By Becky Garrison

The U.S. Episcopal Church (TEC) made headlines this past summer when they voted overwhelmingly to adopt a provisional liturgy to bless same-sex couples. This measure, put into use this month, allows interested clergy to perform same-sex blessings while the church continues to explore the theology of marriage. In making this move,the TEC sets itself apart from the global Anglican Communion that continues to oppose the full inclusion of equal rights and rites to all LGBT persons.

Evangelical progressives such as Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis view issues of human sexuality as diversions that prevent the church from devoting time to other social justice causes such as hunger,  poverty and peace. But Daphne Estwick, author of Arms Out, Palms Open: Conflict, Reconciliation and Gay Inclusion (Morehouse Publishing, 2012), sees the issue of LGBT equality in Anglican circles as representative of Anglicanism’s “Three-Legged Stool’” of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. In an email interview, she observed, “Their embrace of reason over dogma can be seen as both positive as well as negative. In the end they may lose members or even congregations, but for many they manage to hang on to the spirit of the law without getting bogged down by the letter of the law.”

“Liturgies to bless same-sex relationships have been used in local congregations and by local clergy since at least the 1970s. Initially these were local decisions, and gradually they have been more widely recognized,” notes Ruth Meyers, Dean of Academic Affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  As states began to legalize civil unions or marriages between same-sex couples, about a decade ago, some dioceses followed suit by crafting liturgies and formal guidelines to assist those clergies who wanted to perform these rites. More dioceses started issuing guidelines following the 2009 General Convention that granted bishops the ability to provide “generous pastoral response” to meet the needs of members of the church.

Even in some states that permitted same sex couples to legally marry, bishops, such as the Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk of New York felt that TEC needed to come to a unified consensus on this issue before he could move ahead on a formal rite to bless same sex unions in their own diocese.

As the Rev. Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, Vicar of Saint James Church Fordham in the Bronx, explains in an email exchange, the TEC is not the first among “mainline” churches to take this step. “Lutheran Churches in Scandinavia have already approved same-sex blessings, and in some cases, marriage. So TEC is not alone in this, though it is stepping out a bit from the crowd.”

According to Haller, the theological arguments in favor of the move outweigh those against it. “What we ‘get’ for this is the knowledge we are doing God’s work in extending the grace of God to people formerly told they were unworthy of that grace, bringing “good news to the oppressed,” said Haller. “What we ‘lose’ is a degree of uniformity, as there is still some significant disagreement within the church on the subject. But even within that loss is the gain of learning how to live with disagreement, which is a kind of spiritual maturity: the ability to place the value of being together in one church, in true unity rather than mere uniformity.”

For those traditionalist, Anglican clergy who decry that adoption of this provisional rite—The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant–will force them to perform same sex marriages, the canons of the church indicate otherwise. According to Canon I.18, “It shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize any marriage.” Haller states that this is an airtight protection that goes for any marriage such as the case of multiple divorces or if the priest feels the couple isn’t ready to marry or doesn’t understand what a marriage entails.

Even when this provisional rite goes into force in this month, Episcopal canon law and the Book of Common Prayer still reference marriage as being between a man and a woman. John Becker, Director of Communications for Truth Wins Out, a grassroots LGBT advocacy group, offers the reminder that “while work remains to be done on LGBT issues in the Episcopal church to address exclusionary and discriminatory language about marriage, this does not diminish the magnitude of what that church accomplished.” In his assessment, “The walls of religion-based bigotry continue to tumble down.”

 

Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Washington Post‘s On Faith column, The GuardianBelieve Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues (forthcoming), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church.

Image: The interior of Christ Episcopal Church, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  via ancestry.com