Dioceses respond to marriage equality decision by US Supreme Court

October 9, 2014

Episcopal Shield

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians in many dioceses across the church have been considering how to respond to Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court action clearing the way for same-sex marriage to start in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The court let stand appeals court rulings in three U.S. federal court districts which had overturned bans on same-sex marriage in those states. While it was predicted that access to same-sex marriage could soon be extended to six other states in those circuits, the situation is far from settled, with confusion at even the highest level.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy mistakenly blocked the start of same-sex marriage in Nevada in an order that spawned confusion among state officials and disappointment in couples hoping to be wed, the Associated Press reported Oct. 10. Due to the confusion, AP reported that 30 states, “give or take a few,” currently allow same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, the issue of how the Episcopal Church ought to respond to the changing legal map across the United States is due to be discussed at the 78th meeting of General Convention in July 2015.

The A050 Task Force on the Study of Marriage recently issued a report on its work to date, saying that it was finalizing its report to convention, including considering a response to its mandate to “address the pastoral need for priests to officiate at a civil marriage of a same-sex couple.”

The task force was formed in response to a call (via Resolution A050 (click on “current version”)) from the 77th General Convention in July 2012 for a group of “theologians, liturgists, pastors and educators to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical and canonical dimensions of marriage.

That same meeting of convention authorized provisional use of a rite to bless same-sex relationships. Use of that rite, Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing, is due to be reviewed by the General Convention in 2015.

Here is a state-by-state look at the diocesan responses thus far in the five jurisdictions immediately affected by the Supreme Court’s decision:

Indiana

In the Diocese of Indianapolis Bishop Catherine Waynick wrote to clergy on Oct. 10 saying that her previous policy of allowing priests to bless same-sex relationships would now apply in those Indiana counties that are granting marriage licenses to such couples.

She also encouraged any diocesan parish that has not yet provided a study of the issue for its members to arrange to do so during the coming year. “Whether or not there are any same gender couples in the congregation, whether or not a priest feels able to preside, same gender marriage is now a legal reality, and the Church as a whole can benefit from reflection on the meaning of marriage, how the provisional rite meets the needs of same gender couples (or not) and what is at stake when decisions about same gender celebrations are made,” she said.

Her letter to clergy is posted on the front page of the diocesan website.

Since September 2012, Waynick has allowed the blessing of same-sex relationships on a case-by-case basis, as have her predecessors over the last 20 years. She approved diocesan use of the General Convention provisional rite in 2012. Waynick also laid out conditions for its optional use in the diocese.

Information about Indianapolis’ approach to same-sex blessings is here.

When the federal appeals court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Diocese of Northern Indiana Bishop Edward Little asked clergy in that diocese to decline any requests they received to solemnize such marriages because the Book of Common Prayer defines marriage as the union of husband and wife and because “our liturgical and constitutional understanding of marriage remains unchanged,” he told Episcopal News Service via e-mail.

“The policy articulated in that letter remains in place,” he said.

Oklahoma

When the Diocese of Oklahoma went through a discernment process in 2012 and 2013 that resulted in Bishop Edward J. Konieczny authorizing use of the General Convention provisional rite in that diocese, it was agreed that if and when the law changed in Oklahoma with regard to marriage, the diocese “would once again be deliberate in our discernment of how to move forward,” Konieczny told ENS via e-mail. He reported that that conversation began Oct. 7 during the diocese’s annual clergy conference.

Information about Oklahoma’s approach is here.

Utah

Same-sex blessings have been allowed in the Diocese of Utah since Advent 2012. Details of that policy are here.

Bishop Scott Hayashi told diocesan clergy after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that he would soon issue a new policy allowing priests to solemnize same-sex marriages. In an e-mail advance of issuing that policy, Hayashi asked priests to amend the church’s provisional rite to declare couples united “in marriage according to the laws of the State of Utah.”

Meanwhile he told clergy that “because we live in a web of relationships it is very important that we proceed forward with care for all people regardless of their opinion in this matter.”

“Remember also that The Episcopal Church has not yet decided on the matter of same-sex marriage,” he added. “That will most likely happen at the 78th General Convention here in Utah. Until then, we have been given the option of the ‘generous pastoral response’.”

