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.
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.
2012: 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.
I was sitting in the Legislative Committee on Marriage, microphone in hand, when we got the news. The Supreme Court had ruled 5-4 in favor of marriage equality in all 50 states. Because I was speaking at the time, I believe I may have been the last person in the room to know. There was applause and smiles. Our chaplain asked to be excused and ran out the door to call his husband. The youth in the visitor’s gallery began to cry. We had to adjourn early because the news was so important to so many members.
It may surprise people who have known me to be a straight ally my entire life that when the decision came down, I was encouraging the committee members to reach out to the opposition and get their feedback on our proposed changes to the marriage canons. This is not a contradiction for me. I was doing what I always try to do: listening to the minority.
Over the last several General Conventions, a clear and noticeable shift towards liberal and progressive values has occurred in the Episcopal Church. We were once a church of contradictions where conservatives sat next to liberals, but over time our conservative membership has dropped, and their voices are now few and far between.
As LGBT inclusion becomes the more dominant belief, we have to constantly remind ourselves that within the church we now represent a majority, not a minority. While there is still more work to do and there is still a long road ahead, we now have the pleasure of walking into this space knowing most people are like us, agree with us, and act like us. This seems to me to be the very definition of privilege.
I have something very close to the Full Privilege Package, which means I make a fool out of myself often. I forget the needs and feelings of others, I neglect to see the unintended consequences, and worst of all I assume that my experience is true of all experiences. I rely on my friends in disadvantaged positions to keep me honest and to tell me about their experiences so that I might better serve their cause of justice. I can be a wonderful straight ally, but I will never know what it really means to be gay.
In my experience, living without privilege makes it easier for you to see the suffering of others. There is something about the personal experience of being in the minority that opens you up and strengthens your empathy. My gay friends show me this. My black friends show me this. And occasionally I show it to my male friends.
The things is, you can develop and practice this empathy without holding the traditional markers of minority. We all find ourselves in the minority at one time or another. For example, I imagine that no matter what your political beliefs, there has been a time in the last 16 years when you were truly disappointed by the results of a presidential election. How did it feel to see people celebrating? How did it feel to hear voices claiming that this is right when you believed it was wrong?
There is obviously a big difference between feeling politically devastated for a month (or even a few years) and living your life as a marginalized person. But the practice of empathy is the same, and if you practice you will get better.
Today I am celebrating, as are most of my friends. I believe that what has happened is right and just, and that ultimately the political opponents of this lose nothing. Their marriages are the same as always and their churches retain the right to refuse to perform marriages that don’t fit with their theology. The government shouldn’t prevent consenting adults from entering into contracts, and now they won’t. As an American I am very proud.
As a Christian and an Episcopalian, I believe this is also what the Holy Spirit has been calling us to do in this church. That part of me is happy, because I feel like I am living into my Baptismal Covenant. But I must also keep a place in my heart for those in my church who are hurt by this, whose upbringing gave them a different view of the world and of faith. They are not just losing to the government or losing to outsiders. They are being told by their own brothers and sisters that their image of God is hateful and wrong. They are a minority in my church, and I imagine they are currently feeling the painful sting of empathetic enlightenment. They are living in a world that is made for others and not for them.
Having laws you don’t like, even church laws you don’t like, is nothing compared to being told your entire life that your very essence is sinful and wrong. But I don’t think it’s helpful to play “who has it worse” when it comes to privilege. The basis of intersectionality is the admission that no minority trumps another in terms of oppression. You can be white but also poor. You can be black but also straight. And you can be a cis-gendered white man in the Episcopal Church, and be told that what you think is terribly wrong. That you are somehow wrong. And you can hear the cheers from the next room and feel like the majority is celebrating your pain.
The charge I place on myself and give to you is this: Don’t forget what it was like to be the loser. We who have been the minority for so long are now the majority, and it is up to us to remain responsible. It is up to us to listen, because we know what it was like to not be heard. It is up to us to show compassion, because we know what it was like to receive only hate (see Exodus 22:21).
I told you that we adjourned the meeting early, however we did not adjourn immediately. First we kept a moment of silence, and we said a prayer for those on the other side. We must give them the love we wished others would have given us. Being in the minority, if only for a little while, can be terrible. But hidden in that pain is the gift of empathy. If you celebrate today, you likely have that gift. Don’t waste it.
So it starts again. Another triennium, another convention, another set of hot-button issues to discuss. If time and internet access allow I’ll do expanded posts on each of these issues before convention starts, but in case it doesn’t happen, here’s the bumper-sticker version:
This marks the end of Katharine Jefferts-Schori’s term as Presiding Bishop, and it’s time to elect someone new. The nominations committee has suggested four names (videos of the four candidates can be found here). The fact that there are no women on the list has not gotten past anyone, though the sad fact remains that there are very few women they have to choose from in the pool of qualifying bishops. The fact that three out of four are white has also escaped no one. Once again, small pool.
