Bill Love, TEC and same-sex marriage: implications

This article first appeared on Psephizo.

Following my previous post which explored the Hearing Panel ruling on Bishop Bill Love and the background to it, this article seeks to begin exploring some of its implications and possible consequences.

Bishop Love has already written to his diocese and initially appears unlikely to appeal despite noting the significance of the judgment’s claims in relation to the BCP:

While I am very disappointed and strongly disagree with the Decision of the Hearing Panel, particularly their argument that B012 was passed as an authorized revision to the Book of Common Prayer, they have issued their judgement. Unfortunately, given the nature of this case, I have no reason to believe that appealing the Hearing Panel’s Decision would result in any different outcome.

(Note: all references to the BCP here and in the previous article are to the TEC Book of Common Prayer of 1979, and not the text of 1662 which is the authoritative liturgy in the Church of England.) The Communion Partner bishops have also issued a statement of support for Bishop Love and concern about the ruling.

So close to this judgment with its own unclarities, and before any decision on the form of disciplinary penalty, care is needed as to drawing out consequences and implications but these—as with earlier actions by TEC—look potentially serious in three spheres:  within TEC; within the wider Communion; within the Church of England.

The Episcopal Church

Clearly the first requirement here is in relation to Bishop Love and his diocese. As Bishop Love has written,

A separate Hearing will be scheduled within the month to discuss the terms of discipline to be carried out. Until then, we don’t know what actions will be taken. Whatever the final outcome, it will severely impact not only me and the ministry entrusted to me as Bishop of Albany, but it will also seriously impact the life and ministry of the Diocese. I continue to pray that somehow God will use all of this for His purposes.

I want to thank all of you who have been holding me, my family, and the Diocese of Albany up in your thoughts and prayers these past many months. I would ask that you please continue to do so. We appreciate and need those prayers.

The Communion Partner bishops in their statement commit to “continue to uphold him and his diocese in prayer in a very difficult time” but they too all need prayer and support as they seek to interpret and respond to this ruling and its possible consequences for all of them.

It is important to note that this case does not set binding precedents because, as the ruling itself states in relation to TEC appealing to the Righter case (p36),

hearing panels are not bound by any prior decision of a former Title IV panel or Ecclesiastical Court. This is because the polity of the Church is structured so that our primary source of canon law is legislative action.

It is therefore, in principle, open to General Convention next year to correct this ruling’s interpretation of B012 and reaffirm a more limited and generous reading of its scope.  In addition, were future hearing panels to be brought against conservative bishops in relation to marriage liturgy and doctrine these panels are not required to follow this judgment.  Nevertheless, the ruling clearly represents a major cause for concern, especially as it gives encouragement to those within TEC whose approach towards those holding traditional doctrine appears to be summed up in the comment allegedly made to a conservative member of General Convention in the earlier years of these debates: “why can’t you just leave so we can become fully inclusive”.

Secondly, serious questions therefore now need to be asked about how committed TEC really is to giving space to those conservative Anglicans who wish to remain within it.  It is clear that there is now a majority for same-sex marriage but within that there are both those determined to impose this and extinguish any witness to traditional teaching and those who are willing to follow through the 2015 “Communion Across Difference” Mind of the House of Bishops Statement.  This statement affirmed of the Communion Partner bishops that “despite our differences they are an indispensable part of who we are as the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church. Our church needs their witness”.

It is hard to see how this case and this ruling embodies that commitment and it remains unclear which of these two contrasting approaches to conservatives is in the ascendancy within TEC and its governing structures.  There are real concerns that a quite different direction to that of the 2015 Statement could be pursued.  This could lead (perhaps by appealing to non-discrimination canons as in the ruling’s reference at p33 to Canon 1.17.5) to same-sex marriage liturgies having to be made available in every parish, whatever the teaching and discipline of the bishop, even if clergy in the parish are not personally required to participate.

Thirdly, the ruling’s arguments concerning the Worship and Doctrine of the Church appear to undermine the traditional understanding of these:

  • trial rites are taken to be authorized revisions to the BCP,
  • even trial rites and “proposed revisions to the BCP” which may have terms and conditions attached are seemingly treated as equivalent to the BCP as constituent elements of the Worship of the Church,
  • clear doctrinal statements in the BCP are held to be irrelevant by appealing to trial rites whose doctrine appears to have the power to negate the established doctrine of the BCP and perhaps even determine new church doctrine.

Fourthly, unless the serious implications of this case are urgently addressed there could well be further departures of conservative bishops and dioceses from TEC, despite the desire of those conservatives to find a way to walk together.  As the 2018 Austin Statement from Communion Partners made clear concerning Province IX (Latin American dioceses):

The witness at this General Convention of our brothers and sisters in Province IX powerfully challenged the Episcopal Church to preserve a place for traditional theological witness. In the absence of such place, several dioceses of Province IX have made it clear that they will need to walk apart. There can be no clearer reminder of the importance of our efforts now to maintain the communion in Christ that we possess, and to walk together as closely as possible (para 5).

