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Light Shining in the Dark of Terror, Advent Message 2015

General Convention 2015 - Marriage Committee

DSC_2059In June and July of 2015 I was a clergy deputy to the triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  At this Convention, we were going to be considering important resolutions related to same-sex marriage.  A special committee was formed to handle all marriage-related resolutions.  I was appointed as the chair of the Special Legislative Committee on Marriage for the House of Deputies.  My dear friend Brian Thom, Bishop of the Diocese of Idaho, was the chair of the committee for the House of Bishops.  Both Committees met together with Brian and I alternating the responsibility of chairing the meetings.

Unlike other committees, some of which had many, many resolutions to consider, we had only 10, and several of those were identical or similar.  We really had only three questions to consider: 1) should we change the church canons to allow for same-sex marriage, 2) should we adopt rites (liturgies) with gender neutral language to be used to wed same-sex couples and 3) should the Marriage Task Force continue its work.  Rather than speeding through a host of issues, we were able to spend time focusing on these three.   We knew our task was important, and potentially history making.  We also knew that there was a good chance the Supreme Court of the U.S. would announce its ruling on same-sex marriage while we were in session.

At General Convention a hearing must be held on every resolution before the committee can act on the resolution.  We held three hearings at heard moving testimony on both sides.  After the hearings, we wrestled with how to move forward.  Continuing the work of the Task Force was an easier issue.  There are so many questions still to be considered when talking about marriage and the church's role that we unanimously supported its continuation.  (For example, the report of the first task force pointed out the preponderance of couples that choose to cohabitate as a prelude to, or instead of marriage.  Consideration of that trend and the church's appropriate response was beyond the scope of the work of the first task force.)   The bigger question was about authorizing same-sex marriage.  Should we change the nature of marriage by authorizing  same-sex marriage?  If so, should such authorization be church-wide, or only for dioceses whose bishops support same-sex marriage?  If the answer to the first question is yes, how can we do it in a way that honors our constitution and canons?


That final question was tricky, and a bit technical.  (Warning: this paragraph is mostly insider baseball.)  You see, our Prayer Book is an important expression of our beliefs, and according to our constitution, it takes an affirmative vote of two successive General Conventions to change he Prayer Book.  The Prayer Book clearly states that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Our marriage canon (church law) contained gender specific (man and woman) language.  If we changed the canon to include same-sex language, would our canons then be out of sync with our Prayer Book which is authorized by the Constitution, which is a higher authority? 

We came up with two solutions that I think are pretty elegant.  I don't take credit for the wisdom of the solutions, I was just a facilitator to the process.  First, in response to the canon/constitution/Prayer Book issue, we recommended canon changes that changed the language from "man and wife" to "two persons."  This would allow for same-sex marriage rites - marriage between two persons, in a way that did not conflict with the Prayer Book rite, which was also a marriage between two persons.  The Prayer Book rite is for an different-sex couple, but that does not conflict with the language in the canon since "man and wife" are two persons.  We then offered two new gender neutral rites, one based on the traditional Prayer Book rite and one with more contemporary language and theology.  We also offered a blessing rite for diocese where same-sex marriage is not legal - the Episcopal Church includes dioceses outside the U.S.

The second elegant solution had to do with how these rites were authorized.  They were authorized for "trial use" which is technical language that puts the rites on a track to be included in a future Prayer Book revision.   Prior to this Convention, we had set a precedent with rites to bless same-sex  couples whereby a diocesan bishop could decide whether or not a blessing  rite would be used in a his or her diocese.  Bishops were used to having a level of control in their diocese when it came to same-sex rites and we did not think the House of Bishops would approve a resolution that took that control away.  So we included language that gave diocesan bishops the authority to determine how and when these new rites were to be used.  On the other side of the issue, people were concerned about the availability of those rites for same-sex couples throughout the church.  Should an Episcopalian be denied access to a rite simply because of geography?  To address this concern, we added a paragraph that stated that no one be denied access to the rites.  This creates a level of confusion that probably drives attorneys crazy but seems right at home in the world of Anglicans.  Presumably a bishop can say a rite will not be done in his or her diocese, but he or she has to come up with some kind of accommodation for same-sex couples for whom he or she has a pastoral responsibility.

In the end, we recommended three resolution to the General Convention.  One authorizing the work of the Task Force for three more years.  One changing our marriage canon to accommodate marriage between "two persons."  And one authorizing two new gender-neutral marriage rites.

Bonnie Perry & Tobias Haller after hearing the Supreme Court's decision

There were two highlights for me personally.  One happened on the morning of June 26. Our committee was meeting.  The previous evening we had a hearing with particularly moving testimony.  After debriefing the hearing, we were wrestling with how to solve a particularly thorny issue.  Tom Ely, Bishop of Vermont, had just suggested a way forward.  Most of the committee members were nodding.  It looked like we were going to find a way forward.  It was like the skies parted and light was shining in the room.  It was at that moment that there was a yelp in the gallery.  One of the observers had stood up and was very excited.  I was chairing the meeting and asked the person to speak.  She told us that the Supreme Court had just made marriage equality he law of the land.  A few members of the committee started crying tears of joy. Stan Baker, my deputy-chair, asked to be excused so he could call his husband.  I was aware that for some members of the committee this was not welcome news.   I invited a time of silent prayer and then we had a spoken prayer before adjourning the meeting for the rest of the morning.  It was clear that we would not be able to continue our work at that time.  To be working in that committee, with people I had been working with on this issue for 15 years, when we heard the news of the Supreme Court's decision is a moment I will never forget.


The second highlight was presenting our resolutions to the House of Deputies.  Because of the magnitude of our resolutions, the consideration of our resolutions was handled as a special order of business.  This allowed for a longer period of presentation and debate. I presented the resolutions, assisted by Joan Geiszler-Ludlum, an attorney, who spoke to the canon changes.  The presentations were followed by a period of Q&A when any of the approximately 800 deputies could ask me questions.  Then we had debate and voting.  It was such a gift to be able to present these history-making resolutions to the House. I knew the resolutions would likely pass and I felt it was important to honor the long journey we had been on as a church and honor people on both sides of the issue.  Both resolutions passed with huge margins.  


General Convention 2015 Report of Marriage Committee from Trinity Cathedral on Vimeo.



You can see video of the presentations and debate here.

I created a page listing the rites, resolutions and other resources here.