Delegates to the church’s 78th General Convention, which officially begins Thursday, will vote on a task force’s proposal to revise the church’s canons so that the definition of sacramental marriage would apply to all couples, both same-sex and different-sex. The convention could also choose to create another task force to study the issue for three more years and present a report to the 79th General Convention, which meets in Austin, Texas in July 2018. The choice to act or wait recalls similar scenarios at past conventions that debated contentious issues including the ordination of women (1976) and the consecration of a gay, partnered bishop (2003).
The vote on same-sex marriage will rank as one of the most momentous at a gathering where some 200 bishops and 800 lay and clerical deputies will also elect a new presiding bishop and consider whether to overhaul the church’s bicameral legislative structure. The significance of the church’s decision will be amplified by the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling, sure to come by June 30, on whether laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are constitutional.
The Court’s ruling will have no binding effect on the convention, but if the Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, look for a push from Episcopalians who share that view. They are likely to increase their calls for the church’s law and practice to reflect what is a legal reality for thousands of couples already married in places where same-sex marriage is already legal—36 states (including Utah) and the District of Columbia. If the Supreme Court rules that states can prohibit same-sex marriage, or rules that each state must decide the issue for itself, expect Episcopalians who oppose revising the marriage canons to cite the Court in their arguments. Those Episcopalians would likely, at a minimum, renew requests for the General Convention to study the issue further and examine the theological basis for moving forward.
But although the high court’s ruling may affect the climate of the debate, it is the Episcopal Church’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage that has set its terms., The group of laypeople, clergy and bishops, was mandated by the 2012 General Convention “to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage,” in the church’s first official study of the rite of marriage in light of American society’s shifting attitudes about gay unions. At that meeting, the Convention also approved a rite for blessing same-sex relationships.
The task force’s 122-page report, released in February, proposes the General Convention go beyond blessings for same-sex relationships and approve a resolution, A036, that would rewrite the marriage canon with gender-neutral language and ensure that the definition of sacramental marriage applies to all couples. The 12-member task force supported its recommendations with an analysis of canon law and seven essays that explore different facets of marriage, such as its history and its biblical and theological underpinnings.
The work of the task force “led us to the conclusion that same-sex marriage is possible for faithful Episcopalians,” said the group’s chairman, the Rev. Brian C. Taylor, a former deputy from the Diocese of Rio Grande.
The task force also proposes that the canons retain language that allows any member of the clergy to decline to solemnize any marriage, and recommends that language be “extended to include the choice to decline offering a blessing on a marriage.” Those provisions have failed to allay the concerns of those who argue that that the group’s theological analysis was insufficient, that it failed to adequately consider the viewpoints of Episcopalians who support only marriage between a man and a woman, and that it did not fully study how the Episcopal Church’s amendments to the marriage canons might affect the wider Anglican Communion.
“People who are more conservative on this issue feel a little marginalized,” said the Rev. Mike Michie, a deputy from the Diocese of Dallas. He praised the dedication of the task force, but said no one in that group “believes in a traditional view of marriage, like I do.”
Michie said he opposes changing the marriage canons “not out of homophobia” but because of his view of scripture. He fears changing the marriage canons could lead to a rift in the church similar to the one that occurred in 2003 following General Convention’s consent to the election of the Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay partnered man, as bishop of New Hampshire. Michie said he would like General Convention to “wait a little longer” on the marriage issue, “just for the sake of keeping as many people in the church who want to stay.” Michie described himself as a rector “in the reddest city in the reddest county in the reddest state in America. And I think the Episcopal Church needs a witness here. I think there is a way for us to be gracious without legislating these issues.”
For the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, the task force’s resolutions are ripe for a vote. Meyers, an alternate deputy who is academic dean and professor of liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA, was not on the task force, but has long been involved in the church’s debate over same-sex marriage, most recently as chair of the church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. That group developed the Rite for the Blessing of a Same-Sex Relationship approved by the 2012 General Convention. Meyers said the task force fully studied the theology of marriage and that other theological examinations of the issue are freely available. “It is hard for me to know what additional theological work would need to be done” to sway the opinions of Episcopalians who oppose same-sex marriage, she said.
Meyers said she considers revising the marriage canons “a matter of mission” for the Episcopal Church. Proof that the change must come, she said, is reflected in “the reality of the lives of same sex-couples who embody so many of the values in Christ-like living that I strive for in my own marriage to a man.”
Taylor agrees that the Episcopal Church need not wait to move toward marriage equality. In the history of the church, he said, an issue can arise out of “a complete movement of the spirit from the people of God.”
“If that happens, theology comes afterwards,” Taylor said. “I believe this is one of those times.
Ed Palattella, a deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, is a reporter and editor for the Erie Times-News.