Fulcrum Response to TEC's official process towards blessing of same-sex unions

Fulcrum Response to TEC General Convention 2009 Resolution C056:
official promotion of a process to develop liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions

(see also our response to resolution D025)

To evaluate C056 it is necessary to trace some of the recent history in relation to same-sex blessings in order to be clear what the Anglican Communion has asked for when it has asked for a moratorium.

The Windsor Report (2004)

The Windsor Report clearly stated the problem in para 143 (emphasis added):

to proceed unilaterally with the authorisation of public Rites of Blessing for same sex unions at this time goes against the formally expressed opinions of the Instruments of Unity and therefore constitutes action in breach of the legitimate application of the Christian faith as the churches of the Anglican Communion have received it, and of bonds of affection in the life of the Communion, especially the principle of interdependence. For the sake of our common life, we call upon all bishops of the Anglican Communion to honour the Primates' Pastoral Letter of May 2003, by not proceeding to authorise public Rites of Blessing for same sex unions.

It then stated the nature of the moratorium sought in para 144 (emphasis added)

While we recognise that the Episcopal Church (USA) has by action of Convention made provision for the development of public Rites of Blessing of same sex unions, the decision to authorise rests with diocesan bishops. Because of the serious repercussions in the Communion, we call for a moratorium on all such public Rites, and recommend that bishops who have authorised such rites in the United States and Canada be invited to express regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached by such authorisation. Pending such expression of regret, we recommend that such bishops be invited to consider in all conscience whether they should withdraw themselves from representative functions in the Anglican Communion. We recommend that provinces take responsibility for endeavouring to ensure commitment on the part of their bishops to the common life of the Communion on this matter.

General Convention 2006

General Convention 2006 failed to pass any resolution responding to this request but refused to pass A161 in the House of Deputies which had included the resolution

Resolved that this General Convention not proceed to develop or authorize Rites for the Blessing of same-sex unions at this time, thereby concurring with the Windsor Report in its exhortation to bishops of the Anglican Communion to honor the Primates’ Pastoral Letter of May 2003…

Joint Standing Committee Response to GC 2006 & Dar Primates, February 2007

Following General Convention 2006 the Communion Sub-Group of Joint Standing Committee (which has consistently taken the most sympathetic reading of TEC’s actions and usually found that such a reading has left many in the Instruments and beyond unconvinced) reported to the 2007 Dar Primates Meeting

It is therefore not at all clear whether, in fact, the Episcopal Church is living with the recommendations of the Windsor Report on this matter. The Primates in their statement of March 2003 did admit that there could be “a breadth of private response to individual pastoral care”, but it is clear that the authorisation by any one bishop, diocese or Province, of any public Rite of Blessing, or permission to develop or use such a rite, would go against the standard of teaching to which the Communion as a whole has indicated that it is bound. We do not see how bishops who continue to act in a way which diverges from the common life of the Communion can be fully incorporated into its ongoing life. This is therefore a question which needs to be addressed urgently by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (para 17, emphasis added).

The Primates at Dar found the 2006 General Convention response ambiguous. They stated

we believe that there remains a lack of clarity about the stance of The Episcopal Church, especially its position on the authorisation of Rites of Blessing for persons living in same-sex unions. There appears to us to be an inconsistency between the position of General Convention and local pastoral provision. We recognise that the General Convention made no explicit resolution about such Rites and in fact declined to pursue resolutions which, if passed, could have led to the development and authorisation of them. However, we understand that local pastoral provision is made in some places for such blessings. It is the ambiguous stance of The Episcopal Church which causes concern among us (para 21, emphasis added)

As a result they explicitly requested that TEC’s House of Bishops

make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention.

TEC House of Bishops, New Orleans and JSC Response, September 2007

The response of the House of Bishops at New Orleans in Sept 2007 was

We, the members of the House of Bishops, pledge not to authorize for use in our dioceses any public rites of blessing of same-sex unions until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion, or until General Convention takes further action (emphasis added).

The Joint Standing Committee believed that this was compatible with the moratorium but made clear on what basis it reached this judgment:

It needs to be made clear however that we believe that the celebration of a public liturgy which includes a blessing on a same-sex union is not within the breadth of private pastoral response envisaged by the Primates in their Pastoral Letter of 2003, and that the undertaking made by the bishops in New Orleans is understood to mean that the use of any such rites or liturgies will not in future have the bishop’s authority “until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion, or until General Convention takes further action”, a qualification which is in line with the limits that the Constitution of The Episcopal Church places upon the bishops (emphasis added).

