Further evidence this week of the continued longevity of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”
Officials in a handful of domestic Episcopal Church dioceses which have opted out of the denomination’s same-sex marriage liturgies are warily eying the denomination’s upcoming General Convention and the changes it may bring.
Bishops and deputies will gather this July in Austin, Texas for the triennial governing convention. A multi-year process of revising the church’s Book of Common Prayer, last revised in 1979, is widely expected to begin at this gathering.
Interestingly, the addition of same-sex marriages conducted within the Episcopal Church has not significantly lessened a decline in the overall number of church weddings, which have dropped by 44 percent in the past decade (14,805 marriages in 2006, compared with only 8,343 in 2016, the most recent reporting year).
Episcopal Diocese of Springfield [Illinois] Bishop Daniel Martins recently blogged about a conversation at the springtime House of Bishops retreat:
“After dinner, I attended a voluntary meeting with members of the Marriage Task Force, along with a handful of others. This was an opportunity to dig more deeply into their convention resolutions, which have the potential to be seismic. They are proposing a ‘surgical’ revision of the Prayer Book that would add to the BCP the rites currently authorized just ‘in the ether’ for same-sex marriage, along with a concomitant change to the catechism that would make marriage gender neutral. If approved this year, that would constitute a ‘first reading’ of Prayer Book revision, a process that would be cemented by subsequent approval in 2021. The kicker here, of course, is that while a diocesan bishop can decline to permit use of a trial rite ‘in the ether,’ a bishop cannot proscribe use of material in the Book of Common Prayer. I cannot predict how this will all play out. There is a wide variety of opinion swirling around in the mix, and the legislative process at General Convention is a real sausage machine. But it will be a hot issue. And, to be frank, it deserved a lot more consideration than it is getting at this meeting of the House. If the events following 2003 [Bishop Gene Robinson’s election and consecration] were an earthquake, approval of anything like the Taskforce on Marriage’s proposal would be a catastrophic aftershock.”
An April 4 article by the denomination’s official mouthpiece, the Episcopal News Service, highlighted same-sex couples living in these dioceses and “concern about unequal access to the trial use liturgies”. It’s also worth noting that advocates of same-sex marriage are long past the point of allowing accommodation for those who disagree. ENS quotes lesbian activist and General Convention Task Force on the Study of Marriage member the Rev. Susan Russell: “it shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code to have access to the rites.”
According to ENS, eight bishops prohibit same-sex marriage in their dioceses. Among these are Albany Bishop William Love, Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer, Dallas Bishop George Sumner, Florida Bishop John Howard, North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith, Springfield Bishop Dan Martins, Tennessee Bishop John Bauerschmidt and Virgin Islands Bishop Ambrose Gumbs.
According to the task force, Love, Brewer, Sumner, Martins and Bauerschmidt also prohibit clergy canonically resident in those dioceses to use the liturgies inside or outside of the diocese.
While most of the denomination’s 10 overseas dioceses also reject same-sex marriage (many are in countries that do not have same-sex civil marriage) the number of domestic dioceses that eschew the practice has shrunk rapidly. Since the last General Convention convened in Salt Lake City in July 2015, a traditionalist bishop in the diocese of Northern Indiana has retired, replaced by a successor who permits churches to use the trial liturgies. Northern Indiana joins previously conservative dioceses like Western Louisiana, Rio Grande and Western Kansas which also now permit the use of the same-sex rites.