And, in a statement on the diocesan website, the bishop acknowledged that not all would be happy with the court’s decision. Hayashi attended the Mormon Church’s General Conference the weekend before the court’s decision and he reported that Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told the assembly that the church may come out on the losing side of the same-sex marriage debate. He advised church members to “accept unfavorable results graciously, and practice civility with our adversaries.”

Hayashi said he plans to exercise Oaks’ advice and will “practice not only civility but also compassion.”

Virginia

Shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Bishop Shannon Johnston issued guidelines saying priests in the diocese may officiate at the civil marriage of a same sex couple as a “generous pastoral response” to lesbian and gay couples seeking to be married, and may bless their civil marriage.

Johnston said priests should use the General Convention rite and, at the pronouncement, should add the words “according to the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia” where appropriate.

He expressly said that the Book of Common Prayer’s Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage rite may not be used because the church has not yet changed its canonical definition of marriage of that between a man and a woman.

Diocese of Southwestern Virginia Bishop Mark A. Bourlakas told Episcopal News Service Oct. 10 in a telephone interview that “it’s a priority for me that our three dioceses are on the same page [on policies towards same-sex marriage] and therefore our policy will look almost identical in every substantive way” as Virginia’s.

The policy has not yet been formally adopted but Bourlakas said he thinks Virginia has taken a “measured approach and not inconsistent with where we’ve already been” on the issue.

For Bourlakas the wider c0ncern prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision is that the Episcopal Church is still talking about how to respond and that the conversation must continue within the church.

“My hope is that parishes and clergy will have conversations about their common life and seek understanding; that is what I want to promote in this diocese,” he said. “One of my really strong messages, coming out of our Baptismal Covenant to respect the dignity of every human being, is that we begin by listening and trying to seek understanding, and we don’t begin with our prejudices. And that can lead us in a variety of directions but oftentimes I think in these discussions we start with people already in their corners.”

Clergy in the diocese have been able to bless same-sex couples, using the convention provisional rite, since  Bourlakas’ consecration in July 2013.

His policy on same-sex blessings is here.

In the Diocese of Southern Virginia, Bishop Herman Hollerith is on sabbatical until November and was not available to comment on the impact of the court’s decision on policies in that diocese. However, Bourlakas said Oct. 10 that Hollerith told him that day that Southern Virginia’s policy will be similar to those of Virginia and Southwestern Virginia for consistency’s sake as the Episcopal Church continues its conversation about same-sex marriage as it approaches the 2015 meeting of General Convention.

Hollerith authorized the use of the General Convention blessing rite as of January 2013. The details of that policy and related resources are here.

Wisconsin

Diocese of Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller told his clergy on Oct. 8 that the Episcopal Church is “still involved in a discussion relative to the theology of marriage” and that the Supreme Court’s decision did not change either the church’s canons or rubrics on marriage. The provisional rite approved by the General Convention in 2012 is not a marriage liturgy, he noted, “therefore it is inappropriate for clergy of this Church to act as agents of the State and sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples.”

Miller had announced in late August that he would allow clergy to bless same-sex couples who had been married civilly. Priests must use a modified rite that Miller has authorized. His response came after the diocesan Standing Committee sent him a report recommending that he allow clergy the option to bless same-sex relationships.

The bishop, who signed an amicus brief that supported overturning Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage, objected to the convention’s rite because he said it creates a “second class of citizens in the church” who cannot marry, creates injustice for those who “would suffer dire economic consequences” if they married, obscures the church’s teaching that the place for sexual intimacy is marriage and assumes that previous convention action has all been on one side of the issue.

Miller’s policy on same-sex blessings is here.

Diocese of Eau Claire Bishop William Lambert and Diocese of Fond du Lac Bishop Matt Gunter did not respond to ENS’ request for information about their positions.

Same-sex blessings have not been officially allowed in Fond du Lac. As a nominee for bishop, Gunter said in reply to a question from the bishop search committee earlier this year that the church “must decide for itself what is faithful” regardless of the law in the state but that if same-sex marriage did become legal in Wisconsin, “there will be new urgency for the diocese to deal with its divisions” on the issue.

To meet that urgency, he said, “I would lead the diocese through open conversation along with biblical and theological reflection on the issue itself.”

“And then, assuming division remains, what does it look like to live together in spite of those divisions and what decisions can be made by the diocese such that its faith and discipline are clear even while acknowledging a faithful ‘minority report’?

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.