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US Episcopal Prayer Book marriage rite could be made gender-neutral in 2018

25 August 2017


A PROPOSAL to amend the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) of the Episcopal Church in the United States to change the marriage rite and catechism may be brought to the General Convention next year.

Although alternative “gender-neutral” rites are available on a trial basis, after a decision by the 2015 General Convention, the US Prayer Book catechism continues to state that marriage is between a man and a woman. Members of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage which was commissioned by the 2015 Convention to study the impact of same-sex marriage and rites of blessing on our Church” are concerned that the current arrangement is unstable.

“When we expanded the marriage canon, we gave expression to the Church’s teaching about marriage in the Declaration of Intention,” the minutes from a meeting of the Task Force in March state. “We have embraced a core teaching of our understanding of marriage. This could be the basis of whatever catechetical teaching is written for the BCP revision.”

The proposal has alarmed traditionalists within the Church.

The 2015 Act of Convention (News, 10 July 2015) authorised two new marriage rites with language that could by used by both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The resolution said that bishops “will make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to these liturgies”, but also that “trial use is only to be available under the discretion and with the permission of the diocesan bishop.” In addition, priests retain the canonical right to refuse to officiate at any wedding.

As a result, the availability of the new same-sex rites has been patchy. Some bishops will not grant priests permission to use the rites. There are also reports that priests are officiating at weddings in these dioceses, having travelled from dioceses where bishops do grant permission.

Minutes from the March meeting refer to anxiety about the basis on which the trial rites are available: “There is concern about the stability of this arrangement,” they state. “There are conflicting directions in which this might head. A progressive priest has noted the goal should be that every same-sex couple should have the right to be married in their home parish. Some conservatives have wondered if their view will be allowed to flourish in some pocket in the Church.”

They go on: “If BCP is our principal theological document, these liturgies say something that some aren’t ready to say.”

It remains unclear what the 14-strong Task Force will recommend, but one option presented in the minutes is a first reading of proposed changes to the BCP in 2018, so that revision could take place in 2021, “including consultation with ACC [Anglican Consultative Council] and the Lambeth Conference”. The latter takes place in 2020.The 2018 Convention would be presented with a new form of the introduction to marriage and catechism.

“For conservatives this would be concerning,” the March minutes state. “Yet these proposed revisions would be ‘two people’, not explicitly ‘same sex’.”

The minutes ask: “Is there a way to disagree that does not require schism?” and note that “Many want to be in a Church where people have theological differences but still pray together.” But they also suggest that the experience of the C of E should serve as a cautionary tale.

“The Church of England allowed certain divisions regarding women’s ordination that we should be careful not to emulate, as they have become deeply entrenched,” they say. “Creating carve-outs for pockets of the Church under one ecclesiastical structure could lead to difficulties down the line.”

The C of E “does not seem to be a good model for staying in communion with each other,” they say. “There are three groups who do not speak to each other.”

They note that “some experience the current situation as so-called ‘sacramental apartheid’. Six bishops “appear to not be allowing the liturgies in their dioceses”, and clergy in at least three dioceses “are not allowed by their bishops to perform the liturgies anywhere, even outside the diocese”.

This week, the Bishop of Tennessee, the Rt Revd John Bauerschmidt, who does not permit the use of the trial liturgies in his diocese, said that a proposed change to the BCP was “very concerning to people of a traditional perspective. . .

“Clergy at their ordination are asked to uphold the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church; so if the doctrine of our liturgies changes . . . this is problematic for folks who uphold the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage,” he said. This group was “really looking for a theologically coherent place to stand”.

The argument that the BCP needed to be revised because the teaching of the Church had been changed “may be a circular form of reasoning”, he said, given that the BCP was one of the repositories of teaching, and currently reflected a traditional understanding of marriage. “The gender-neutral canon was presented as not necessarily changing the teaching of the Church.”

He expects that priests will retain the canonical right to refuse to officiate at any wedding, a “well-established principle”, although “there may be more subtle ways in which people feel sort of forced into compliance.”

On the question of “sacramental apartheid”, he said that the 2015 resolution “did not specify” what was meant by bishops having to make provision for couples to have access to the trial liturgies. “It’s very much down to individual bishops to decide what access looks like in a particular situation.”

Whatever resolution was brought by the Task Force to the 2018 Convention would be one of a “plethora”, he said. “I think conservatives are not just simply waiting to be reactive, but also want to gather more information about what will actually be presented before us at the Convention.”

On Tuesday, Joan Geiszler-Ludlum, who chairs the Task Force, said that it was “consulting and sharing perspective with other groups, commissions, and organisations.

“The members are considering various approaches to recommendations that will be submitted to General Convention 2018. To provide any comment on those proposals would be premature.”

An update will be issued after the next meeting.

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