On Tuesday, the Episcopal Church voted on and approved an official liturgy for same-sex unions. This official blessing of a “Lifelong Covenant”, called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” allows priests, who receive approval from the bishop, to bless a gay couple’s union, whether or not they live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages.
The liturgy, according to the New York Times, is as follows:
Dear friends in Christ,
we have gathered together today
to witness [name] and [name] publicly committing themselves to one another
and, in the name of the Church, to bless their union:
a relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love,
forsaking all others,
holding one another in tenderness and respect,
in strength and bravery,
as long as they live.
Therefore, in the name of Christ, let us pray
that they may be strengthened for the promises they make this day,
and that we will have the generosity
to support them in what they undertake
and the wisdom to see God at work in their life together.
The vote on Resolution A049 took place during the triennial General Convention in Indianapolis and approved 171 to 50, by laity and clergy. The House of Bishops then voted and approved the liturgy 111 to 41, with 3 abstentions. According to the New York Times, this vote shows the church’s move further to the left concerning “sexual minorities”.
“This is significant because it’s saying, ‘This is around to stay — this is not a passing fad,’ ” said Mary A. Tolbert, founding director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, Calif. “It’s making a statement about the continued presence of gay and lesbian people among the congregations of the Episcopal Church, and that their lives need to be marked by liturgy as well.”
However, this resolution also allows bishops, who do not approve of same-sex marriages, to prohibit priests under them from using the liturgy. In addition, the resolution does not consider the liturgy a “marriage rite” either, but it does include many of the elements of a marriage rite.
“There are a lot of similarities,” [Rev. Ruth Meyers] said in an interview. “The couple give their consent to being joined in lifelong commitment, they exchange vows. There’s the possibility of exchanging rings, or, for couples who have been together for some time and already have rings, to have their rings blessed. There is a blessing over the couple.
“But we’re clear at this point that this is not a marriage,” she said, “because the Episcopal Church is not in agreement in its understanding of marriage.”
Opponents fear that the Christian and Secular communities will view the liturgy as a marriage ceremony.
Bishop Edward S. Little, who leads the Diocese of Northern Indiana, said in an interview, “The claim is that this is simply a blessing, but I do believe in any event it’s going to be understood in the wider Christian community as marriage, and in the secular world as the church having authorized same-sex marriage.”
Bishop Little will not allow priest in his diocese to use the blessing and he will talk to them personally, especially those priests who desire such liturgy.
However, Bishop Little does not foresee any serious problems with this resolution, but added, “My instinct is there will be some departures, but probably not massive.”
Nancy Davidge, Media Affairs Representative, explained the difference between a blessing and a marriage ceremony, by stating, “We have authorized a blessing, and a blessing is different than a marriage. A blessing is a theological response to a monogamous, committed relationship.”
Additionally, marriage involves civil authority, whereas a blessing does not. This difference gets around the many states that do not recognize same-sex marriages, as well as the legalities in states in which same-sex marriage is not legal.
The liturgy will run for a three-year trial and then the Church will review it again at the annual convention in Salt Lake City. At that time, church leaders will decide to make it permanent or not.
Advocates stated this policy is a step toward inclusiveness, but opponents say it creates a new theology.
Delegate Pete Ross of Michigan said it was time for the church to honor lifelong commitments of people in same-sex relationships.
"The signs outside our church says all are welcome. Do we need an asterisk?"
But the Rev. David Thurlow of South Carolina said the policy advocates a "new theology" of human sexuality that is inconsistent with church canons and doctrine.
The approval means the church is "marching off, not simply out of step, but completely out of line from the faith once delivered to the saints," Thurlow said before the vote.
The United Methodist Church and Presbyterian churches decided to uphold the traditional “one man and one woman” definition of marriage. However, the United Church of Christ endorsed same-sex marriages and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America will allow its members to recognize same-sex relationships, but will not create a “same-sex blessing”.
“The Christian world is going to understand us as having changed the nature of the sacrament of holy matrimony," the news service quoted Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana as saying. "The Christian world will look at that liturgy world and see vows, and exchange of rings, a pronouncement and a blessing and they will understand that to mean the Episcopal Church has endorsed same-sex marriage and changed a basic Christian doctrine. I do not believe that we are free to do that.”
Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth University religion professor and an Episcopal priest who supports the change, said he expects little fallout from the policy within the American church. Most of the most conservative Episcopalians who oppose blessing same-sex relationships have probably already left the church, he said.
"In many ways, the church is tracking public sentiment," which is increasingly supportive of same-sex relationships, Balmer said ahead of Tuesday's vote. "The Episcopal Church is merely part of that trend."
He said it's also unlikely to increase tensions with conservative elements of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a member.
"I really don't think it will have a major effect. The real divisions already occurred over Gene Robinson's consecration in 2003," he said.
But some conservatives within the communion might try to use the decision to further marginalize the U.S. church, Balmer said.
According to the Episcopal News Service (ENS), Meyers stated that Resolution A049 is a liturgical service, which blesses same-sex couples “who are in lifelong, faithful monogamous, committed relationships” and “with that service comes a whole package of resources.” ENS said the package is stated on page 184 of the Blue Book with a slight revision from the original.
The resources include a theological essay, guidance on canon law, materials to prepare couples for a blessing service and teaching materials inviting all in the church “into some conversation and theological reflection, whether or not they expect their congregations will at any time be prepared to host such services of blessing,” she said.
