Same Sex Blessings: What Did General Convention Do?

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Friday, July 20th, 2012

Every bishop, priest and deacon undertakes at ordination “to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church.” The recent action by General Convention purporting to authorize bishops to authorize a rite for blessing same sex couples raises in an acute way the question of what exactly is the worship of The Episcopal Church to which all clergy promise to conform. We look carefully at this question below. Our conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  • The authority to define the worship of the Church is spelled out with precision in Article X of the Constitution.
  • Subject to the exceptions in Article X, the worship of the Church is that found in the Book of Common Prayer, which is to be used “in all the Dioceses.”
  • General Convention has authority only to amend the Book of Common Prayer or to propose revisions to the BCP and authorize them “for trial use throughout the Church” “at any time” “as an alternative” to the standard Book of Common Prayer.
  • Diocesan bishops, not General Convention, have authority to permit supplemental forms of worship under defined conditions.
  • The proposed rite was not conceived as a revision to the Book of Common Prayer and therefore General Convention had no authority to authorize its use by any majority or supermajority vote.
  • The action of General Convention was theologically incoherent in that it assumed that God’s blessing can be invoked provisionally and in some dioceses but not others.
  • The resolution passed is unconstitutional because it exceeds the authority of General Convention and invites clergy to violate BCP rubrics.
  • Bishops cannot constitutionally permit use of this rite in connection with civil marriages.

We conclude: taken as a whole, Resolution A049 is not just a legal nullity and theologically incoherent, although it is that. It is also profoundly unconstitutional in that it purports to do something General Convention is not authorized to do and encourages clergy to violate the canons, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and their vow to conform to the worship of the Church.

But this is only one instance of the proliferation of unconstitutionally authorized liturgical materials for a church in liturgical, theological and canonical chaos. General Convention itself has called attention to this problem and concluded “it is time…to honor the spirit of the prayer book rubrics.” We agree.

Constitutional Framework

The starting point of any analysis of General Convention’s action must be Article X of the Constitution, which governs the worship of the Church to which all clergy promise to conform at ordination. The primary provisions of this article are found in its first paragraph: the Book of Common Prayer shall be used in “all the Dioceses of this Church” and “no alteration thereof or addition thereto” shall be made unless specified procedures are followed for its amendment. Those procedures include votes at two successive General Conventions, formal notice to all dioceses for consideration by diocesan conventions and affirmative votes “in each order by a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies” and “by a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops.” (The exclusion of “retired Bishops not present” from the required majority makes certain that “whole number of bishops entitled to vote” includes all active diocesan and suffragan bishops whether present or not.)

If Article X contained only this one paragraph, the Constitution would permit no deviation from the Book of Common Prayer without following this prolonged procedure. No authority in the Church, including General Convention or diocesan Bishop, would be competent to authorize “alterations or additions” to the liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer. There are two provisos to Article X, however, that expand the forms of worship permitted by the Constitution beyond those in the authorized prayer book.

The first of these provisos permits General Convention to authorize “a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof” for “trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof.” General Convention’s authority under this proviso is strictly circumscribed: it can only authorize (i) “a proposed revision” to the BCP itself (ii) for trial use “throughout this Church” “at any time” (iii) as an “alternative” to the BCP.

The trial use of a proposed BCP revision may be authorized at one vote in General Convention provided specified procedures are followed. Most notable is that the number of affirmative votes required in the House of bishops is greater than that required to amend the BCP since the trial “revision” is voted on at only one convention. The exclusion of “retired Bishops not present” is removed, which necessitates the affirmative vote of a majority of all bishops, active and retired, present or not.

The second proviso identifies another authority in the Church permitted to authorize alterations or additions to the liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer: diocesan bishops may authorize “special forms of worship” “as may be permitted by the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer or by the Canons of the General Convention.” Unlike the authority of General Convention, which is limited to amending or authorizing trial use of proposed revisions to the Book of Common Prayer itself as an alternative to the BCP, each diocesan bishop has the authority, subject to the constraints in Article X, to permit in the diocese supplemental liturgical texts. This authority is not open ended, however. It must be permitted by either the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer or a canon of General Convention. (The latter possibility is irrelevant in the context of same sex blessings since the only pertinent canon concerns the authorization of texts in a language other than English.)