2) TREC Report and Restructuring
In the wake of the unanimous 2012 decision to create the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), the 2015 Convention will have to deal with the report delivered by the task force. There is no doubt that “dealing with it” will involve completely changing the proposed resolutions in big and small ways. Some of the report’s suggested changes go so far as to suggest switching to a unicameral system and changing the Presiding Bishop’s job description. Responses to the TREC report have been mixed. People have expressed both excitement and concern over specific proposed resolutions, as well as over the general feeling and tone of the work. The bottom line: Did we get what we asked for? More importantly, is what we asked for what we really needed?
3) Marriage Canons
Same-gender marriage in the Episcopal Church seems more inevitable with every convention, but that doesn’t mean the road is easy or the journey fast. There is likely to be more harsh words and hurt feelings as we discuss changing the marriage canons, which currently describe marriage as between a man and a woman. The special marriage committee has returned from their work with suggestions on how to change the canons, but no there are explicit theological statements or suggestions of universal acceptance.
What else should we expect at General Convention? There are a few contenders. I’ve heard talk of changing diocesan assessment (the amount of money each diocese is expected to pay into the larger church). There’s bound to be a few things about climate change and the middle east. A special committee was created to discuss issues around drug and alcohol abuse. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll sit around for 11 days and just talk about God. Wouldn’t that be something else.
Every time I get back from General Convention, there’s a least a few people who mention seeing the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the news. I always give the same warning: assume any article about the Episcopal Church contains at least one factual error. Most of the time it’s something seemingly small, like referring to us as “The Episcopal Church U.S.A.” or calling it our “annual” convention. While they might be big mistakes to someone like me, most non-Episcopalians could care less, and I understand that.
Perhaps it’s only that I’ve become aware of a lot more Christian and Episcopalian bloggers, but the news cycle this time around seems to be a lot more intense. Gene Robinson’s consecration got us more headlines, but for that, the headline was the story, “Episcopal Church Elects Gay Bishop.” That was it. It was a thing we did. This time however, it’s gotten rather personal.
It started with a laughable opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which many are blaming on the Journal’s recent change in ownership. Despite being in the opinion section, the piece was written like a journalistic article and often mistaken for one. And despite being written like a journalistic article, it contained almost no actual facts. A cursory view shows at least one error per paragraph, ranging from the seemingly inconsequential (gathered “from around the country” discounts all non-U.S. diocese) to the outright false (the presiding bishop carrying a metropolitan cross). I see the primary benefit in this article as being an excellent teaching tool to illustrate how personal prejudice can skew a piece of writing without being explicit. After all, the author never actually says that his real problem is with women leadership in the church, but I would be a fool to believe otherwise.
To give you an idea of what I’ve been reading, here’s a list I compiled, starting with the aforementioned muckraking:
What Ails the Episcopalians – The laughable piece of fiction from Jay Akasie, printed in the opinion section of the Wall Street Journal.
What Ails the Wall Street Journal – A dismantling of Akasie’s article, exposing the most blatant errors.
Rum, Sodomy, and the Cash: The Episcopal Church 2012 – Lest you think I’m only quoting the liberals that pulled Akasie’s article apart, here’s one from a conservative blogger.
Wrong on Every Count – A bishop’s response to Akasie, also pointing out a few of the bigger flaws.
A Strongly-worded Letter about General Convention and Love – A response to Akasie regarding tradition and the Holy Spirit.
Episcopal Church is Radically Faithful to Its Tradition Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer for TEC, writes a letter to the editor at the Wall Street Journal arguing that our liberal values represent a true commitment to Jesus.
Why Is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse? – From Belief.net, an interesting exercise in using opinion as news.
Brazen Women, Cross-Dressers, and Canine Caskets – An unpacking of the patriarchical undertones in the articles by the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net
Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? – A New York Times Op-Ed piece by Ross Douthat suggesting that liberalism is killing the TEC and other denominations like it.
Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat – Diana Butler Bass of the Huffington Post talks about the decline in church membership across all denominations, and suggests that liberal churches may not be the ones dying after all.
My Liberal Christian Church is Not Dying -A former Evangelical talks about TEC’s appeal to him and other young people in response to Douthat.
When “Liberal” Rhymes with “Theology” It’s Time for Evangelism – An argument for the theological basis of social liberal views in response to Douthat.
Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between – In response to Douthat and Bass, Rachel Held Evans talks about what it’s like to feel caught in the middle, and how embracing the middle could help both sides.
