Ecclesiology, polity, and the sour fruit of denying our unity

My reflection on the further unfolding of marriage equality in the Episcopal Church



Where does the authority of the church lie? There has long been a tension in the Episcopal Church between the American tendency towards congregationalism and the Anglican ideal of episcopalianism.  That is, between holding up the congregation or the diocese as the locus of authority in the church.


The Episcopal Church, of course, is not a congregational church in its structure. This gets to the core of the arguments first made at the time of the English Reformation over what the structure of the church should be. In answering the question of what is the smallest unit which fully comprises a “church,” our answer (and that of our Anglican predecessors) has been “the diocese.”  So we have held that the diocese represents a certain kind of unity within itself, and that the bishop symbolizes, in their office, that unity expressed through the diocese.


At the same time, we have held up the importance of the ministry of locality, with most of our churches having some sense of their being an outpost of Christ’s body in a particular place, called to mission and ministry within an understood community. We grant different privileges to parishes than to mission churches which are still ministries of the diocese. And in our structure we value the representation of every worshiping community in our discernment and deliberations.  Congregations do matter.


However, some have taken our understanding of the diocese as symbolizing the body and have ventured further to say that a diocese is sufficient unto itself to be understood as the church, and have claimed that the fundamental structure of our Church is that of a voluntary association of equal dioceses.


But it is clear through our history, practice, and canons that this is a false understanding of the right relationship of a diocese to the whole church. Dioceses in Christian history have never been freewheeling entities that chose which church (or none)  they belonged to.  That flies (with the power of a gale force wind) in the face of  the very notion of catholicity that undergirds our church.


The Episcopal church has rejected the notion that a diocese, by itself, is a fully sufficient expression of the church. Bishops can be consecrated to their office only with the consent and action of at least three other bishops. We have expanded that idea in canon, to require the consent of a majority of other dioceses (Bishops and Standing Committees) for a valid episcopal election. (Constitution Article II, Section 2).  So, a diocese is the smallest unit which fully expresses the charism of a church, but it is insufficient unto itself to be the church.


This is clear in the application of the Dennis Canon, that places all Episcopal Church property in trust to the whole church, and in the resolution of the Title IV case handed down to a number of bishops who filed an amicus brief in favor of the breakaway group in the diocese of Fort Worth several years ago.


It is the tension between these ideas of sufficiency that has led to the current situation regarding marriage equality. An overwhelming majority of Episcopalians have come to see that marriage equality is consistent with Jesus’ teaching to love one another and is an invitation from the Holy Spirit to expand our understanding of just who is eligible to be among God’s people. We have confirmed that understanding in legislation and canon through General Convention – the highest authority in our church.


Despite those actions of General Convention, despite the reconciliation agreement stemming from the Fort Worth brief, and despite vows to “be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them,” several bishops seem to continue to hold to the notion that a diocese exists apart from the wider church, sufficient unto itself to define doctrine.


This seems to be the implication affirmed in the Austin Statement, signed by a small handful of bishops after the most recent General Convention and in the response of several of the signatories to the passage of Resolution B012 Marriage Rites for the Whole Church.


This resolution’s intent was to remove the ability of diocesan bishops to implement blanket bans on same-sex marriages in their dioceses. In other words, it meant to ensure that a decision of the whole church could not be denied in a single diocese. Instead, it shifts the decision making down to the parish level and to the priest, where decisions on marriages have long resided.


This resolution attempted to find a path through the competing tensions of congregationalism and episcopalianism while also seeking to affirm the catholicity of our church.


The earlier compromise through this thicket offered at the 2015 General Convention gave greatest weight to episcopalianism, and allowed the bishops to control or restrict marriage equality. Of course, the reality is that in each of the dioceses that fully refused to implement marriage equality, there were individuals and congregations who were not aligned with their bishop’s positions on marriage equality. Part of the 2015 compromise was the setting of an expectation that the dissenting bishops would make provisions for those in their dioceses to access the equal marriage rites.  It became clear, though, that being expected to travel to a different city or state, far from family, friends, and well-wishers was a significant imposition that put real burdens on people’s lives.


