision. My research and understanding points to two major revisions: 1928 and 1979. Previous to this, the small and occasional changes made by general convention did not result in wide republishing, and the overall book remained mostly the same as the original from 1790 (original to the Episcopal Church, that is, since the Church of England has had a prayer book for many centuries). I found some evidence to suggest the 1892 book was a more significant revision, but not enough for it to be generally regarded as a different book in the way the 1928 is different from the 1979. I’ve updated the article to reflect this distinction. Let me know if you have any sources that point to additional major revisions.

    bottleofink said:
    July 12, 2015 at 11:26 am

    I’m unclear as to why our sacramental marriage rite *has* to be tied to a legal civil marriage or else we just call it a blessing – to me they are (and should be!) distinct things. Why does it have to be a “blessing” instead of a marriage ceremony without the legal side of it? We don’t recognize and bless marriages just because a state does.

      Katrina responded:
      July 12, 2015 at 6:22 pm

      There’s been plenty of talk about separating the church and state when it comes to marriage – both in the Episcopal Church and in state governments. At least one priest I worked with at general convention stopped signing marriage certificates years ago, telling couples he’s happy to perform the liturgy but they should go to the courthouse to deal with their license. He does this so he can talk more directly with the couple about the difference between what the church believes they are doing and what the state declares. It’s an interesting theological position, and one that bears further discussion. In this case however, it felt much more like a matter of equality. Straight people were getting something gay people could not. If we had taken this opportunity to separate the legal and spiritual aspects completely, I think many would have felt that we were trying to avoid the equality issue.

        bottleofink said:
        July 12, 2015 at 7:28 pm

        I guess I can see that. However, in places where SSM is not yet legal, marrying despite not having the legal side of it during it carries a stronger stance than just saying “we’ll only bless these unions until our government recognizes it as a marriage, *then* we can *properly* marry you.” Not that I particularly think many outside of the US are going to do that, but before the SCOTUS decision came about it was something that crossed my mind a lot.

        I’m more than happy we got a gender neutral BCP marriage rite though—I really didn’t care for WBLC.
        I hope now that this has happened we can move towards separating the Church’s definition of marriage from any government’s though. I think it will make our theology of marriage, and our witness to it, stronger.

    chuckdrum said:
    July 12, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks, Katrina. I find this post and the comments discussion very helpful and will share your post with our Vestry (as I have done with other informative and literary gems of yours).

    The Rev. Samuel O. Hosler said:
    July 13, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Katrina, thank you for this.

    Thomas Hofer said:
    July 14, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    The fact remains that God taught us by example on that. He created female and male. When Jesus came to earth, He did so by being born into a father-mother team, and that is how He grew up. And as He performed the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, He did so to a man and a woman being married.

    Matt poling said:
    July 14, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Reading the post and the comments, things certainly can get complicated. Especially when you’re trying to continue playing the game while disregarding the rulebook. It may look like the same sport for a while, but will eventually disintegrate into a chaotic and purposeless melee.

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