The Glorious Episcopal Church – In response to Akasie, Douthat, and Ross, we see a different interpretation of what happened at General Convention from voting secretary Rev. Winnie Varghese, who just so happens to be my second favorite General Convention celebrity (second of course to Gregory Straub).
Originally I ended this blog post with a long diatribe with my two cents about why we’re losing members and what it all means and the inevitability of death and there was even some nice imagery in there. But I think perhaps that’s a rant for another time.
Instead, with regards to the possibility that our liberal values are killing the Episcopal Church, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes. It’s from John Paul Jones, a navel officer in the American Revolutionary War:
“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
The Episcopal Church Welcomes Harm’s Way.
I’m on the committee for Liturgy and Music here at GC, which gets the first look at the resolution to approve and use the Same-Gender Blessings created over the last three years by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM). Tonight was our public hearing, which all of us on the committee were anxiously awaiting. This was our big night.
When trying to work out the guidelines for how to run the hearing (order of speakers, time limit, etc), there was a lot of speculation about what would happen. Would we have too many people? Or barely any? The Church has been talking about this for awhile now. A LONG while. Years. Some wondered if all the talking people wanted to do had already happened, especially at the last GC in 2009 when we first approved the development of these rites. In addition, I think we were all a bit wary of sitting in a room for two hours watching people yell at each other about something most people take quite personally.
So it is with great happiness that I tell you the hearing went well, the speakers were all civil, and we even ended early. Some speakers said that we’ve been talking about this for too long. Others said we’re going too fast. Neither argument is new, which is part of why to me they are both right.
Yes, this is slow. This is painstakingly and annoyingly slow. We only have convention every three years, so anything that can’t be made in eight days (such as an entire liturgy) has to be given to committee and come back three years later. Changes to big things like the constitution or canons are even worse, because they require passage at more than one convention. We have hearings and more hearings. We talk about it in the House of Bishops and in the House of Deputies. We have special consultations and our own weird network of insider blogs that I’m only just discovering myself. And for those who are waiting, it is an eternity. Imagine getting engaged, and then planning the wedding for 15 to 30 years.
But it’s slow for a reason, and in the end I think it’s a good one. The easier it is to change something, the easier it is to change back. Just think of fad diets. Sure it’s simple to drink nothing but juice for a week, but you’ll be back to french fries in even less time. It’s a lot harder to change your whole pattern of diet and exercise, but in the end the change is more likely to be permanent. This is why it takes two General Conventions to change a canon. This is why we’ve been talking about Blessings for years. We need to be sure that if we do this, it will stick.
How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
That depends, how many people are on the Change Committee?
I thought it best to give a brief overview of what are expected to be the hot button issues this year:
Denominational Health Plan
In 2009 the General Convention passed A177, which called for a Denominational Health Plan to be implemented for all clergy and lay employees working 1500 hours annually (three-quarters time). The implementation was set to be no later than the end of 2012, but many are asking for a postponement, if not an out right rejection, of A177. The basic argument: it’s too expensive, it hasn’t been thought out, it won’t work for everyone, we need more time, etc. The argument against: providing health care for all church employees is a justice issue, time won’t solve these problems, etc.
In 2009 the General Convention passed C056, which instructed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to develop liturgies for same-gender blessings. The results of their work (both the blessing services themselves as well as educational and theological resources) are being presented to this year’s GC, and the SCLM is putting them forward with two related resolutions. The first is a resolutions that would allow the blessings to be used over the next three years at the discretion of the bishops of each diocese. The second calls for the creation of a task force to “explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage.” Just tell me where to sign up, because I have never wanted to be on a committee more.
Very rarely does any governing body of any kind pass a budget without a lot of arguing first, and we intend to uphold that noble tradition. The draft budget that was released in January showed serious cuts, most notably in faith formation (youth, young adult, new comers, continuing education, etc.). While explanations have since come out that some of those cuts were clerical errors (proven by the fact that the budget doesn’t balance even though it is required to do so), the 90% cut originally proposed, mistaken or not, has gotten a lot of people worried.
Restructuring (aka Sauls’ Proposal)
Stemming from some of the same issues that have been causing budget troubles, there are several resolutions heading for General Convention calling for restructuring of the church. One of the loudest voice’s is that of Bishop Stacy Sauls, which is why the resolution he is putting forth tends to bear his name, despite his objections. However it’s not the only resolution asking for restructuring, and one of them is almost sure to find its way out of committee and onto convention floor.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what’s to come, nor is it anywhere near a full explanation on any one issue, but it is a start. More than likely each of these will have a post of their own as I encounter them in Indiana.
For now, I just need to make a packing list.