Bishop Bill Love, TEC, and same-sex marriage in the church

This article first appeared on Psephizo.

The recent negative judgment by The Episcopal Church’s Hearing Panel on Bishop Bill Love’s pastoral direction nearly two years ago to the clergy of his diocese (Albany) is justifiably leading to widespread comment and concern. But what has happened and what is really at stake? This article explains the background and some of the key elements and unclarities in the judgment; a second article tomorrow will explore some of its possible implications and consequences.

The Background

The Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) has, for several decades, been authorising various forms of service to affirm same-sex couples. This is one of the major causes of the divisions within the Anglican Communion and was addressed in the 2004 Windsor Report which sought, among other things, a moratorium on such rites. Initially, the services took the form of blessing for same-sex unions. In 2015, however, the further significant step was taken by General Convention of authorising experimental liturgies for same-sex marriage. Because of TEC’s polity, however, each diocesan bishop had to authorise such rites if they were to be used in their dioceses.

As a result of this trajectory, a number of diocesan bishops left TEC, often with many of their clergy and leading to legal disputes. Most helped form or joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). However, a significant number of bishops, such as Bill Love (consecrated as Bishop Coadjutor in 2006) have felt called by God to remain within TEC, to continue to minister to the flock entrusted to their care at their consecration, and to uphold traditional Anglican teaching, as expressed by the Communion, in their teaching and ministry. They have therefore refused to authorise liturgies blessing same-sex unions or rites for same-sex marriage. They have supported each other in this witness through the work of Communion Partners.

In the run-up to the 2018 General Convention a campaign was launched to enable same-sex marriage to be available in every diocese of TEC as it was felt to be unjust that gay and lesbian Episcopalians in some parts of the country could not marry in church. One way of doing this which was proposed was to incorporate the liturgies into the Book of Common Prayer. This would have made the already difficult position of Communion Partner bishops almost certainly untenable as it would have decisively redefined the doctrine, discipline, and worship of TEC which bishops promise to conform to in their episcopal oaths.

Thankfully, a significant number of those supporting same-sex marriage, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, were not willing to follow such a path which seriously risked excluding those holding to traditional Anglican teaching. As a result, an alternative approach was able to be found which became Resolution B012 from the 2018 General Convention. This sought to grant the desire of many to ensure same-sex marriages could occur in any diocese while enabling those bishops opposed to same-sex marriage to continue to minister with integrity. This was done by again authorizing the controversial liturgies for “continued trial use” along with two new liturgies but creating a process by which Communion Partner bishops would be able to make arrangements for another bishop to have the necessary oversight if one of their parishes wished to celebrate same-sex marriages:

That in dioceses where the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or, where applicable, ecclesiastical supervision) holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites (para 8).

The questions and challenges raised by this attempt to create a secure space for the minority conservative position (at least as great as those in the Church of England in relation to differences over women priests and bishops) were to be addressed by a Task Force on Communion Across Difference (Resolution A227) which is currently preparing a report for next year’s General Convention.

In their Austin Statement following the passing of the resolution, and in their detailed FAQs about it, the Communion Partners made clear how important it was that this way forward preserved the Book of Common Prayer:

We are grateful to God that the 79th General Convention has preserved the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, guaranteeing its continued use. While giving space for those who seek to develop new rites and new language under the guidance of their bishop, the Convention “memorialize[d] the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as a Prayer Book of the church preserving the psalter, liturgies, The Lambeth Quadrilateral, Historic Documents, and Trinitarian formularies ensuring its continued use” (Resolution A068). In adopting this resolution, the General Convention ensured that we may continue to pattern our communities after the historic Faith and Order of the Book of Common Prayer as authorized in the Episcopal Church, and that clergy and bishops will be able to vow obedience to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of this church as set forth in its historic prayer book (Austin, para 7).