The JSC’s acceptance of the New Orleans Response was widely and strongly criticised as not taking seriously the reality on the ground in TEC dioceses. Indeed, Gene Robinson was among a number of bishops present who were clear that the JSC had misunderstood and misrepresented the House of Bishops:

Let me also state strongly that I believe that the Joint Standing Committee of the ACC and Primates misunderstood us when they stated that they understood that the HOB in fact “declared a ‘moratorium on all such public Rites.’” Neither in our discussions nor in our statement did we agree to or declare such a moratorium on permitting such rites to take place. That may be true in many or most dioceses, but that is certainly not the case in my own diocese and many others. The General Convention has stated that such rites are indeed to be considered within the bounds of the pastoral ministry of this Church to its gay and lesbian members, and that remains the policy of The Episcopal Church.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, many Primates and ACC members were clearly unconvinced (here as PDF) by JSC’s generous maximal reading, especially in relation to blessings. This scepticism was confirmed by the fact that in many dioceses same-sex blessings continued to take place with varying degrees of authorisation, up to and including publication of rites on diocesan websites.

Advent Letter 2007

As a result of the responses from Primates and ACC members, Archbishop Rowan concluded “we have no consensus about the New Orleans statement” in his 2007 Advent Letter and noted in relation to New Orleans that

the declaration on same-sex blessings is in effect a reiteration of the position taken in previous statements from TEC, and has clearly not satisfied many in the Communion any more than these earlier statements. There is obviously a significant and serious gap between what TEC understands and what others assume as to what constitutes a liturgical provision in the name of the Church at large.

General Convention 2009

Against this background, a genuine commitment to the moratorium as articulated by the Windsor Report and JSC’s statements clearly required TEC bishops and General Convention at the very least to address these continued breaches of the moratorium in parts of the province and clarify TEC’s position.

What then does C056 do? What “further action” has General Convention now taken? The full text of the resolution is available here. In summary -

1. It calls for “a renewed pastoral response” and “an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships”.

2. It authorises the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) in consultation with the House of Bishops to

(a) collect and develop theological and liturgical resources and report to the 77th General Convention

(b) devise an open process for the conduct of its work inviting participation from provinces, dioceses, congregations, and individuals who are engaged in such theological work

(c) invite theological reflection from throughout the Anglican Communion

3. It authorises bishops to provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of church members particularly - but not solely - in those dioceses where same-gender marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal

4. It continues to honour theological diversity in regard to matters of human sexuality but also encourages members of the Church to engage in the effort of collecting and developing theological and liturgical resources.

Although this resolution does not authorise a particular rite, rather than seeking to curtail the “local option” and make clear the limits to “pastoral response” – as requested by the Communion - it instead encourages the spread and diversification of rites and liturgies which include a blessing on a same-sex union.

There will now be wider experimentation as part of an officially promoted process involving the House of Bishops which seeks to consider, collect and develop “liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships”. This process appears to be headed ultimately towards authorisation of a GC-approved rite. The final clause and the decision to remove any explicit right to conscientious objection also suggests that all dioceses will be expected to participate in this process.

This clearly amounts to “permission to develop or use” (the language cited above from JSC 2007 Report on GC 2006) a public Rite of Blessing and thus goes “against the standard of teaching to which the Communion as a whole has indicated that it is bound”. As a result, it must have consequences for all those voting for C056 because, as JSC concluded prior to the Dar meeting – “We do not see how bishops who continue to act in a way which diverges from the common life of the Communion can be fully incorporated into its ongoing life”.

In response to the Primates’ request for clarification, the JSC generously (and erroneously given the reality on the ground in many dioceses) concluded that the New Orleans HoB commitment meant that the use of any rites or liturgies which includes a blessing on a same-sex union would not have the bishop’s authority “until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion, or until General Convention takes further action”.

The passing of C056 is General Convention’s further action. It clearly gives the use of such rites the authority of the House of Bishops and of General Convention. It thus represents a determined rejection of the moratorium repeatedly called for by all the Instruments of Communion.

As outlined above, the rest of the Communion has – in faithfulness to Christ’s call to seek reconciliation - walked patiently with our brothers and sisters in TEC for many years, constantly inviting them to turn around in freedom and relocate themselves within the story of God that we collectively tell as a Communion, a story in which mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ, synodality, and mutual interdependence play key roles. At every stage attempts have been made to interpret TEC responses to requests as generously as possible. Now, however, TEC has spoken resoundingly and clearly through its supreme governing body of General Convention and addressed the question it avoided addressing in 2006. Sadly, through C056, we hear their firm and unequivocal answer to the Windsor Report and to the pattern of life set out in the affirmations and commitments agreed by ACC in the Covenant. An answer already made evident in the passing of D025: “No! We choose autonomy over mutual interdependence. We will now, in freedom, believing ourselves to be led by the Spirit, continue our prophetic witness and walk apart”.

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