Since the Article X authority of bishops to approve supplemental liturgical forms depends on permissive rubrics in the BCP, it is necessary to look closely at the two sets of rubrics relevant to a possible supplemental rite for same sex blessings. There are general rubrics on page 13 of the BCP concerning the use of supplemental texts, and there are specific rubrics on pp. 422 ff. concerning marriage and the blessing of a civil marriage. Turning first to the general rubrics, there are two relevant rubrics on page 13. The first permits “other forms set forth by authority within this Church.” The second permits the bishop “to set forth such forms as are fitting to the occasion” for “special occasions for which no service or prayer has been provided in this Book.” The first of these uses a concept, “authority” in the Church, taken from Article X. There are many authorities in The Episcopal Church, including wardens and vestries, diocesan standing committees and conventions, General Convention, Executive Council and bishops. This rubric is not a general permission to any authority to supplement the authorized prayer book as desired, but a reference to the “authorities” specified in Article X as having such authority over liturgical matters within their jurisdiction. And as already noted that authority is clearly defined. General Convention can propose revisions to the Book of Common Prayer and authorize trial use of such revisions; bishops can authorize supplemental and alternative rites. Thus, outside the context of proposed revisions to the prayer book itself, the first rubric cited leads as does the second to the constitutional authority of the bishops to permit use of supplemental rites.

This general authority must be read together with the marriage rubrics, however, because it is a standard rule of interpretation that general language is understood to be consistent with more specific provisions. And the marriage rubrics make clear that a marriage, including a civil marriage, is between a man and a woman. Thus, the general rubric on page 13 does not permit a bishop to violate the more specific ones on marriage. Indeed, the very liturgical materials commended by General Convention, “I Will Bless You,” included a canonical analysis (Blue Book, p. 220) which acknowledged that:

Both the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and Canon I.18 reserve the rite of Holy Matrimony to a man and a woman. This is not subject to the discretion of either a bishop or priest. If the Bishop Diocesan has authorized use of a liturgy for Blessings, the priest may celebrate that. And, unless directed not to do so by the Bishop Diocesan, the priest may officiate at the civil marriage. However, the structure and text of parts of Canon I.18 may be interpreted as not authorizing a member of the clergy to officiate at a civil marriage where the couple is not eligible for Holy Matrimony, e.g., a civil marriage of a same‑gender couple.

A bishop, priest, or deacon who violates the rubrics or the Canon risks disciplinary action under Title IV.

We will consider below the claim that the proposed blessing rite does not violate these rubrics, but it is important to note the acknowledgement that the authority given to bishops by Article X and the general rubrics on BCP 13 do not permit bishops (or any other clergy) to violate the marriage rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer.

What General Convention Could Have Done

This overview of the constitutional framework makes obvious what General Convention could constitutionally have done concerning a rite for same sex blessings. It could have passed a first reading of a proposed amendment to the Book of Common Prayer incorporating the proposed rite or it could have proposed a revision to the Book of Common Prayer incorporating the proposed rite that it authorized for trial use. It did neither of these things.

Indeed, although it is correct to note that the number of affirmative votes in the House of Bishops fell far short of the 150+ votes needed to authorize trial use of a proposed revision to the Book of Common Prayer, the larger truth is that the blessings rite was never offered as a proposed revision and alternative to the BCP and therefore could not have been constitutionally authorized had all 300 bishops been present and voted unanimously in favor.

This rite was conceived as a freestanding liturgical text called “Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing.” This is stated plainly in the first sentence of the resolution, A049, passed by General Convention. That resolution does not even mention the Book of Common Prayer. Neither the text of the resolution nor the lengthy report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music suggests any intention to incorporate this rite into the Book of Common Prayer (as either amendment or proposed revision) or even adding it to the constitutionally dubious liturgical text, “Enriching Our Worship.” Indeed, ENS reported in March when these materials were first made public that the President of the House of Deputies informed the deputies that they would be published as “Liturgical Resources I” and not part of an existing official liturgical book or series. Thus, it was never even contemplated that this rite would fall within the defined constitutional authority of General Convention to authorize liturgical rites.

In this regard it is useful to note the status of another liturgical text “authorized” by this General Convention, the “Burial Office for a Beloved Animal.” Like the same sex blessing rite, it is a freestanding text. When this text was approved by resolution its status was questioned in the House of Bishops. As reported by George Conger:

The committee removed language from the proposed “Burial Office for a Beloved Animal”, that has the officiant say: “Give us faith to commit this beloved creature to your care, and hear our hope that we all may one day be reunited with our animals in the heavenly places, where you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.”

