The Episcopal Church in the USA has just become the largest Christian denomination in America to approve Blessing Rites for same-sex marriage. In addition, the Church removed discriminatory barriers towards transgender individuals seeking to enter clerical service, specifically banning bias based on both “gender identity” and “gender expression.”
The Church, which has its roots in the Church of England, is meeting at its Triennial Convention in Indianapolis. It is comprised of two ‘chambers,’ a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies; the House of Deputies is itself comprised of clergy (priests) and elected laypersons from every diocese in America. The measures had to pass muster with all three groups, and they did by large margins.
On Monday, July 9, the House of Bishops approved liturgical resources for blessing same gender relationships (known as Resolution A049) by a lopsided vote of 111-41 with three abstentions. The new liturgy is considered provisional and its content will be reviewed over the next three years.
“That will mean different things in different locales,” Bishop Thomas Ely of the Diocese of Vermont said when discussing the resolution. “There is a place in this process for every Episcopalian regardless of their level of support for the material. Read it. Reflect upon it. Use it, but please don’t ignore it.”
Bishop Leo Frade of the Diocese of Southeast Florida evoked laughter and applause from both bishops and members of the crowded gallery when responding to an assertion that passage of the same-sex rites would drive Hispanics and Latinos from the church.
“The reality is that we, like everybody else, have gay children. We have gay parents. We have gay uncles. We are like everybody else. We process things the same way…you cannot generalize that Hispanics are going to run away from the Episcopal Church because we have a door that’s open. We are going to run from immigration that’s trying to deport us, but not from the Episcopal Church.”
With the approval of a same-sex blessing rite on Monday, the issue then was sent to the House of Deputies. The vote, which took place in the last hour, broke down as follows:
Yes - 86
No - 19
Divided – 5 (meaning that the lay delegates in 5 dioceses split evenly, and so cast a single ‘divided’ vote)
Yes - 85
No - 22
Divided – 4 (same as above)
With that vote, the 2-million member strong Church approved same-sex Blessings.
Some in the media have questioned why the Church approved ‘Blessings,’ rather than calling it a “marriage rite,’ and have suggested a sort of second-class rite. However, this misunderstands the current Episcopal approach to Marriage.
In much of the Episcopal Church, the clergy and bishops have urged a return to the original understanding of a division between the civil role and the spiritual/theological role of the Church in blessing unions. Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay Bishop in the Church (whose election caused global repercussions within the Anglican Communion) urged churches in his diocese to consider conducting the civil “marriage ceremony’ in the rear of church buildings (representing governmental approval), and then arranging for the official Church spiritual Blessing at the altar in the front of the Church. As the Church has no authority to change civil law, the liturgy approved is for Church use at the altar, regardless as to whether or not the civil law in that Diocese recognizes same-gender marriages.
Deputies also adopted Resolution A050, authorizing a task force to study marriage. It calls for creation of a 12-member task force to study marriage, including needs for pastoral responses by clergy for same-sex couples in states where civil marriage is legal, as well as issues “raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures.”
In addition, the House of Deputies agreed with the bishops to offer support for the transgender community by adding gender expression and identity to two canons that prevent discrimination. One makes clear that the ordination discernment process is open to them, and another guarantees their equal place in the life, worship and governance of the church.
Debate on Resolution D019, which addressed the canon titled “Extending the Rights of the Laity,” drew speakers who told of the need to make explicit the church’s welcome – using its slogan “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” – to those who are transgender.
The Rev. Carla Robinson, deputy from Olympia, Washington, spoke as a transgender person of the importance of specifically including people like her. “By including gender identity and gender expression in this canon, you will rightly name us,” she said. “By naming us in this canon we as a church are continuing to incarnate the Christ-like welcome that is central to our way of faith, and to make it clear to the whole world that the gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ is for everyone.”
Deputy Natalie Vanatta of Kansas said that as a lesbian her rights as a member of the church are protected under this canon, but they currently are not for transgender people. She said, “The trans community has stood and fought for the rest of the LGBTQ community time and time again, and I would not be living out my baptismal covenant if I did not do the same for them now.”
A vote by orders on this resolution was called, and 89 lay deputations and 92 clergy deputations (out of 109) voted yes.
The Episcopal Church – my Church - has an official rite for the Blessing of Same Sex Unions.