Because bishops are elected, and affirmed by the wider church, it was easy to believe that their opposition was rooted in the charism of their dioceses, and thus the principle of diocesan sufficiency made that seem a good compromise. But those to whom full inclusion in their own churches was denied, reminded us that in the compromise the church’s unity was denied.


Coming into this General Convention then, there was a new effort to address this. That was BCP revision.  The church had already changed its canon on marriage to eliminate gendered differentiations so, if that could be enshrined in the BCP marriage rites, since no bishop would have the power to ban the use of a rite in the BCP, marriage equality would be unimpeded and catholicity restored.


Because BCP revision is a long process, with little prospect of a new BCP before 2030, a second stop-gap resolution was offered (authored by the bishop of Long Island, Lawrence Provenzano) – the above mentioned B012. This would have allowed short-term authorization of the equal-marriage rites until BCP revision could be completed.


However, BCP revision, for all intents and purposes failed. The 1979 book remains without inclusive language, without a rite of marriage that doesn’t assume male and female couples only, and any likely  successor will not be part of our common worship for a long time yet.


A key compromise of the original version of resolution B012 was to set an expectation for the use of DEPO (Delegated Episcopal Oversight) in those cases where marriage-equality-affirming congregations in marriage-equality-opposing dioceses wished to join the wider church’s understanding of marriage.

Resolved, That where diocesan canons or bishops exercising ecclesiastical authority do not authorize the use of these liturgies for persons of the same sex, congregations may request, and when requesting shall receive delegated episcopal pastoral oversight (DEPO) by a bishop of this Church who shall provide access to these liturgies, as permitted by civil law


This path leads to a breakdown in the long-understood link between a diocese and its geographical integrity.  So, in the version passed, this expectation was softened and made a potentiality rather than an expectation.

Resolved, That in dioceses where the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or, where applicable, ecclesiastical supervision) holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites;


There is a sense that DEPO is a significant step that many (most?) congregations would not want to undertake.  It pits supporting marriage equality against a sense of participation in the diocese and could be seen as hampering the mission and ministry of the congregation and its associated congregations in a particular place – it breaks down our sense of togetherness and undermines our catholicity.  The original version’s expectation of DEPO could have been interpreted as erecting unnecessary barriers, much as the 2015 “provision” clause did in forcing people across state lines for church weddings.


It seems, though, that some of the dissenting bishops have already decided to use implementing DEPO status as an expectation for congregations wishing to fully embrace marriage equality, choosing the sufficiency of the diocese over the unity of the church; perhaps reckoning most congregations wouldn’t want to enter in the unknown territory of DEPO over the issue.


Currently, eight domestic dioceses do not allow marriage equality in any way (Springfield, Albany, Tennessee, North Dakota, Dallas, Central Florida, Florida, and the US Virgin Islands). Seven of those eight bishops signed the Austin Statement, which says; “As bishops, we claim our apostolic ministry as teachers of the Faith, and our role as chief pastors within our dioceses, clearly articulated in the Book of Common Prayer.”


Four bishops, so far, are clearly interpreting this to mean that they can no longer fulfill their role as bishops for congregations holding a different position on the issue of marriage equality.  Bishops Martins, Smith, Sumner, and Bauerschmidt have already made statements setting DEPO as an expectation.


Bishop Daniel Martins wrote to his diocese and said;

“If a consensus is evident [within a parish], we will discuss the terms, conditions, and length of the relationship between that Eucharistic Community and another bishop of the Episcopal Church. It will then be my responsibility to find such a bishop, to whom I will refer all the routine components of spiritual, pastoral, and sacramental oversight, including regular visitations, for an agreed-upon season.