Bishops may continue to lead their dioceses in accordance with the traditional teaching on marriage as found in Scripture and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is also the consensus position of the Lambeth Conference (Resolution 1.10, 1998), frequently reiterated by all the Anglican Instruments of Communion. Congregations that seek to perform same-sex marriages in such dioceses do so under the pastoral care of another bishop. The “Austin Statement” of the Communion Partner bishops recorded just this intention for their dioceses (FAQs).

The FAQs, however, also accepted that a bishop could not prohibit the use of the Trial Use marriage rites in his or her diocese in the light of the resolution:

As of Advent 1 of 2018, in all dioceses where the marriage of same-sex couples is legal under civil law, no bishop of the Episcopal Church may prohibit the use of the Trial Use marriage rites. This was the clear intent of Resolution 2018-B012, which set specific “terms and conditions” for how the authorized Trial Use marriage rites were to be used.

Although every other Communion Partner bishop established certain (and varied) “terms and conditions” for the small number of their parishes wishing to use the new same-sex marriage rites, Bishop Bill Love in Albany refused to do this. He found that in conscience he could not do so given his understanding of Scripture, the doctrine and worship of the BCP which he sought to uphold, and his diocesan canons and the teaching of the Anglican Communion which were also clear that marriage was between a man and a woman. His November 2018 Pastoral Letter clearly and graciously set out his reasons and concluded with the direction:

Until further notice, the trial rites authorized by Resolution B012of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church shall not be used anywhere in the Diocese of Albany by diocesan clergy (canonically resident or licensed), and Diocesan Canon 16 shall be fully complied with by all diocesan clergy and parishes.

It is this direction which eventually led to charges being brought against him.

The Verdict

Given the statement quoted above from the Communion Partner FAQs, many of us who shared Bishop Love’s theological stance were concerned that TEC seeking to resolve the problem by judicial process was inevitably going to end with a negative verdict against Bishop Love for violation of the discipline of the Church. The hope was therefore that other approaches could be found to resolve the deadlock. The quite different approach of the current Presiding Bishop compared to that of his predecessor, his constant appeal to Christian love, the desire to work at “Communion Across Difference” within TEC (and the wider Communion), and the delay in bringing charges gave some hope for this. Although complex, could it not, for example, be made possible to find a way to transfer the few diocesan clergy of Albany wishing to exercise their rights under B012 to another bishop so they were not bound by the directive and in marrying a same-sex couple were no longer acting under the authority of Bishop Love and so implicating him and the whole diocese in their actions?

Sadly, the decision was taken by TEC to pursue the matter legally and in September 2019 the Communion Partner bishops issued a statement (“The Minneapolis Statement”) expressing their great concern about this. Although a strong case was put by Bishop Love that he was not in violation of the Discipline and Worship of the Church, it looked inevitable that following this track would not end well but few expected it to end as badly as it now appears to have done.

The most serious aspect of the verdict are the extent of the violations and the grounds on which the judgment is reached which are more than merely technical. The ruling is that resolution B012, rather than preventing the revision of the BCP, with all its consequent problems for all Communion Partner bishops, actually effected this change.

In key phrases (italics added) from the Summary of Opinion against Bishop Love:

This Panel unanimously concludes that TEC has met its burden of showing, by clear and convincing evidence, that Bishop Love has violated Canon IV.4.1(c) in that his November 10, 2015 Pastoral Directive violated the Discipline of the Church, as Resolution B012 was properly constituted and passed as an authorized revision to the BCP…..TEC has also met its burden of establishing that the Direction violated the Worship of the Church in that Resolution B012 added canonically-authorized same-sex marriage rites to the Worship of the Church pursuant to the BCP. Therefore, Bishop Love’s argument that abiding by Resolution B012 would put him in violation of the Discipline, Doctrine and Worship of the Church fails in each assertion. Resolution B012 effectively added rites of worship to which paragraph one of “Concerning the Service” regarding “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” and “The Blessing of a Civil Marriage”(“commentary to Concerning the Service”) at 422 of the BCP, describing marriage “as between a man and a woman,” does not apply…. Finally, Resolution B012 was properly constituted to render marriage rites as canonically authorized revisions to the BCP.