The new language for the office states: “Give us faith to commit this beloved creature of your own making to your care, for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen”

After Bishop Smith presented the resolution for debate, the retired Bishop of Alabama, Henry Parsley stated “I welcome the liturgy, but I have a question: Where do they go?”

“To heaven, where else,” the Presiding Bishop said.

Bishop Parsley responded, “Not the animals, but the liturgy. I will leave the animals to God, but where does it go in our liturgical book?”

Bishop Smith replied the texts will not be in “Enriching Our Worship” or the Book of Occasional Services, but “somewhere in the cloud.”

Article X does not authorize General Convention to approve liturgies “somewhere in the cloud.” If they are not proposed for inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer, they are outside the scope of General Convention’s constitutional authority.

What General Convention Did Canonically

If General Convention did not do what it could have done constitutionally, what did it do? The primary provisions of Resolution A049 purport to do two things. The first is to “commend” the liturgical text “I Will Bless You.” As a mere commendation, this resolve has no legal effect; it simply expresses the opinions of those voting in favor of it. To this extent, Resolution A049 is no different than numerous other resolutions passed at this General Convention expressing its collective approval of things as diverse as DC statehood and “clean air ports.”

The further resolves of A049, however, purport to “authorize” this rite for “provisional use” “subject to the permission of the bishop,” including its adaptation for use in connection with civil marriages. It explicitly invokes the marriage canon by claiming one provision (but apparently not others) “applies by extension” to this rite. Having nothing to do with any proposed revision to the Book of Common Prayer, this is well beyond anything General Convention is constitutionally authorized to do and is thus a legal nullity like the commendation in the first resolve. To the extent there is any constitutional authority in this area, it resides with the bishops and is granted by the Constitution itself together with the Book of Common Prayer. It does not come from a resolution of General Convention. The best light that can be put on this resolve is that it is tantamount to a joint resolution of Congress “authorizing” the President to be Commander in Chief—in other words, that it is silly, but not unconstitutional. The President is Commander in Chief because Article II of the United States Constitution makes him so, not because he is “authorized” by Congress.

But there is a more ominous aspect to these resolves. They clearly purport to “authorize” something General Convention has no jurisdiction to authorize, thus usurping the authority of the very bishops they purport to authorize. And they invite (using the permissive “may”) bishops to use or adapt this rite in “civil jurisdictions where same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal.” This calls on bishops to ignore both the rubrics for marriage (including civil marriage) defining it as between a man and a woman and the marriage canon, which as the resolution itself acknowledges “applies by extension.” The House of Bishops was expressly advised that the intention of this resolution was to encourage clergy to perform same sex marriages. One diocesan bishop has already reversed his position and will now allow clergy to perform same sex marriages, concluding “we are left with a situation in which the mind of this recent Convention appears to be to allow such services. However, The Constitution and The Book of Common Prayer still say something else.” For him “the mind of this General Convention” trumped both of these foundational instruments.

The incoherence of this position is demonstrated by the liturgical materials that were approved, which simultaneously opine that the rite can be used in connection with civil marriages and that “A bishop, priest, or deacon who violates the rubrics or the Canon risks disciplinary action under Title IV.”

These provisions undermine completely the defense sometimes proffered for this rite that it is for something completely different from marriage, more akin to the blessing of a battleship, and therefore is not subject to the marriage rubrics and canon. But one does not reach the conclusion that this rite is marriage in all but name simply from the fact that it is explicitly intended for use in civil marriages. The text of the rite itself is clearly patterned on the marriage rites in the Book of Common Prayer, including such acts as presentation, exchange of vows, exchange of rings, pronouncement and blessing, all done in the context of the Eucharist. Indeed, the Introduction to “I Will Bless You” states that “while the liturgy we have developed is not called ‘marriage,’ we recognize significant parallels: two people publicly make a lifelong, monogamous commitment to one another with the exchange of solemn vows in a ritual that pronounces God’s blessing on their life together.” (Blue Book, pp. 186-87.)

What General Convention Did Theologically

The service approved is titled “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.” It is distinctive among possibly supplemental rites in being a “provisional rite” that closely imitates a non-provisional one, the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage (BCP, pp. 422-32). Rarely do supplemental rites originate as imitations of BCP rites, and very few target a specific group of people. The similarities are patent. The rubrics speak of the necessity of one of the persons being baptized. Holy Communion may be celebrated. Prayers and carefully selected or edited lessons are read. Promises are given. Prayers similar to those in the BCP are offered. Vows are exchanged. Rings are blessed. A solemn announcement of the covenant is declared.