Finally, the ruling highlights the urgent necessity of pursuing the theological and legal work required to enable some more structured and secure form of visible differentiation which can ensure protection of the minority conservative witness in TEC dioceses and parishes.  This could build upon and develop the sort of provisions that B012 were understood to have provided for those supporting same-sex marriage within conservative dioceses and was part of the remit of the Task Force for Communion Across Difference. The Task Force was set up by Resolution A227 of 2018 General Convention which required:

That the Task Force seek a lasting path forward for mutual flourishing consistent with this Church’s polity and the 2015 “Communion across Difference” statement of the House of Bishops, affirming (1) the clear decision of General Convention that Christian marriage is a covenant open to two people of the same sex or of the opposite sex, (2) General Convention’s firm commitment to make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to authorized liturgies; and also affirming (3) the indispensable place that the minority who hold to this Church’s historic teaching on marriage have in our common life, whose witness our Church needs.

Its most recent work can be found online in relation to MarchMay and June of this year and a report will be produced and should appear shortly in the Blue Book Reports for General Convention next year.  Even without this ruling, Resolution B012 was a stop-gap, unstable and insufficient means of securing the place of conservatives such that they could minister with integrity and even flourish in a church which has embraced same-sex marriage.  With this ruling, the need for a long-lasting settlement becomes even more urgent.

The Anglican Communion

Over recent decades it has often been the case that TEC has pursued its understanding of “inclusion” within its own life in such a way as to marginalise and exclude those who hold to Communion teaching, as now risks recurring in relation to Bishop Love.  Alongside this, TEC has resisted, in the name of “inclusion”, any attempts by the Communion to review its own life in such a way as (a) to counterbalance TEC’s understanding and exercise of provincial autonomy by reference to Communion interdependence, (b) to give concrete support to those holding to Communion teaching within TEC, or (c) to implement any form of Communion measures against TEC that might amount to something like the discipline TEC has taken against Bishop Love.  In short, TEC have appeared to be strict legalists at home, pursuing conservative Anglicans like Bishop Love and many before him through the courts, while being radical antinomians abroad, arguing their actions should have no consequences for their place in the Anglican Communion.  The decisions of the Primates in 2016 introduced some consequences but there has been controversy as to how thoroughly these were implemented and they strictly expired in 2019 and do not appear to have been renewed.

This new ruling of a TEC-initiated disciplinary hearing against a serving conservative bishop holding to Communion teaching represents a further significant step which, in the words of that 2016 Primates’ statement, must surely “further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us”.  This ruling holds that the discipline and worship (and perhaps doctrine) of TEC, which all TEC bishops need to conform to and uphold, and violations of which will likely result in disciplinary action, have been changed to include same-sex marriage.  In their treatment of Bishop Love and in this ruling, authorities within TEC appear to have effectively declared that the overwhelming majority of bishops within the Communion—including the Archbishop of Canterbury and many Church of England bishops—would now be unable to serve as bishops in the province of TEC because of their beliefs about marriage.  At the very least they would not have a place with any security or integrity within TEC’s episcopate.  This development raises a new major question as to the extent of the impairment of communion that now exists between TEC and the rest of the Communion.

Unless a better way forward can be found to safeguard conservative witness within TEC this situation must reopen questions about invitations to the 2022 Lambeth Conference. For example, if, as is not impossible given the seriousness of the offence (violating ordination promises relating to the Discipline and Worship of the Church), Bishop Love is now formally removed from office then will his invitation to the 2022 Lambeth Conference be withdrawn by the Archbishop of Canterbury while the invitation to those removing him from office remains unchanged?

In summary, this judgment claiming same-sex marriage is enshrined in the BCP makes even more pressing the question of how recognisably TEC now is, as it claims to be in the Preamble of its Constitution, a constituent member of the Communion which it describes as a “Fellowship of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer”.

The Church of England

Archbishop Justin has to consider how to respond to this in relation to Communion structures, the earlier “consequences” for TEC of their move to permit same-sex marriage within their canons, and his previously very positive partnership with TEC’s Presiding Bishop.  How he does so—whether by silence, voicing disapproval but doing nothing, or by changing his stance as an Instrument of Communion in relation to TEC—will inevitably have its own consequences in relation to how he is viewed within the Church of England.  It is clear that many within the Church of England cannot understand how TEC’s actions against Bishop Love, and now this judgment, can be ignored by him as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The issue is, however, now also coming closer to home.  This next step within TEC’s long journey highlights the challenges that the Church of England must now face as it comes to term with its own divisions during its discernment process using the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resources to be launched in early November.  Those resources focus more on issues of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage but—as the TEC experience and this judgment show—these issues also raise major and complex questions of ecclesiology.  These will have to be a particular concern of the bishops and wider church over the next few years.

