The House of Bishops has authorized the use and study of provisional rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. By a vote of 111 in favor, 41 no, and 3 abstaining, Resolution A049 was passed by the bishops during the afternoon session of the 5th legislative day of the 77th General Convention on 9 July 2012.
The text of the resolution at this stage of the legislative process states the bishops “authorize for provisional use I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing for study and use in congregations and dioceses of The Episcopal Church.”
The language of the original resolution asked the church to “authorize for trial use” the gay-blessing liturgy. However, the committee removed the language designating the liturgy as a trial rite, renaming it a “provisional” rite. One conservative bishop told Anglican Ink that he and other like-minded bishops had lobbied the Standing Committee on Liturgy to remove the designation “trial rite” in the committee stage of the proceedings. He said he believed that calling it a “trial rite” would indicate that gay marriage rites would be “inevitable.”
The resolution was further amended by the committee to permit bishops to adapt the materials to suit local needs and introduced a conscience clause to permit clergy to decline to preside at gay blessings.
South Carolina deputy the Very Rev. David Thurlow told AI the committee had also honored conservative concerns by introducing a conscience clause. The convention honors “the theological diversity of this church in regards to matters of human sexuality, and that no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support for the 77th General Convention’s action with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships.”
Speaking after the vote, Bishop Andrew Doyle of Texas said the bishops “listened well” and “discussed thoroughly” the resolution and offered several amendments to give “assurance” to all portions of the church.
Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont, the co-chairman of the Prayer Book committee introduced the resolution and stated the committee had urged its adoption with amendments. He stated the conversations within the committee had been “rich” and while the bishops had not been “of one mind” they had “listened to each other” with “infinite respect.”
The committee had also changed the classification of the rites from “trial” to “provisional”, and hoped that over the next three years Episcopalians would engage with “Scripture and the theology of marriage.”
The bishops then spoke in “yes/no” order. Bishop Michael Vono of the Rio Grande rose in support of the resolution, urging the House to vote in favor of the resolution as it was the “Jesus thing” to do “for our time.” Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee asked for a roll call vote on the resolution. He stated he would vote “no” as he believed that same-sex blessings were incompatible with the plain meaning of Scripture.
Bishop William Persell, the retired Bishop of Chicago, voiced his support for the resolution but asked Bishop Ely why the resolution had been amended, changing the words “gender” for “sex” and “trial” for “provisional” rites?
Bishop Joe Burnett, assistant Bishop of Maryland – a member of the committee – said that the change had been made to avoid triggering procedural issues. “Trial use” was a canonical term that could lead to “Prayer Book revision,” he said. The neutral term “provisional” was used to indicate the provisional period for study and use of the rite was for the coming three years.
Article X of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church governs the voting procedures for trial liturgical rites. As of 9 July 2012, there are 306 bishops eligible to vote in the House of Bishops. Were the resolution to use the language of trial rites, it would require 154 votes to be approved. By removing this designation, it could be adopted by a simple majority of the 157 bishops present at the session.
Bishop Ely told Bishop Persell the preferred term was “same-sex” not “same-gender” blessing and the committee had made the change to conform to modern usage.
Debate on the substance of the resolution resumed when Bishop Edward S. Little of Northern Indiana rose to urge the bishops to vote no. Were the Episcopal Church to adopt the resolution it would “put it out of the Christian mainstream.”
The distinction between gay marriage and provisional same-sex blessing rites would be lost on other Christians, he argued, who would not see the distinction the bishops saw between the terms.
Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama (retired) rose and moved the amendment that “honors the diversity” of views on this issue within the church, drawing upon the language of past General Convention resolutions. “As bishops we need to embrace the diversity of church and have to embrace all of God's people.”
Bishop Ely endorsed the amendment and it passed without opposition on a voice vote. The Bishop of Southwest Virginia, Neff Powell, rose in support of the resolution, giving voice to his whole-hearted support for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Passage of trial rites would be an evangelistic tool akin to the election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson to welcome people to the church, he argued.
The Rt. Rev. Gary Lillebridge, the Bishop of West Texas, rose to speak in opposition to the resolution, but thanked the committee for its “deliberations” stating it was apparent the committee had taken the views of traditionalists “seriously” in its work.
Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia rose and proposed an amendment adding the phrase “in a same-sex relationship” to the phrase describing the purpose of the blessing. He stated his purpose in proposing the language was to confirm that the rite was not to be used for opposite-sex couples. Bishop Katharine Roskam, retired suffragan Bishop of New York, rose and endorsed the amendment, saying she believed the intent to restrict the use of the rite to same-sex couples needed be spelled out. It was adopted on a voice vote.