Bishop Michael Smith of North Dakota, through the diocesan newsletter wrote;

“Therefore, I direct any rector or priest-in-charge of the Diocese who desires to officiate at a same-sex wedding in the congregation he or she serves to first contact me for supplemental episcopal pastoral care.

We will use the “Caring for All the Churches”[this lays out the DEPO process] procedure promulgated by the House of Bishops in 2004 and revised in 2012 as a roadmap for these matters.”


In one of his Words from the Bishop statements, Bishop George Sumner of Dallas wrote;

“Since I am not able by conscience and conviction to oversee a parish using these rites, since a bishop and his or her doctrinal teaching cannot be separated, we will need to work out oversight for the parish’s pastoral life, confirmation, discipline, etc.”


And Bishop John Bauerschmidt, of Tennessee wrote;

“This supplemental episcopal pastoral care means that bishops will continue to exercise oversight of the liturgical life of this church. It also preserves the teaching office of the bishop, especially where the practice of the congregation is at variance with the bishop’s own teaching. Where this is the case, another bishop of this church will provide the pastoral care and the oversight of clergy and congregation that will be necessary.


Not all of the eight dissenting bishops have said that they will set DEPO as an expectation (at least not yet). Bishops Gregory Brewer of Central Florida, Samuel Howard of Florida, and Ambrose Gumbs, US Virgin Islands don’t appear to have made any public statements at all. It should be noted that Bishop Gumbs also did not sign the Austin Statement.


Bishop William Love, according to his letter to the diocese, is still discerning what it might mean for the diocese of Albany and has scheduled a clergy day on September 6th to discuss the issue.  The diocese of Albany already has several congregations in DEPO status who receive oversight from the bishops of Central New York and Vermont.

 He wrote;

“While I know there are some in the Diocese of Albany who applaud the passage of B012, the vast majority of the clergy and people of the Diocese, to include myself, are greatly troubled by it. There is much I need to say about B012 and how it will be handled in the Diocese of Albany, but before doing so, I need more time to think and pray, as well as consult with the Standing Committee and other trusted advisors.

What is being called for in B012, not only goes against the Marriage Canons of the Diocese of Albany, but also attempts to severely limit the bishop’s role and ministry as chief pastor, priest and teacher of all the people and parishes entrusted to his or her care regarding the sacrament of marriage.”


In a Facebook post reported by the Daily Gazette he also wrote;

“As we move to discussion of same-gender marriage and Prayer Book revision, we first must acknowledge that there are differences of opinion on these issues throughout the diocese, we respect that people of good conscience may hold different views and expect to continue in love and fellowship with people of all views.”


It is my concern that we are walking down dangerous paths.  These bishops’ seeming insistence that unity is achieved only through uniformity, and that they are sufficient unto themselves, without their brothers and sisters, leads only to further divisions.  We’ve already seen this story unfold when Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Quincy, Pittsburgh, and South Carolina tried to assert their internal sufficiency.  That way only leads to bitterness and acrimony.  DEPO is something short of schism, but it builds walls and not bridges.


Our cultural tendency towards congregationalism is, in my view, lamentable and the choice of DEPO tends to strengthen rather than diminish it. Most of us live our religious lives in the splendid isolation of our own congregations. But the key role of the bishop is to bring us together and to see we are better off together and that it takes all of us working together to fully express Christ’s body. Setting apart those who are deemed not fully “us” is a denial of that fundamental call.


I am pretty sure that our move towards full inclusion of LGBT+ persons in the life of Christ without denying them their ontological reality is truly the work of the Holy Spirit, and I see it as wholly consistent with the gospel story. Maybe I and most of the church have discerned incorrectly; but I see it unfolding across all the world and I have seen and testify to the lives of beauty, grace, and love I have seen in my LGBT+ brothers and sisters, and so I have confidence that we have discerned rightly. I would hope that those who continue to doubt this movement and invitation might, like St Peter in Cornelius’ house, open their eyes to the presence of the Holy Spirit at work and ask themselves; what is to stop us from including these in the body of Christ?

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