Episcopalians air opinions on “pastoral generosity” and same-gender marriage in Massachusetts

About 45 people gathered at Emmanuel Church in Boston for an Aug. 13 hearing, called by the diocese’s bishops as a first step toward developing diocesan policy in response to the resolution on same-gender marriage adopted at the Episcopal Church’s recent General Convention.

Known as C056, “Liturgies for Blessings,” the resolution calls for the collection and development of “theological and liturgical resources” and gives bishops allowance to “provide generous pastoral response,” particularly in states such as Massachusetts where same-gender marriage is legal.

Because the resolution’s language is both precise and broad, bishops now are left to determine what it means in their local contexts and what implications any implementation might have for the wider church.

“I do think we are in a very unique situation here that we have to pay attention to,” Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE told the gathering.

“There’s some confusion about what kind of permission we’ve actually been given through this resolution. Nobody has ever been where we are right now. That’s what this evening is for, so that we can gather information to help us in our discernment about how to move forward,” Shaw said. The hearing was open to members of the diocese, and Shaw invited additional comments by e-mail to his office (jdrapeau@diomass.org).

The next step, he said, is for the diocese’s Standing Committee to meet in September to process what’s been learned so far, and “then we’ll see where we’re at.”

Bishops of similarly affected dioceses (currently Western Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Iowa) also will continue to deliberate, he said. “I think people would like to be on the same page,” he said of those bishops and the potential for a collective approach, “but it looks to me like, at least right now, people have different ideas about what should happen in their dioceses.”

For the past five-plus years that same-gender marriage has been legal in Massachusetts, clergy of this diocese have been allowed to bless same-sex couples only after their marriage has been solemnized by a civil authority.

(In July 8 testimony before a legislative committee at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Anaheim, Calif., Shaw said of the Diocese of Massachusetts’ experience: “This has not been a solution that has really met the pastoral needs of our churches, because the gay and lesbian people in the Diocese of Massachusetts feel that they are only welcome so far into the life of the church.”)

The Rev. Jon Strand, Standing Committee president, moderated the hearing, which lasted just over two hours. It was conversational in nature and roughly equal parts observation sharing and question-and-answer.

Along with Shaw and Bishop Gayle E. Harris, Standing Committee members Pat Boyd and Robin Preston attended, as did General Convention deputies Byron Rushing, Lallie Lloyd, the Rev. Jane Gould, the Rev. Gale Davis Morris and the Rev. Canon Mally Lloyd.

It was asked that other participants not be quoted by name in public reports out of respect for privacy and to encourage frank exchange.

Two specific suggestions came up most often over the course of the evening: that liturgies used for blessing marriages in this diocese, given its “body of experience,” be collected and shared in some intentional and centralized way, and that there is a need for more theological reflection, conversation and teaching about marriage in general, and about the nature of sacrament and blessing.

“I would like to see in particular this diocese as a leader in the development of liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, and I think that with five years of experience in this state, it is the perfect place to do that,” one person said.

“The advantage of collecting services is that they can have the beneficial effect of saying that, contrary to widespread assumptions, having these services isn’t contrary to the canons and prayer book rubrics,” another said.

Diocesan resource days and clergy gatherings might be a starting place for more conversation about marriage, one priest suggested: “We are focusing on gay marriage, when the church really hasn’t done a good job of speaking about what marriage itself is all about. I think that would be one way to disentangle the knots in people’s stomachs, to talk about what is marriage and to move the conversation away from targeting one small community in the Episcopal Church.”

There was also some back-and-forth over the position commonly phrased as “getting out of the marriage business altogether,” meaning that clergy would no longer act as agents of the state in solemnizing any marriages but would bless them after the fact.

“I’ve heard among colleagues a longing to be freed from state agency to only be about the work of blessing,” Strand said.

“I do a lot of blessing in my work,” another priest said, “and I know that what I do with any couple is to publicly witness to what’s already taken place, and I ask God to bless it. I want to be in the business of sharing God’s blessing.”

At least two people voiced their perceived inequity in that approach: “I think that if the idea of examining the church’s role as an agent of the state for marriage is given emphasis, the message that it sends is, well, we couldn’t really bring ourselves to deal with everyone equally, so we thought we’d just get out of that business as much as possible,” one said.

Added another: “I feel like I’m being invited into a second-class situation. We weren’t actively considering taking solemnizing off the table until it became a way of working around. It’s worked for a lot of people, but to a lot of people pastorally, it feels like a slap, and as a priest, I’m not into slapping my people. I really hope that the church will make it possible for me to stop doing that.”

Rushing said that he doesn’t think that “investigating whether we should get out of the marriage business in and of itself somehow changes our idea about inclusiveness.”

“I do think we have to talk about marriage, because we would not be having this conversation if the Episcopal Church did not think marriage was such a big deal,” he said. “Try being single in the Episcopal Church and then you’ll understand how important marriage is in the church. Because of that, we really have to give this some serious conversation.”

Blessing needs definition as well, one priest said. “When we say blessing, I always wonder what’s our theology of blessing, and can we be a little more robust about it, because we bless a lot of things. I would want there to be clarity and sort of a richness of expression about what we mean when we say we bless.”

The deputies in attendance, by way of providing context for C056’s passage, characterized the General Convention’s deliberations as “enormously collegial and generous,” according to Gale Davis Morris.

“What felt bold to me in what we did actually had to do with us being willing to face a budget with significant cuts and even as we made those cuts to remain committed to the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] and reduction of international poverty and to commit ourselves in a new way around domestic poverty,” Gould said. “Those commitments felt like a church that was saying something about community and about identity.”

(One speaker questioned why the Episcopal Church had signed on to United Nations goals which are not the church’s own and which do not include peacemaking. Mally Lloyd responded that the person-to-person and church-to-church relationships built across the Anglican Communion as the result of engagement with the MDGs has taken membership in the communion from an abstract structural concept to mission reality.)

Lallie Lloyd commended to the church at local levels the General Convention’s process of taking time for deeper conversation, saying that careful listening and ample airing of dissenting opinions “brought us to a place of consensus that I could feel comfortable with.”

“Whatever we do,” she added, “we need to be the interpreters of our own actions to the international community that will watch and comment on our actions.”

Rushing said of C056, and resolution D025, which in part states that ordination is open to all in the Episcopal Church: “Put all together, I think it is as honest a description of where the leadership of this multinational church stands right now, and I think that’s quite a remarkable thing to have happen.”

One priest voiced less enthusiasm at the outcome, however, saying even as conversation continues, nothing has changed. Priests couldn’t solemnize same-gender marriages before C056 was adopted, and, “if I were to have a wedding like that in three weeks, I still can’t sign the marriage license or pronounce the marriage. So in that sense, the big thing that supposedly happened at General Convention or that some people thought was going to radically change the way we did things is only, I gather, the beginning of a conversation about how in the future we might change. I was hoping that we would be bold, and if not right now, then soon.”

Tracy J. Sukraw


One response to “Episcopalians air opinions on “pastoral generosity” and same-gender marriage in Massachusetts

  1. Ann S.Davidson

    I’m truly encouraged that the Episcopal Church is discussing, weighing all aspects of this diverse and complicated issue. While so many things “used to be sinful,” what with time, study, and seeing how these” sinful “things would be viewed by Jesus, the gentle, teacher; how they have affected our lives; it seems they represent a respect for All diversity.