Bishop Daniel Martins of Springfield spoke against the resolution, stating it would violate the clear call of the instruments of the Anglican Communion not to go ahead with gay blessings. The distinction between blessings and marriage would also be lost on the media, he declared. “We can say blessings, but CNN will say marriage.”
Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts stated his state was the first in the country to authorize gay marriage. He noted the progressive stance of his diocese on gay and lesbian issues had led to “significant growth recently, in thanks to including all people.” He urged adoption of the resolution as a statement of “pastoral generosity [that] makes it possible to care for LGBT people.”
The suffragan Bishop of Texas, the Rt. Rev. Dena Harrison, told the House she would vote no as it would “affect” the church’s “relationships across the world.” The Bishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, said she would vote “yes.” Gays and lesbians “only want the church to honor their relationships,” she said.
However, Bishop S. John Howard of Florida rose to affirm Bishop Harrison’s concerns that this would “drive a wedge between us and the Anglican Communion.” He stated the provisional rites were “not necessary” as gay rites were already taking place in the church as a “pastoral response.” There was no need to formalize gay blessings, he argued.
Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania disagreed. Gay rites have been “coming for almost 40 years. We have been struggling” to bring them forward, and “unless we move forward towards inclusion, the conversation stops.”
Bishop Baxter said that “many African American pastors are upset with me” for his stance, but this liturgy “continues a conversation.”
Bishop William Love of Albany remarked that this resolution would be received with a jaundiced eye by the wider Anglican Communion. They would see the Episcopal Church giving the communion a “triple whammy: gay blessings, no Anglican Covenant” and less money for the Anglican Consultative Council. He urged his colleagues to vote no.
Bishop Stephen Miller then rose to offer an amendment, asking the verb “authorize” and the designation of the liturgy as a “rite” be removed. He asked the bishops to replace this with language that did not recommend but “commend as part of our generous pastoral response” the gay marriage liturgy.
While Bishop Love spoke in favor of the amendment, several bishops rose in opposition. The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire said it was crucial to have the verb “authorize” be used in the resolution. The verb “commend” did not provide sufficient power to allow “moderate” bishops the freedom to use the rite in their dioceses. The verb “authorize” would give them cover, he argued. The amendment failed on a voice vote.
Bishop Russel Jacobus of Fond du Lac stated he was inclined to vote no, as he believed the current language of the resolution would still permit its use for opposite-sex couples; however, the Bishop of California, Marc Andrus, said he would vote yes. The church had a high “responsibility to help couples who want to follow Jesus” be they gay or straight, he argued.
Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina argued the concept of gay marriage was theologically incoherent and urged the defeat of the resolution on doctrinal, moral and Scriptural grounds. “I do not want to lose the symbolism of the of the holy marriage feast of Christ and his bride” by wrenching marriage from its traditional moorings.
Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida stated that “people will say that Hispanics will be upset with this vote. But we have gay children, uncles and friends. Please do not generalize that Hispanics will run from the Episcopal Church” as a result of this vote, he said.
Speaking against the resolution, the Rt. Rev. W. Andrew Waldo of Upper South Carolina said he was in favor of the “full inclusion” of gays and lesbians into the life of the church, but the “theological rationale” offered for gay blessings was “weak.” “I want to vote ‘yes’ but cannot,” he said.
The resigned Bishop of Lexington, the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, disagreed with this characterization, saying over “fifty years ago the Episcopal Church” crafted a theological rationale “to allow divorced people to remarry.” The theological arguments in favor of gay blessings were as strong as those for remarriage in church after divorce. “They are the same,” he asserted.
“People will die” because of what we do today, the Rt. Rev. Gregory Brewer of Central Florida told the meeting. By endorsing gay blessings the Episcopal Church was letting down its side in the Anglican Communion and putting “our friends at risk of death” in Africa and Asia from extremists who will not distinguish between the actions of the General Convention in Indianapolis and those in a village in Nigeria. Bishop Brewer further stated that adopting gay blessings would not bring people into the church, but “drive them out” and hasten its decline.
The Assistant Bishop of North Carolina, William Gregg, said he had been inclined to vote no, as he believed the proposed liturgy was weak, but had changed his thinking, mindful that this was a work in process. He said he would vote yes, as this was an “opportunity” for the church.
Bishop Duncan Gray of Mississippi said he would not authorize the use of the provisional rite in his diocese, but conceded that it would likely pass the General Convention. “I may see through a glass darkly” on this issue, but “I ask” my colleagues not to be “triumphalistic” if it passes.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori closed debate, and the chaplain led the bishops in prayers. A roll call vote was then taken and the vote was announced by the secretary of the House of Bishops, the Rt. Rev. Ken Price.
“We act in humility,” Bishop Jefferts Schori told the house after the results were announced, and then moved the bishops to the next order of business. The resolution now goes to the House of Deputies for final action.