Resolution to allow 'generous discretion' for same-sex blessings draws passionate debate

July 8, 2009

"Marriage equality is a reality coming soon to a state near you," Bishop Gene Robinson told an overflow crowd at a July 8 hearing. He was speaking to a proposed resolution that calls for wider-than-usual latitude for bishops to allow blessings of gay and lesbian couples in states in which same-sex marriage or civil unions are legal. The text of Resolution B012, "Pastoral Generosity in Blessing Civil Marriage," calls for "generous discretion [to be] extended to clergy in the exercise of their pastoral ministry in order to permit the adaptation of the Pastoral Offices" for marriage. It also provides for the affected dioceses to report annually to the House of Bishops and to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Church Music for help in developing a service of blessing for same-sex marriage if such a rite should be approved by future meetings of General Convention. Some 30 speakers -- gay, lesbian and straight, bishops and clergy and laypersons, old couples who had been together for decades and young people who couldn't see what the fuss is about -- lined up on July 8 to support the resolution, which was under consideration by the joint committee on Social and Urban Affairs, co-chaired by Bishop Bavi Edna (Nedi) Rivera of Olympia and deputy Diane Pollard of New York. But the chorus of approval was finally brought up short by equally passionate remarks by those who struggle with passages in Scripture that oppose homosexuality. Bishop of Maine Steven Lane, who proposed the resolution, explained to the committee and the overflow audience that the situation of same-sex marriage is a reality in the six states that now recognize such unions legally: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. "We have faithful couples coming for the church's blessing on their legal marriages," he said, adding that refusing such blessings creates a difficult pastoral situation for clergy in those states. The resolution, Lane said, would provide a period of exploration for the entire church and allow the use "of resources available to us from our own [liturgical] tradition. We do not want clergy inventing rites on their own." It would also provide, he added, for transparency and accountability, and give bishops the opportunity to offer an increased level of pastoral care to their clergy and, in turn, to their dioceses. "It is, in a way, an end to 'don't ask, don't tell,'" he said. He emphasized that the resolution is not an "end run" around the procedures of the church, but an opportunity to offer pastoral care and to gather information.Those who spoke in favor of the resolution referred frequently to issues of justice and pastoral care. Deputy Samuel Gould of Massachusetts noted that he was attending college in California during the fall 2008 election, when Proposition 8, defining marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman, was hotly contested. At his college, he said, most students were opposed to the resolution, and favored marriage rights for gays and lesbians. When the resolution was passed by a slim majority vote, he said, "It was really hard for me to believe what a bubble I'd been living in." However, he said, the support on campus for gay rights gave him hope. "Young people are the church of tomorrow," he said, "and I think the church of tomorrow is here today." Gerald Greer of San Diego, a partnered gay man, urged adoption of the resolution. "It seems to me it's just a matter of simple justice," he said. "Equal access for all children of God. It seems so simple." He acknowledged the opposition of other churches in the Anglican Communion, but added, "I don't think that should trump justice." Referring to controversy over the decision to ordain women in 1976, the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, said that gays and lesbians stand in the same situation today -- no longer theoretical, she said, but ontological. "All we ask is to be able to offer the same pastoral care to all," she said. Bishop Tom Ely of Vermont said that he has put in place policies to support his clergy and provide accountability as they offer blessings of same-sex unions. "We have experience to offer the church," he said, urging passage of the resolution. Two members of the official youth presence -- Lucky Middaugh of Western Michigan and Elizabeth Anderson of Michigan, both representing Province V, spoke in favor of the measure. Middaugh said that the biblical prophets didn't understand homosexuality. "I do not believe God addressed this issue," he said. Anderson said it was "critical" to develop same-sex rites as a matter of justice. Several speakers fought tears as they described their own or their friends' frustration at being forbidden to seek marriage in their own churches. Janie Donohue, clergy deputy from Connecticut, pointed out that people who leave the Episcopal Church because it accepts homosexuals generally remain as Christians. But gays and lesbians who have given up on religion because churches will not accept them just leave, she said -- and don't come back. "We gay people are getting married," said Jay Kloecker of Missouri. "The Episcopal Church needs to minister to us." The church, he said, is behind the times and has only a brief time to act. "I am married legally to a consecrated bishop of the church," said Felipe Sanchez Luis Charles, referring to retired Bishop Otis Charles of Utah, who also addressed the hearing. "I find it inconceivable that I can be married to Otis legally and civilly and not be blessed by our church. It is a dichotomy, an inconsistency, an anomaly that we can no longer allow." When the line of speakers ended, several members of the committee rose to remind other members and the hearing audience that many people struggle with or reject outright the concept of homosexuality as an appropriate expression of human love. The Rev. Robert Hennagen of Southwest Florida said that he was personally unsure about the issue. "I want to say some things that [other people] would like to have said." He passed quickly over the biblical injunctions against homosexuality, saying they were well known, but pointed out that just because something is legal doesn't mean that it is always right, and that the Episcopal Church has never officially said anything about whether a same-sex union is an appropriate model of Christian marriage. Another deputy on the committee, Sue Carmichael of Florida spoke tearfully of her own conflicts on the subject. "Gays and lesbians are not the only ones who have suffered from this issue," she said, saying that she and her diocese have wrestled with the topic of homosexuality. If it were a matter of simple justice, she said, it would be "a no-brainer," but "I just can't discount the Bible." "I celebrate your love for one another," she said of the gays and lesbians who had spoken previously, "but I just don't have clarity here." Questions have been raised about whether the resolution would violate any of the church's canons and constitutions. As a result, it has been referred to a sub-committee for further discussion and consultation, according to vice chairman Dan Valdez of Los Angeles. After resolving the issues, the committee will continue to consider the resolution in future meetings.