It is not clear where we will discern God leading us as a church and LLF makes no recommendations and sets no trajectory.  Although it faces significant challenges, including legally and doctrinally, clearly one possible decision in 2022 could be for the Church of England to begin to walk the path TEC started several years ago and which has now led them to this latest ruling.  This would mean the Church of England introducing, in some form, its own liturgical changes in relation to same-sex couples, as many within it are seeking.  It appears unlikely this will involve the sort of rites for marriage that TEC has authorised for trial use.  More plausibly the bishops might (as proposed by the Pilling Report) grant permission and perhaps publish guidance or liturgies for some form of public liturgical celebration, thanksgiving, or blessing of same-sex unions, including probably civil marriages.

It is important to consider the lessons of the Bishop Love case and its preceding history as very few, if any, are actively seeking such outcomes here.  There is, however, a very powerful, perhaps inexorable, dynamic at play once any changes are made to liturgy.  The Church of England as the national, established church usually authorises new liturgies for use across the whole church.  This is in contrast to TEC where, until recently, diocesan bishops need not allow services for use in their diocese which are not in the BCP and dioceses have canons defining marriage.  As in TEC, there will be undoubtedly by a conscience clause in any liturgical changes introduced here to ensure clergy need not use new liturgies in their ministries if they object to them.  In denominations such as the URC or The Baptist Union with a congregational polity such an approach may be sufficient to enable change without serious divisions.  For any church with episcopal structures, however, this becomes much more complex as the Bishop Love case and different interpretations of Resolution B012 show.

Once an episcopally-ordered denomination authorises liturgies for same-sex unions, and the claim is made, by appeal to justice and full inclusion, that all must have access to these, then major problems logically arise for a church structure in which there are non-overlapping geographical dioceses where one bishop has jurisdiction.  Either bishops have the right to forbid clergy under their authority to use such services (in a manner similar to Bishop Love) or they do not.  If they do have the right then there will need to be clarity about how this is exercised and some alternative episcopal provision will likely need to be made for any parishes wishing to use such rites against the wishes of their bishop (as attempted by B019 in TEC).  There will also need to be some provision for those conservative parishes whose communion with their bishop is impaired because the bishop does permit such rites within their diocese.

If each bishop does not have the right to prohibit use of any authorised service (as is the usual practice in the Church of England, although the initial legislation for women priests allowed a diocesan bishop to prevent their ministry in their diocese) then all such conservative parishes will find their communion impaired with their bishop.  In addition, bishops will be required, whatever their beliefs, to accept such services being authorised in those places where they are “chief pastor” and have “jurisdiction as Ordinary”, despite having “the right, save in places and over persons exempt by law or custom…of conducting, ordering, controlling, and authorizing all services in churches, chapels, churchyards and consecrated burial grounds” and the duty to “banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions” (Canon C18).  This outcome will make it very difficult, perhaps impossible, for many present and future bishops who are committed to exercising their ministry in a manner faithful to their understanding of Scripture and the teaching of the Anglican Communion.


Through the last two decades TEC has moved to become a church whose majority culture is overwhelmingly affirming of same-sex unions and of marriage as a way of life open to same-sex couples whose marriages should be solemnized as holy matrimony within church.  This has been a painful and divisive process within its own life and for the wider Anglican Communion.  TEC had appeared in recent years to be more willing to find a way of still incorporating within its common life those committed to traditional and Communion teaching on marriage and sexual ethics who wished to witness to that teaching and to uphold it with integrity while ministering within TEC.   In the light of the treatment of Bishop Love and the recent judgment against him that commitment now hangs by a thread.  This ruling appears, to those who hold his views, to push TEC to the very brink of confirming Richard Neuhaus’s Law that “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed”.

This is not, however, inevitable.  It may be that realising this danger will enable us—in TEC, the Communion, and perhaps shortly in the Church of England—to pull back from that cliff edge.  The challenge now is whether there are enough people truly committed to working out what it means to seek “Communion Across Difference”. Can we find, across those differences, creative ways which encourage the highest possible degree of communion between us as deeply divided Christians?  Can we re-envision our life together—in our provinces and in our Communion—by creating shared structures that also express the realities of our impaired communion in varying degrees of visible differentiation?

The Bishop Love ruling warns us afresh that we cannot simply appeal to the importance of unity and conserve existing structures in the face of our very different understandings of the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ’s Church.  We need instead to commit to the difficult intellectual, spiritual, and political task of seeking together new ways to acknowledge structurally the impairment of communion which is inevitably created by our very different understandings. Only by doing this, in recognition that “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’”, are we likely to avoid the stark alternative: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:14-15).

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