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…
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.