At this point we come to the rite’s conclusion, entitled “The Blessing of the Couple.” The rubrics read, “As the couple stands or kneels, the Presider invokes God’s blessing upon them.” As with the BCP rite for “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” this provisional rite clearly culminates in the “Blessing” proper. The difference is that the rubrics of the BCP do not speak of the Priest “invoking God’s blessing upon them.” Rather, a prayer is said in which God’s blessing is pronounced. Before this occurs the warrant for the blessing, already established in the lessons and several prayers of the main body of the service, is repeated. We thank God for sending his son Jesus Christ and “for consecrating the union of man and woman in his Name.” No warrant is given for the covenant or the blessing in the provisional rite. Instead God is thanked for sending Jesus Christ and for the couple and the covenant they have made just previously. We thank God for the present couple and their present covenanting.

In the BCP rite, after this final prayer of thanksgiving and of blessing (“by the power of your Holy Spirit, pour out the abundance of your blessing upon this man and this woman”; “Bless them in their work and in their companionship”), the rubrics read “The husband and wife kneeling, the Priest adds this blessing.” This is the solemn final act of the marriage rite. The triune name of God is declared and his blessing pronounced.

The provisional rite speaks of “invoking God’s blessing” and these words, very close to the BCP rite, are provided:

God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you, and mercifully grant you rich and boundless grace, that you may please God in body and soul. God make you a sign of the loving-kindness and steadfast fidelity manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior, and bring you at last to the delight of the heavenly banquet, where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

It is made clear by the design of the provisional rite that the service intends as its solemn conclusion the blessing of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” reaches its conclusion with the Blessing of God, “invoked” by the Presider.

Several questions are thereby raised, in addition to the ones above, about just what a blessing of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is, in something called a provisional rite. The language of “invoking” a blessing is not in itself problematical, as the blessing, when given, takes very much the same form as the approved BCP template, though it may suggest that one is requesting a blessing of God, or otherwise calling it forth in some way. The BCP proceeds differently by appealing directly to the warrant for blessing as already given by God in Christ. God is thanked for what he has already done, namely, “for consecrating the union of man and woman in his Name.” The Priest does not so much invoke a blessing as refer to the grounds for one being available because of character of marriage itself as a divinely order affair. Here the final prayer relies on the very first words of the service. “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle in Cana of Galilee.” On those grounds the Priest asks God to give what is consistent with the character of marriage as such, and so prays that blessing will come by the power of the Holy Spirit. The final blessing is the solemn pronouncement of the Priest of this fact. This warranting for the blessing is not stipulated in the final prayer of the provisional rite but rather the rubrics speaks of the Presider invoking a blessing.

The second question entails the declaration that the service of “Witnessing and Blessing a Lifelong Covenant” is to be a “provisional rite” and that it will be allowed only by permission of a bishop. This means that The Episcopal Church has a rite in which the Blessing of God as described above, that is, the culminating purpose of the rite, is withheld in places the bishop declines to authorize the rite. The blessing of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit lacks a clear scriptural and traditional warrant, but further, it extends itself and is available only under certain conditions. Furthermore, the language of “provisional” may not originally have been intended for this rite, but its use in common English surely means “temporary; for the time being” (and further, only in certain places). Can the blessing of God Almighty as authorized by the church be limited to places where a bishop says “Yes” and if so, what happens if a new rite emerges to replace the one being used provisionally? Does the couple return for a “full” blessing, or is the provisionally provided one somehow topped off? If the couple so “blessed” by God is unable to honor the covenant and vows, what pastoral counsel is available in the resources of our BCP and kindred common reflections of the church? Can God bless in certain places and equally not at other places at the same time? Do his blessings exist for a time only, with limitations and promises of future review?

Bishop James M. Stanton of Dallas is one of the bishops of The Episcopal Church who has declared that the provisional rite will not be used in his diocese. He made this statement to the clergy and people of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He explains the reasons for his judgment.

My first consideration is theological: Is this rite true? When I or any member of the clergy bless anyone, we use the form, “I bless you in the Name of God.” This is what may be called performative language: it performs the action that the words imply. We do not say, “I pray for,” or “I wish,” or “I think that” … God will do so and so. We are only authorized, however, to bless what God, in fact, blesses. And when we use these words, we had better have a clear warrant from Scripture or the theological tradition of the Church to back us up. No individual is competent to decide what God blesses, and no congregation or denomination is competent to do so either. Otherwise, we are merely guessing at best, and misleading people at worst.

