The Episcopal Church approves religious weddings for gay couples after controversial debate

This analysis is by George Conger, who has reported on the Anglican/Episcopal world for almost 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in England, the United States and Australia. He also serves as an Episcopal priest in a parish in Florida.

The bishops of the Episcopal Church have authorized their clergy to perform same-sex weddings, but don’t expect sweeping changes across the entire denomination anytime soon. Episcopalians voted Wednesday to allow religious weddings for gay couples, but not every priest will necessarily officiate at a same-sex wedding.

In resolutions adopted here at the denomination’s General Convention meeting in Salt Lake City this week, the bishops have endorsed new liturgies or services for same-sex couples wishing to marry in church. The bishops also approved changing the church’s canons, or rules, governing marriage, making them gender neutral by substituting the terms “man and woman” with “couple.” However, clergy were also given the right to refuse to perform a same-sex marriage, with the promise they would incur no penalty, while bishops were given the right to refuse to allow the services to take place in their diocese.

The compromise means that same-sex weddings may occur after Nov. 1, 2015, with the full blessing of the church in places like Washington, Los Angeles and New York, but likely won’t take place in more conservative parts of the church, like Dallas, Albany and Orlando.

On Tuesday, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion that includes the Episcopal Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, released a statement expressing his “deep concern” over the votes and urged the bishops to pull back, writing that the “decision will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.”

The church’s compromise has sparked the ire of Episcopalians who are both for and against same-sex marriage. Those who are more theologically liberal may try to block the bishops’ plan, insisting on the immediate introduction of same-sex marriage with no way for dioceses to opt out. On the other hand, those who are conservative are likely to reach out to overseas leaders in the wider Anglican Communion to pressure the church to stop.

The conservative minority of bishops at the meeting agreed the compromise was the best outcome they could hope to achieve, and told their liberal colleagues they were grateful for the accommodation given them.

The bishops agreed to allow clergy to begin offering same-sex marriages using the new rites after Nov. 1. However, no clergy could be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage, and a bishop had the authority to forbid his clergy from celebrating gay marriages.

The former bishop of Virginia, Peter Lee, explained to the bishops in Salt Lake City the accommodation meant that a conservative priest in a liberal diocese would incur no penalty if he refused to perform a same-sex marriage. The priest would, however, have to pass a couple seeking to be married on to another church or priest to perform the ceremony.

Priests in dioceses where the bishop forbid same-sex marriages may not solemnize gay marriages. A priest who did so would be liable for punishment for disobeying the bishop. A diocese that does not perform gay marriages must pass the couple on to another part of the church that permits gay marriage.

The path toward same-sex blessings and same-sex marriage began at the 2012 meeting of the General Convention in Indianapolis — the triennial assembly of bishops and deputies from the church’s 109 American and overseas dioceses. The church approved “provisional” same-sex blessing rites that could be used with the permission of the local bishop.

The default position of the church, however, was that marriage was an exclusive life-long covenant of one man and one woman, as described in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. The provisional rites and trial rites would expand the traditional teaching about marriage, the majority argued, without changing the church’s underlying text or doctrine of marriage.

Where do the battle lines get drawn now?

Bishop Edward S. Little II of northern Indiana opposed the change, telling the convention that the “issue is not the welcome of gays and lesbians” — all agreed they were to be welcomed, he said — but “whether we should alter the received faith of the church?”

Bishop Stephen Bauerschmidt of Tennessee told the convention that “procreation” was a central tenet of the Christian understanding of marriage. It “must have the potential to be fruitful in the procreation of a third person,” he argued.

Bishop William Love of Albany rose and addressed the convention and cited the biblical passage Matthew 19:5, where Jesus states that at marriage “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

“If our Lord is the son of God … God incarnate. He is quite aware of the nature of marriage and could have offered alternatives but did not,” Love said. The issue before the Episcopal Church was not whether “men and women can love each other.” The Episcopal Church supported the full civil rights of gays and lesbians, he said. But “God has told us that is not appropriate to use the gift of sexual intimacy” outside of the marriage of one man and one woman.

What the church should be telling partnered gay and lesbian couples is, “Do you love your partner enough not to engage in sexual intimacy? The issue before us is not about relationships but sexual intimacy,” Love said.

Other bishops disagreed, saying same-gender sexual intimacy was morally acceptable and should be blessed in faithful covenanted relationships. The former bishop of New Hampshire V. Gene Robinson — the first openly gay Episcopal bishop — expressed the sentiments of the majority when he told the convention, “I think it is time for us to do this.”

“Gays and lesbians are living out their lives in holy ways,” Robinson said. Changing the church’s rules on marriage “allows us to recognize this” and to “declare how far we have come.”

The Bishop of eastern Michigan, Todd Ousley, also disagreed with some bishops’ emphasis on “procreation” as a central aim of marriage. The theological studies on marriage undertaken over the past few years had provided a more expansive understanding of “fruitfulness” in marriage, he told the bishops. As the biological father of one and adopted father of two children, Ousley stated that he and his wife “have been fruitful” in their marriage. Procreation’s biological meaning should not drive its theological meaning, he argued.

A spokesman for the church, Bishop Rev. Pierre Whalon, downplayed the archbishop of Canterbury’s concern that the votes would cause distress for the global church body. “The change of canons does not change anything,” Whalon told The Washington Post, adding that the introduction of trial rites did not detract from the authority of the church’s official stance as stated in the Book of Common Prayer.

What the bishops did agree on was to hold conflicting stances in tension and allow each side to honor their consciences.

(This piece has been updated to clarify the Episcopal Church’s connection to the Anglican Communion.)