Deputies debate marriage canons

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In the fourth of a series of viewpoint essays, Alternate Deputy Susan Russell of Los Angeles and Deputy Bruce Robison of Pittsburgh debate A036, a resolution to change the marriage canons.

Susan Russell

The charge given the A050 Task Force on the Study of Marriage by the 77th General Convention was – to say the least – broad. We were called “to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage;” to “address the pastoral need for priests to officiate at a civil marriage of a same-sex couple in states that authorize such;” to consult widely – including with ecumenical and Anglican partners; to consider the impact of changing societal norms, to develop tools for theological reflection and – finally – to report back to the 78th General Convention.

Our report includes seven essays covering the various aspects of our charge and two resolutions – one (A036) calling for an amendment to Canon I.18 on Marriage. I think it is critical to note that the proposed changes are the result of over two years of study, reflection, prayer and consultation by a task force made up of deeply faithful Episcopalians deeply aware of both the privilege and the challenge of being called into this work on behalf of the church.

I also think it is important to know that it was not a foregone conclusion that the task force would propose this or any other resolution. Rather, it emerged organically from our work as the “therefore” of our study, reflection, prayer and consultation. And so we arrived – somewhat to our surprise –at the point of unanimous consensus about the following proposed changes.

The canonical change proposed by Resolution A036 streamlines and reorders the basic canonical requirements focusing on the commitments actually made by the particular couple who come to be married.  It recognizes that there are some jurisdictions (for example, parts of Europe) where clergy do not solemnize marriage; it makes explicit provision for the blessing of civil marriage (which appears in the Book of Common Prayer but has no canonical reference at present). It recognizes that there are (or may be) other marriage rites authorized by this church, and it amends the canons to be equally applicable to same and opposite sex couples. Finally, it retains the discretion of clergy to decline to solemnize any given marriage – extending it to include the choice to decline offering a blessing on a marriage.

While the charge of the task force and the resulting report was to widely study the issue of marriage, the focus of the response to our report has predictably narrowed in on the implications for marriage between same-sex couples. Arguments against canonical changes start with “we need more time” and go all the way to “abandoning the faith received from the Fathers.” It will be the task of the Committee #20 to sort through those arguments and discern what to send out to the House of Bishops and Deputies for their consideration. I am not going to attempt to debunk arguments against canonical change but here is my argument for it.

We have been on a forty year journey in the Episcopal Church working to turn the “full and equal claim” promised to LGBT Episcopalians in 1976 from a resolution to a reality. Over those years we have worked, prayed, and struggled to become a more expansive and inclusive church opening doors and breaking down barriers for the LGBT baptized. It is time to “let our yes be yes” (Matthew 5:37) and change the canons to end what is defacto sacramental apartheid for same-sex couples seeking marriage in the Episcopal Church.

As we gather for this 78th General Convention, I hear the voice of the colleague from across the pond – a priest from the United Kingdom who joined us for the marriage consultation in Kansas City last summer.  He said he hoped we would learn from the mistakes the Church of England made on the ordination of women because … in his words … “in order to win the peace you have to be willing to end the war.”

I believe we as a church are ready to end the war so together we can win the peace. Together we can end the argument about whether we’re willing to fully include everyone who comes seeking God’s love and blessing, and we can focus our energies on drawing people to the Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Susan Russell, former president of Integrity, is an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Los Angeles. 

Bruce Robison

The Task Force on the Study of Marriage was commissioned by the 77th General Convention to respond to changing patterns of civil law and social norms concerning marriage, family, and sexual conduct.  Our church rightly seeks now to speak a gracious pastoral word, especially to those who have experienced hurt and exclusion.

The task force presents to the 78th General Convention a proposal to amend—to re-write–Canon I.18, “Of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony,” principally to provide a canonical basis for the marriage of same-sex couples in the church.   Should that come to the House of Deputies, my vote will be in the negative.  This isn’t, I believe, the right way forward.

Partly I have a concern for what some have called “good order.”  The end of our discernment will not be right if our process isn’t.  Ordained ministers of our church make a solemn commitment to “conform” (bishops) and “be loyal” (deacons and priests) “to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them.”  In “good order” our canons should shape our practices in accord with these vows.  The proposed canon turns in the opposite direction.

Canon IV.2 states that the Doctrine of our church is to be found in “. . . Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal, and the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.”  Where to go to when someone asks, “What does our Church teach about marriage?”

Our Catechism states (BCP 861) that “Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage, in which the woman and man enter into a life-long union, make their vows before God and the Church, and receive the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows.”  The rubrics for “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” (BCP 422) say that “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God.”  In the Marriage Office the minister states (BCP 423) that the purpose of the service is, “in the presence of God, to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony.”  The minister reminds the assembly that Christian marriage is not simply a state of life created by the couple themselves or by the laws of the civil authority or by the customs of society, but rather that it is of divine origin—that “the bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation . . . .”   The minister will say of marriage—continuing that allusion to passages like Mark 10 and Matthew 19—that “Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people,” and that therefore it “is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”

It is, today, the teaching of our church that Christian marriage is a state of life witnessed by the church but instituted by God in which a man and a woman are united by God and receive God’s blessing.  The canons should not create pathways to practice ministry in a manner contrary to the plain meaning of our formularies.  So, for me, no.

But my concerns go beyond this question of “good order.”  It’s not simply to say, “change the Prayer Book first, then change the canons.”  I believe the task force, in what seems to be a spirit of urgency, assumes understandings that are in reality far from settled.  There seems to be little room in this report for, little record of engagement with, those who continue to hold that the present teachings of our church about marriage are well-founded in Scripture, well-aligned with the deep traditions of Christian and Anglican thought—and so are the right things for the church to continue to teach.

What I pray for is that we would in God’s good time find a common ground where our “gracious pastoral word” may be spoken in a way that will be fully congruent with the Church’s historic witness and Biblical teaching.   If we haven’t yet figured out how—and I don’t think we have—that doesn’t mean we should just give up and rush to the nearest exit, trampling over one another on the way.  We would do better to step back from urgency and settle in charitably with one another and with our present contradictions for a longer season.

The Rev. Bruce Robison is a deputy from the Diocese of Pittsburgh.