“Communion Partners” and Marriage Doctrine and Liturgy in The Episcopal Church (USA)

The publication by The Episcopal Church (USA) of responses from around the Communion to its proposed changes in relation to same-sex marriage have created something of a firestorm in the Church of England (see original report at Thinking Anglicans and their collation of later responses - from One Body One Faith and others - and comments on these).  That is because they revealed that, back in November, William Nye, The Secretary General to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, had written a lengthy reply for the CofE.  Due to time constraints this derived, it noted, from discussions “among staff of the Church’s Archbishops’ Council only” although it has subsequently been clarified that the reply was “in consultation with the Archbishops and the Bishop of Coventry, the chairman of the Faith and Order Commission”.

While the process was far from ideal and some wording unhelpful, the level of outrage that has resulted is difficult to understand in relation to the substance of the letter.  Most of this simply states the realities of Church of England and wider Anglican doctrine, practice and discussions.  The reply is also more restrained than those from other provinces, including Australia whose Primate – not a GAFCONite conservative - is clear that “there is little question that changing the doctrine of marriage is a matter of grave consequence, indeed a church dividing matter”.

What is concerning is that few in England have commented on the seriousness of what is being proposed by The Episcopal Church (TEC) at its General Convention this summer.  This is despite the details being in the public domain and the response to them constituting a central element of William Nye’s reply.

In 2015 the General Convention amended TEC’s canon on marriage and instituted trial rites for same-sex marriages (with 20 bishops opposing).  These rites can, however, only be used in a diocese within TEC with the consent of the diocesan bishop.  Almost all TEC bishops (93 of them) have authorised their use but eight have not done so.  A similar number of bishops have made clear they would not do so were same-sex marriage ever to become legal in their diocese.  The latter group includes most of the serving Province IX bishops from the seven dioceses of Latin America and the Caribbean, five of whom submitted a response saying that “if the Church approves these changes, they are greatly deepening the breach, the division and the Ninth Province will have to learn to walk alone”.

Almost all of these bishops are Communion Partner (CP) bishops who, together with Communion Partner clergy, are committed to the vision of The Windsor Report and the Anglican Communion Covenant.  They have stayed in TEC rather than, like other conservatives in recent years, leaving it to become part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).  In following this path they have sought, in line with the Communion moratoria and in contrast to most of their province, to continue to uphold Communion teaching on marriage and sexual ethics while still “walking together” rather than “walking apart” into a form of border-crossing.  They have also wanted to remain fully in the Anglican Communion and in communion with the see of Canterbury which is not the situation of ACNA even though it is in full communion with many Anglican Communion provinces in impaired or broken communion with TEC.  Taken together, the CP dioceses, with over quarter of a million baptized members and Average Sunday Attendance of nearly 85,000 are comparable to or larger than many Communion provinces and ACNA and larger than any formal group under alternative episcopal oversight in the C of E.

Three proposals before General Convention this year would significantly alter this situation and make it hard to see how there will be any ongoing place for this Communion witness within American Anglicanism.  One would remove, with immediate effect, the diocesan bishop’s freedom to refuse trial use in their diocese (there is also a proposal to introduce a new transgender re-naming rite across all dioceses).  More serious still is a first reading to write the current trial same-sex marriage liturgies into the Prayer Book, which would require confirmation in 2021 before taking effect.  Alongside this there would be a rewriting of the church’s Prayer Book Catechism to state that “Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage, in which two (2) people [replacing “the woman and man”] enter into a life-long union, make their vows before God and the Church, and receive the grace and blessing of God to help them fulfill their vows”.  Given that all those ordained in TEC have to “solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church” and that doctrine and worship is expressed in the Catechism and Prayer Book these proposals, if accepted, will make it practically impossible for clergy holding an orthodox Christian doctrine of marriage to remain with integrity in The Episcopal Church.

Finally, it is also noteworthy that the proposals coming to General Convention extend further TEC’s revision of traditional sexual ethics.  There has for some time been a liturgy for “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” which was produced for same-sex unions before there was a marriage liturgy.  It is now proposed to add to this a liturgy for “The Blessing of a Lifelong Relationship” in response to “study of contemporary trends and the expressed experiences of Episcopalians who desire to form and formalize a lifelong, monogamous and unconditional relationship, other than marriage, in particular circumstances”.  This (which was signalled as a likely proposal over six months ago) would be the first authorised Anglican liturgy to bless non-marital heterosexual unions.

It is these very significant proposed developments - eliminating the Christian doctrine of marriage from TEC’s doctrine and liturgy and effectively excluding its adherents from their church – which led to William Nye’s letter and for many Anglicans it is these, rather than the letter, which should be the headline news and real cause of serious concern within the Church of England.

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