April 12, 2015

Allowance is not Mandate: A Thought on Marriage

I have heard it said by some that the Episcopal Church cannot amend its Canons to allow for marriage equality because the Book of Common Prayer's marriage liturgy makes no such provision, and furthermore "defines" marriage as only between one man and one woman. I will simply note in response that the Canons provide at present for marriage by a party to someone other than their living former spouse, after divorce, a situation which is nowhere deemed possible in the Book of Common Prayer's marriage liturgy, which "defines" marriage as requiring life-long fidelity in no uncertain terms.

Canonical allowance does not require full congruity with liturgical practice. Nor does permission need to rise to the level of mandate. The present proposed amendment to the Canons would allow for the celebration of same-sex marriage (should the church authorize liturgies with that in mind), but would no more require them than the present canon on remarriage after divorce requires bishops to approve, or clergy to celebrate, such marriages.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Whit Johnstone said...

As I understand things the ammendment to the canons does take away a bishop's power to prevent same-sex marriages in his or her diocese. That's important to some people, especially in the Dioceses of Dallas and Springfield.

More importantly, a priest who refused to celebrate same-sex marriages as a matter of principle but who would celebrate opposite-sex marriages could be charged with violating the canons against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We need to put in an explicit exemption in the nondiscrimination canons if we want to officially endorse marriage equity while giving conservatives space to do their own thing. Of course, I know some people aren't interested in giving conservatives space, but I think that most Episcopalians are.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Whit. Let me offer some clarity on both of these matters.

First, the amendment proposed has no impact on the authority of a bishop concerning liturgical acts. The present authorized rite for same-sex blessing (and marriage where permitted) is authorized with the proviso that it is subject to the approval of the diocesan bishop; and a bishop can forbid its use, because it is provisional. Nothing in the proposed canon changes that situation. Only if the church authorizes a rite for general use does a bishop lose the ability to forbid its use. That has not yet happened with regard to marriage equality, and it may; but the canon change has nothing to do with what liturgies are adopted -- it merely notes that clergy are to make use of authorized liturgies.

The "discrimination" issue is similarly not quite as you express it. The "non-discrimination" canon (I.17.5) contains the specific proviso, "except as otherwise specified by Canons." In this case both the present marriage canon and the proposed amendment retain the explicit provision for clergy to decline to solemnize (or in the amendment, bless) any given marriage. It is already common to refuse marriages on the grounds of "marital status" (prior marriages, or questions as to the divorce); I can think of a number of circumstances in which I would decline to solemnize a marriage on the grounds of sexual orientation -- for example, a man who wishes to marry a woman as part of his "conversion therapy." I would hold that to be a misuse of marriage, and would not be part of it. And that is a part of the reason for this proviso: clergy are not simply acting as registrars for a contract; they are involved as pastors in the preparation for marriage, and if they believe the marriage cannot rightly exist or cannot be sustained, they have the freedom to decline their involvement. This right remains under the proposed canon.

I admit to having some difficulty on the first issue, as I don't think bishops should have an ability to forbid the use of authorized liturgies, but I understand the political need for such leeway. And on the discrimination issue, I think we need to preserve it for the reasons I expressed.

WSJM said...

I think it is vitally important to retain fully the canonical right of any priest to decline to solemnize any marriage (or blessing). Does this mean that a priest may do so (and no doubt some have done so) for illegitimate, immoral, unworthy, or discriminatory reasons? I don't doubt it. Let the priest's bishop deal with that. But nobody, nobody, not the state, not the wealthy senior warden, nobody, should be able to require a priest to solemnize a marriage against his/her will or conscience.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Fr Bill. Looking back, I've turned down about half as many marriages as I've solemnized; usually not on such serious grounds but because the couple just want a stage-set for their "service." There have been one or two where marital status has been an issue and the couple only come to me a few weeks prior to the date they've already set with the banqueting hall, and my bishop requires at least 8 weeks for review of divorce papers.

I don't see this provision going away any time soon, if ever, and I think it is important to preserve it, not just for matters of conscience, but for matters of discernment in which a priest does not believe the couple are adequate to the task -- and is not simply a bystander or a witness, but a pastor.

Perhaps it might be good to have an "inform the bishop" clause similar to what exists in the "excommunication" rule -- another place in which a priest has the authority to act to restrict access to the worship and ministry of the church. At that point the bishop has opportunity to exercise hir pastoral role, as well.