Marriage study task force begins work by sharing experiences

August 4, 2013

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[Episcopal News Service] The 12 Episcopalians given the task of exploring the “biblical, theological, historical, liturgical and canonical dimensions of marriage” and marriage’s “changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures” began their first face-to-face meeting July 29 by each talking in depth about their own experiences of marriage, divorce, singleness and lifelong committed relationships.

“It was a very moving and holy time,” the Rev. Brian Taylor, chair of the A050 Task Force on the Study of Marriage, told Episcopal News Service during an interview July 31 as the gathering neared its close.

“We heard an awful lot of what makes us human, about parents and childhood, trauma and the constant presence of God and the grace of God through relationships of love and commitment,” he said. “It was a powerful to humanize our work as we went forward to begin in that place of real lived experience and reflection on that.”

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.”

“We are honored to have been appointed, enthused about doing the work and confident that, with the Spirit’s guidance, we will produce something of value for our church,” Taylor is quoted as saying in the group’s official statement to the church released on Aug. 5.

Resolution A050 tells the task force to:

  • Consult with the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to address the pastoral need for clergy to officiate at same-sex civil marriages in states where that is legal;
  • Consider “issues raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures, including legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships between two people of the same sex, in the U.S. and other countries where the Episcopal Church is located”;
  • Develop tools and norms for theological reflection at the local level; and
  • Report to the next meeting of convention in 2015.

To do this work, task force members were directed to consult with married couples, those living in lifelong committed relationships and single adults. The group also is to consult with other churches in the Anglican Communion and with the church’s ecumenical partners.

It is “an enormous task we’ve been charged with,” Taylor said, adding that the members felt “a bit overwhelmed as to the enormity of the subject.”

“At the same time, we’re all very aware of how timely this is in terms of the church taking a very serious and theological and prayerful look at marriage,” he said. “It hasn’t been done with this kind of depth in a long time, and we’re studying the archives of the Episcopal Church and we’re studying the history of marriage, and this is an opportunity try to understand what it means in today’s world.”

After much discussion and prayer during their July 29-Aug. 1 meeting, the members decided they “wanted to be able to look at what the Episcopal Church has to say to today’s world as to what makes a marriage Christian and holy,” Taylor said.

Calling that an “overarching question,” he said, the task force knows that among the primary things that will guide it in finding an answer are the principles laid out in Resolution D039, which General Convention passed in 2000.

During its meeting, Taylor said, the task force kept coming back to D039 “as the clearest statement we have from our church about values in regards to marriage and committed relationships.”

In that landmark resolution, the Episcopal Church recognized for the first time that some of its members were living in lifelong committed relationships that were not marriages in the then-conventional sense. And, it set down the church’s expectations for all such relationships.

“We expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity; monogamy; mutual affection and respect; careful, honest communication; and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God,” the resolution said.

It also:

  • “denounce[d] promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members”;
  • promised to provide to couples “the prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully” by the values the resolution set down and
  • “affirm[ed] that those on various sides of controversial issues have a place in the church, and we reaffirm the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives, while acknowledging the church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage.”

How the task force plans to work
To begin its work, the A050 Task Force for the Study of Marriage divided itself into three study groups. Those groups, and their members, are:

  • Marriage: Conversation, Consultation & Changing Norms: The Rev. Will Mebane (Ohio, chair), Bishop Thomas Ely (Vermont) and the Rev. Gail Greenwell (Kansas);
  • Marriage: Historical, Liturgical & Canonical Roots: the Rev. Susan Russell (Los Angeles, chair), Joan Geiszler-Ludlum (East Carolina) and the Rev. Sylvia Sweeney (Los Angeles); and
  • Marriage: Biblical & Theological Dimensions: Carolyn Chilton (Virginia, chair), the Rev. J. David Knight (Mississippi), the Rev. Tobias Haller, BSG (New York), the Rev. Cameron Partridge (Massachusetts) and Bishop W. Andrew Waldo (Upper South Carolina).

Taylor said that the spirit of Resolution A050 was “really consultative and conversational and to not so much to come up with answers but to raise questions with one another and to listen to one another about the subject of marriage.”

The members decided that those sorts of conversations needed to be initiated in various ways and that the fruits of those conversations needed to be made available to the church in formats beyond the group’s eventual written report to convention, Taylor said.

Among the ideas the group discussed was inviting people to submit short videos about their experiences with marriage. Taylor said the group envisioned making those videos accessible so that people could see the “variety of experiences” there are in the church.

The task force is operating on a limited budget and is trying to get “a little more funding” to have a second face-to-face meeting in the spring of 2014, Taylor said. Thus, at this point in the group’s process, members see little prospect of having a churchwide consultation on the issues or even regional ones, he added.

Instead, Taylor said, the task force hopes to develop a discussion format and train volunteers to use it during gatherings such as diocesan conventions, provincial meetings, ecumenical events and even communion meetings.

The hope is that this format and other ways to solicit comments will be ready to implement by the spring, according to Taylor. That way the group will have time to synthesize what it hears and be ready to develop its report to convention – and the theological reflection resources it asked for – by Advent 2014.

The task force members also hope to have a fair amount of the study groups’ work done by the spring, he said.

“Our hope is that whatever products come out of this – those that are asked for specifically in the resolution and any others that we may come up – will be a result of our reflection on the various things that the resolution has asked us to reflect on,” he said.

Along the way, Taylor said, “we’re going to be looking at ways to make our work and our progress on the work as transparent as possible” to the wider church. That includes regular press releases to update the church on “what we’re doing and where we’re heading and how we’re doing so far.”

The task force has not yet discussed whether it will propose any resolutions to General Convention, Taylor said.

How the task force came to be
In 2012, General Convention considered three resolutions proposing studies of marriage. Resolution A050 was one of them and came from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music as part of its 2012 report to convention on the charge it was given (via Resolution C056) by the previous convention to collect and develop theological and liturgical resources for same-sex blessings. That group’s work resulted in the 2012 convention authorizing provisional use of a rite to bless same-sex relationships.

The standing commission said that during its work it faced “repeated questions” about the nature of marriage and thus proposed the A050 study.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings appointed the 12 member task force in February. Both presiding officers noted at that time that the church’s theology and practice of marriage had changed over time, with Jefferts Schori noting that “the biblical examples” of polygamy and concubinage are not accepted in the Episcopal Church.

“We no longer expect that one partner promise to obey the other, that parents give away their children to be married or that childbearing is the chief purpose of marriage,” she added. “This task force is charged not only to take the pulse of our current theological understanding of the meaning of marriage, but to assist the faithful in conversation and discernment about marriage, in particular what the church might hold up as ‘holy example’ of the love between Christ and his church.”

During their first meeting, some task force members were tweeting using the hashtag #studymarriage.

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