House of Bishops passes key marriage resolutions

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file000327621397The House of Bishops on Monday approved two liturgies for trial use that will permit same-sex couples to be married in the Episcopal Church, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent of this year. Their action came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples can now be married in all 50 states.

The two liturgies, which were in Resolution A054, include a gender-neutral version of the current marriage service in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, as well as a version of a liturgy that was approved in 2012 for blessing same-sex unions that now also provides vows of marriage. These rites do not refer to “man and woman” or “husband and wife,” but instead use “these persons” or “the couple” to refer to the two people being married.

The 2012 rite, known as “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” was amended to include improvements identified since it was permitted three years ago, and then was approved by the bishops.

The language of the existing marriage liturgy in the Prayer Book remains unchanged.

The two trial liturgies were adopted in accordance with Article X of the church’s Constitution, as well as Canon II.3.6, which begins the process of amending the Book of Common Prayer. That action requires action by two successive General Conventions.

The resolution places the trial rites “under the direction and with the permission of the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority or where appropriate, ecclesiastical supervision.” It adds that all bishops will “make provisions for all couples desiring to be married in this church to have access to these liturgies.”

Bishop Dorsey McConnell of Pittsburgh said that in spite of his “significant theological reservations” about the trial rites, he was in support of making them available. “We have to have this conversation,” he said. “I dispute that we have been talking about this for 40 years. Most of that wasn’t talking; it was a pitched battle. Now we maybe are actually able to talk and listen to each other.”

The bishops also adopted Resolution A036, which makes changes to the marriage canons to permit clergy to use either the current Prayer Book marriage rite or one of the trial use liturgies when performing marriages.

After a moment of prayer, the resolution passed on a roll-call vote, with 129 in favor, 26 opposed and five abstaining.

The resolution also redefines the declaration of intent that couples must sign before being married in the church, to make the language align more closely with the vows the couple makes. The committee had heard testimony that the current declaration asks non-believers who are marrying a church member to declare they believe things about marriage that they do not believe. The revised declaration asks them to state that they understand the church’s teachings about marriage.

The The resolution also retains what is often called the discretion clause, which permits clergy to decline to solemnize or bless any marriage. A version of that clause has been a longstanding provision of the canons.

It also recognizes that there are some jurisdictions, including parts of Europe and dioceses in Latin America and the Caribbean, where clergy do not solemnize marriage. The resolution also makes explicit a provision for the blessing of civil marriage, which appears in the Book of Common Prayer but currently has no reference in church canons.

Bishop Gene Robinson, retired bishop of New Hampshire, who was the first openly gay bishop living with a partner to be ordained by the church, said during debate, “I think it is time for us to do this.” He disagreed with Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana that the church’s love and respect for gay and lesbian people was made clear in the Rite of Baptism. “We wouldn’t have been clawing our way into this church if that was true,” he said.