My second consideration is closely related to the first: is it really pastoral? How may we give to people the assurance, the comfort and the strength of God’s blessing without the warrant of Scripture or the great Tradition, or even the agreement of our closest brothers and sisters in the Communion to which we maintain we belong? Indeed, how can we do so given the “theological diversity of this church” itself in “matters of human sexuality”? This seems to me to be an incoherent act. A pastoral blessing must rest on a more solid foundation than this. Furthermore, I must point to the “provisional” character of this blessing rite: I must ask our brothers and sisters in Christ who seek this rite if they are really satisfied with a “provisional” blessing? What happens if, or when, this rite is modified, or perhaps even rescinded? What General Convention gives, it can also take away! What kind of blessing is it that is subject merely to majority human vote?

Given these two considerations, my conclusion is predictable: I cannot give direction or permission for the use of the rite in this Diocese. I trust that this conclusion will not be understood to be either capricious or stubborn. The theological and pastoral stakes here are very great indeed. A bishop is ordained to “guard the faith, unity and discipline” of the Church. Given the teaching of Scripture, the Tradition as set forth in our own Book of Common Prayer, the witness of our Communion, and my own theological and pastoral concerns, I find no other alternative.

Our only further comment is that a rite which purports to pronounce God’s blessing is not one that can exist by decision of a bishop. It is either God’s blessing for all times and places in this Church, or it is not. Bishop Stanton speaks of this in his own way when he says that “no individual is competent to decide what God blesses.” Built into the provisionality of this rite is the declaration that it will be used when an individual bishop has decided for her or himself that it is proper. We agree with him that a service of “Blessing a Lifelong Covenant” which concludes as this one does, with God’s blessing being pronounced, is not a rite that exists by vote or by a bishop’s judgment. He declines to use the rite not because he has a certain view on same sex relationships—his personal view as one bishop to be ranged alongside the views of his colleagues—but expressly because this rite confuses the character of the blessing of God and so is in fact no divine rite at all.

What Can Bishops Do?

Taken as a whole, Resolution A049 is not just a legal nullity and theologically incoherent, although it is that. It is also profoundly unconstitutional in that it purports to do something General Convention is not authorized to do and encourages clergy to violate the canons, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and their vow to conform to the worship of the Church.

This brings us back to the authority of bishops to permit supplemental forms of worship. Can the bishops of the Church constitutionally permit the use of this rite? They are the ones who are accountable for authorizing this rite (or others similar to it). Resolution A049 is an unconstitutional nullity and neither adds to the bishops’ constitutional authority nor relieves them of their duty to act in accordance with the Constitution and Canons and their vow to conform to the worship of the Church.

This is ground we have already covered. It should be apparent by now that the bishops’ authority to permit supplemental forms of worship does not extend to permitting violation of the marriage rubrics. It therefore does not extend to performing or blessing civil same sex marriages. Moreover, the overall context—from the nature of the rite to the invocation of the marriage canon “by extension” to its intended use in connection with civil marriages—shows that this rite regardless of its name is an alternative to the marriage rites in the Book of Common Prayer and is subversive of their rubrics. Notwithstanding the apparent comfort of “authorization” from a General Convention resolution, bishops do not have the constitutional authority to permit use of such rites and are required by their vows not to do so.

Conclusion

The issues we raise here are not new. In 2006, General Convention passed Resolution A078 asking the Standing Commissions on Liturgy and Music and Constitution and Canons to propose “amendments” to authorize “local and regional liturgical initiatives.” The explanation noted that the proliferation of liturgical texts made the “meanings” of rubrics on p. 13 of the Book of Common Prayer “difficult to interpret.” It concluded: “It is time to give serious consideration to a structure in which these resources can be understood and evaluated, in order to honor the spirit of prayer book rubrics.” Those “amendments” have never been passed.

Instead we continue to have a multiplication of liturgical texts residing not in the Book of Common Prayer but “somewhere in the cloud.” The intended use of the provisional rite for same sex blessings—residing in some provisional cloud—will violate both the prayer book rubrics and the canons. We are an increasingly lawless church. The “mind” of a single General Convention cannot override our constitutional documents. It is indeed time to give serious attention to honoring both the spirit and the letter of the Book of Common Prayer and our Constitution and Canons. All bishops and clergy should ignore this unconstitutional resolution and honor their vow to conform to the legitimate worship of this Church.

July 20 2012 08:18 am | Articles