Before the vote, there was debate about the resolution with the Rev. David Thurlow, a member of the Liturgical and Church Music Committee, as well as deputy of the South Carolina Diocese, saying, “For 2,000 years, the church has had clear teaching regarding marriage. We haven’t taken heed of the universal voice of the church universal or the Anglican Communion.” He then added, “This resolution marks a clear and significant departure, theological, doctrinal and in worship, from the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them. It introduces a “new theology of human sexuality.”
Young deputies also recounted their stories before the vote.
Newark Deputy Caroline Christie, 18, recalled wondering as a child why her two aunts couldn’t marry. “There was no difference in their relationship except that they were both women. As I grew, I began to realize it was an issue of discrimination. … Same-sex couples should be able to be blessed by the church.”
Deputy Ian Hallas, 22, of Chicago, likewise spoke about family: his sister and her civil union.
“The love that she shares with her partner is unconditional and speaks to the ideal relationships all of us should strive to have,” he said.
“I often get asked by churchgoers and non-churchgoers why I am a part of this body,” he said. “The reason I return is for my sister. I seek to assure that she not only has the same rites as myself but also the same privileges.”
Before the vote, Bishop John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee urged bishops to defeat the resolution, stating, “It is reasonable to believe that vowed fidelity that is exclusive and lifelong to one other person is predicated on sexual difference. This liturgy that is proposed does not have the basis in scripture, tradition, or reason for us to authorize its use.”
But Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania called the bishops to “theological, pastoral and canonical inclusion” and to keep going a conversation that has been more than 40 years in the making.
The pastoral character of the liturgy allows us “to respect the differences we have in our diocese and continue the conversation and to be strong in our mission and witness to accept that there are many religions and political neighbors who strongly disagree and in my case many, many African American pastors are upset with me (about this issue) but I really believe this is God’s call to us to continue the conversation as we go forward.”
Tense debate continued, with Bishop Gene Robinson prevailing on the house earlier in the day with “a point of personal privilege” and saying “that nine years ago to the day, and again today, false allegations had circulated about him. Nine years ago the allegations surfaced before his confirmation hearings. On July 8, he received information about other mischaracterizations, one day after the bishops spent extended time in private conversations about reconciliation.”
He continued his speech:
“Last night I received an e-mail from (Bishop) John Howe (of the Diocese of Central Florida) saying that he had been contacted by two bishops of this house, saying that I had said on the floor of this house that I had no intention of reading the communication from the nine bishops that we have been discussing,” he said.
“It was either a lie on those two bishops’ part – the purpose of which I cannot imagine, and I cannot understand how that builds up the body of Christ – or it was something that I said that was misconstrued, and I want to be very clear that I have read every word communicated to us since arriving here at convention and I took it seriously and it helped me understand where those bishops were coming from,” Robinson told the house.
He also received an email from someone claiming to be a correspondent for VirtueOnline, asking for a comment about “relationship problems” between him and his partner Mark.
After bearing for nine years “a level of scrutiny the likes of which I believe most of you can only imagine,” he told the bishops “there is a limit to what one person can bear. And to think that while we were discussing reconciliation yesterday, two of you were emailing Bishop Howe to mischaracterize or lie about what I had or had not said on this floor wounds me deeply. I believe that I have treated every one of you and maybe even especially those of you who have disagreed with me with nothing but honor and respect and I have listened to you every time you have wanted to speak to me. And most of you have listened when I have spoken to you.”
With only three and a half more days as an active bishop in the house and less than six months as an active bishop of the church, he said, “can you cut me a little slack, please?”
“I know I’m tired; it’s been a long nine years and it’s been a long and taxing Convention. I may be out of place here, but I am telling you I’ve had just about all I can take,” he said.
The email Bishop Robinson mention, Virtue Online stated that they sent him a carefully worded email which asked him, “The word on the ground at General Convention, and now making the rounds on the Internet, is that you and Mark Andrews are apparently parting ways. I realize this is a delicate issue, but a valid one, due to your high visibility as a bishop in The Episcopal Church . . . So there, in all humility I ask, Bishop Robinson, are you and Mr. Andrew experiencing relational problems? Have you separated? And are you discussing divorce? There are rumors out there, I would like to try and set the record straight.” The author of the article then continued with dissatisfaction with Bishop Robinson’s response, assumptions about his marriage, and mentioned that he received a standing ovation for his speech. Virtue Online also recorded Bishop Robinson’s heart-wrenching five minute speech.
Bishop Robinson's speech (opens new window leading to recorded speech on this site)
Virtue Online published an article about Bishop Robinson, stating that he is “reaping what he’s sown”, quoting scripture, parts of his speech, and asking him, “So how about it, Gene? Why did you not turn your same sex attractions as a sign of your weakness over to God that the power of Christ may rest upon YOU?” The article continues to ask similar questions and accusing him of becoming an enemy of the Gospel.
The tragic truth is that you have become an enemy of the gospel. You have turned the truth of the gospel into a lie and souls are being lost. Episcopalians are being swept into a Christless eternity because of what you are pushing and pandering. One day you will have to be held accountable for that loss. May God help you.
Virtue Online also accused the Episcopal Church of affirming gay and lesbian lifestyles “based on spurious biblical interpretations of certain NT texts that suggest if Jews and Gentiles in the Early Church could worship together then so can heterosexuals and homosexuals behavior notwithstanding.”
Twelve bishops submitted dissent, with seven reasons as to why, after the vote passed and asked all bishops who support them to join them in dissent.
On a lighter note, Presiding Bishop Schori stated that the Onion presented her in an article, called “The General Convent”, reciting a collect with the substation of the word “earth” with “world”.