This summary and the wider judgment will require some time to digest and evaluate but among the most significant elements are

1. Despite being explicitly authorized “for trial use” the rites are now being judged to be “authorized revision(s)” to the BCP itself. In the judgment itself, however, the language that is used is simply “proposed revisions” and this was what was stated by those bishops who proposed it at General Convention:

Q: Are you proposing that these rites become part of the Book of Common Prayer?

A: No, at least not now. Our proposal differs in this way from that of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, which does propose moving toward prayer book revision (Resolution A085). They propose to present the Trial Use rites now as prayer book amendments. This would need to pass again in 2021 before attaining Prayer Book status.

But authorizing Trial Use rites is not the same thing as proposing Prayer Book revision. In order to become part of the Book of Common Prayer, a resolution would need to propose that they be adopted as a prayer book amendment, be sent to diocesan conventions for discussion, and then pass again on a second reading at the next General Convention. Our resolution does not propose any of that, but instead simply extends the period of Trial Use.

It is unclear on what basis the Bishop of Rhode Island (who as a proposer of B012 issued the explanation quoted above prior to its passing) is now, as President of this Hearing Panel, ruling the exact opposite such that “proposed revisions” are in fact “authorized revisions”.

2. The claim that “if Resolution B012 was properly constituted as a canonical proposed revision to the BCP, it constitutes the Worship of the Church” (p41). It thus appears to state that even if it is accepted that the same-sex marriage rites are only a “proposed revision to the BCP” and even though they are only for “trial use” under B012 they are nevertheless to be put on a par with the BCP as elements of “the Worship of the Church” which bishops are to uphold. Thus it is held that Bishop Love’s action “constituted a violation of his vows to adhere to the Worship of the Church” (p42) and not just a violation of its Discipline.

3. Although it is not explicitly stated that Bishop Love also violated the Doctrine of the Church, the question it asks (p31) and appears to answer in the affirmative is “Did Bishop Love’s Pastoral Direction Violate the Discipline and Doctrine of the Church?” (p31). While rejecting one of TEC’s arguments in relation to doctrine the ruling seems to accept TEC’s claim that “canonical changes to Canon I.18 that authorized same-sex marriage and Resolution 2015 B045 allowing for the provisional use of same-sex rites, had the effect of modernizing Doctrine to include same-sex marriage” (p35) and states (p36) that the definition of Doctrine in Canon IV.2 “would plainly include any marriage rite authorized by General Convention as a revision to the BCP” (which is how it interprets B012).

4. The argument of Bishop Love that the Doctrine of the Church in relation to marriage is clearly stated in the BCP (in its commentary on the Marriage Service and in its Catechism) and is what he is upholding in his stance is dismissed on the basis that these statements “should be read in a way to limit their application only those Marriage rites offered to cisgender couples” (p34), a peculiar use of “cisgender” apparently to mean “opposite sex” or “opposite gender” as most same-sex couples who marry are cisgender.

In summary, the ruling claims that Resolution B012 not only has canonical force meaning he has violated “the Discipline of the Church” but also that

  • The resolution has in fact authorized revisions to the BCP,
  • The liturgies B012 authorizes for “trial use” are now part of “the Worship of the Church”
  • The marriage doctrine stated in the BCP is not “the Doctrine of the Church”,
  • By implication, that same-sex marriage is now part of “the Doctrine of the Church”.

Bishop Love in refusing to permit same-sex marriages in his diocese has therefore been found to have violated his oaths to uphold the Discipline of the Church, the Worship of the Church, and (possibly) the Doctrine of the Church.

There are clearly some significant implications for TEC as a result of this. But, given the importance of the issue in the wider Anglican Communion, and with the postponement of the Lambeth Conference to 2022, there will be implications for Communion relations. More than that, with the impending launch of the Living in Love and Faith project, there will inevitably be implications for the Church of England as well. I will explore all these in tomorrow’s post.

Leave a comment