Convention Recognizes Faithful Relationships Other Than Marriage

Episcopal News Service. July 19, 2000 [GC2000-098]

David Skidmore, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Chicago

(ENS) In a move that many hailed as evidence of a new way of doing business, the General Convention engineered a compromise giving hope to gay and lesbian members while affirming traditional church teaching on the sanctity of marriage.

By overwhelming majorities, both the House of Deputies and House of Bishops approved a landmark resolution (D039) that recognizes both married couples and couples living "in other life-long committed relationships" characterized by fidelity and monogamy. Following the lead of the deputies, the bishops voted 119 to 19 to adopt seven resolves of the resolution crafted by the convention's special legislative committee on sexuality. The decision followed a day and a half of strenuous but civil debate in the House of Bishops.

Addressing the house after the final vote, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said he appreciated the "gracefulness and graciousness" of the debate, which demonstrated the successful community-building of the bishops' interim meetings.

The debate, he said, had shown there is "a very deep bond of communion, not just endurance, but communion that knits us together." He prompted a loud round of applause from the bishops when he concluded, "That bond of communion has in no way been broken. In fact I think it has been deepened."

Besides officially recognizing couples in the church who are living in committed relationships outside of marriage, the resolution acknowledges "the church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage," while reaffirming "the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives." It also sets out the values governing all relationships -- among them fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, honest communication -- while denouncing promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in relationships. Finally, it acknowledges that some members "in good conscience" will act in contradiction to the traditional teaching of the church on sexuality.

The resolution does not call for the preparation of rites for the blessing of couples, whether homosexual or heterosexual, who are living in committed relationships outside of marriage. That proposal, which in 1997 failed by a single vote in both orders in the House of Deputies, passed among clergy, but failed among laity at this convention. Attempts by the bishops to restore the Special Committee's eighth resolve calling for the preparation of rites failed on a 85 to 63 roll call vote with four abstentions.

Theology committee to address issue

However, a motion by Bishop Vincent Warner (Olympia) that calls for a study of the theology concerning human sexuality was approved as a mind-of-the-house resolution by the bishops after the final vote on D039.

Warner's resolution calls for the presiding bishop to appoint a special theology committee to continue the study and conversation on issues of human sexuality, in consultation with the Committee on Pastoral Development.

The theology committee, which will include lay persons, priests, and deacons as well as bishops, will report its findings to the house, with the hope that its work will lead to a new "mind of the house" resolution on the issues.

At Griswold's request, Bishops Chilton Knudsen (Maine), Hays Rockwell (Missouri) and Herbert Thompson (Southern Ohio) conveyed the results of the bishops' action to the House of Deputies that same day. "I hope you hear in that vote a clear and resounding call of concurrence and support and solidarity with the action you took," said Knudsen, referring to the deputies vote July 11.

Proposed rites labeled untimely

Stretching out over three days in the convention's final week, the debate proved a magnet for the press and advocacy groups. Acknowledging the magnitude of the issue, Griswold took the unusual step of recessing the House of Bishops so bishops could sit in on the deputies' deliberation July 11. Over 100 bishops, many joined by their spouses, watched the debate from the visitors' gallery.

Though the language used by the special legislative committee assiduously avoided any mention of homosexuality, both deputies and bishops understood the sub-text of the committee's controversial eighth resolve to refer to the blessing of same-sex unions.

The Rev. Barnum McCarty, one of two deputies serving on the special committee to speak during the debate, said the church is not yet and may never be at the point of approving an official blessing of same-sex relationships.

Such rites are already being performed at the discretion of bishops and dioceses, he pointed out. Regardless of how the convention votes, he said, those rites will continue. But directing the church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop an official rite for the whole church "would be an unnecessary if not an untimely action to those who are not ready for this."

Concluded McCarty, "If we go forward with this we go beyond where I and many others are willing to go."

Concern for traditionalist position

A frequent argument of many opponents of the eighth resolve was the fallout for traditionalist congregations.

In his Southwest Louisiana parish, the Rev. Peter Cook said, approval of rites for same-sex unions "would lead to the alienation of many parishioners for whom the blessing of same-sex unions represents the crossing of a watershed."

The possible loss of members was also a concern for the Rev. David Ottsen (Northern Indiana). A rite for non-married couples, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is not an act of inclusion, said Ottsen, but of exclusion against "those who affirm the biblical basis of marriage between a man and a woman."

But the Rev. Brian Baker (Idaho) saw any effort for supporting same-sex relationships as a strong card for his parish to play "in the center of what is arguably the most politically conservative state in the union." In Idaho, where the Mormon church and the religious right hold sway, the Episcopal Church stands out as the only denomination "that emphasizes inclusion and grace over purity and judgment," said Baker.

"My parish is growing in large part because of its stand as a beacon of Christ's welcoming love," he argued. Statements like that of Committee 25, he added, will allow the ministry of his diocese to flourish.

No love without justice

While clergy voices predominated during the debate, lay deputies also argued forcefully on both sides of the issue. Christopher Hart (Pennsylvania) said the last resolve "speaks for justice, and it is time for this church to speak with justice. There can be no love without justice."

With equal conviction, Susan Hansell (Central Florida) warned that any approval of rites for same-sex unions, even if just in the Book of Occasional Services, would be a precursor to including them in The Book of Common Prayer. That would have catastrophic consequences for her parish, she said. "If this resolution is passed, my parish family will be devastated," she warned. "They will be asked by their church to abandon their lifelong moral and Christian beliefs. In essence the Episcopal Church will be throwing my parish away."

The Rev. Michael Hopkins (Washington D.C.), president of Integrity, the Episcopal gay and lesbian advocacy group, urged the house not to dilute the resolution by voting down the last resolve for developing liturgical rites.

For gay and lesbian couples living in committed relationships, some form of prayer "is simply a pastoral necessity," said Hopkins. To establish such standards for relationships as those set out in the resolution's first seven resolves, without providing liturgical support, he said, deprives gay and lesbian couples of the church's pastoral care.

Those who warn of schism forget that unity is a two-way street, he said. "This resolution is a compromise as much for gay and lesbian people as for others."

Threat of schism downplayed

In a short press conference following the vote, representatives of the House of Deputies downplayed the role that the threat of schism played in the debate.

The schism card has been played before in earlier debates in the church over the ordination of women, acceptance of black bishops and clergy, and the Civil War and slavery, noted the Rev. Gayle Harris (Rochester). "So the threat of schism is well used for anyone who wishes to have their way," she noted. Wielded as a last resort, "it doesn't help the conversation," she added.

Herbert Gunn (Michigan) said schism had little to do with the vote against preparing rites for same-sex couples. "I think it failed because the church is not ready. I think that is what we heard today, and it is hard for some of us to hear."

Justice and pastoral care

Debate in the House of Bishops centered on the consequences of adopting or rejecting an amendment restoring the special committee's original eighth resolve. That resolve called for the preparation of rites for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services. If the amendment, by Bishop Clark Grew (Ohio), were approved, conservative bishops warned that parishioners would leave not only their congregations but the Episcopal Church as well. For those supporting the full inclusion of gays and lesbians, the issue was one of justice and pastoral care.

For several bishops, however, approving rites for gay and lesbian couples was a step fraught with the risk of alienating not only a sizable number of church members but the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Bishop Robert Ihloff (Maryland) said the leadership of the church has an obligation to keep dioceses from splitting over issues such as sexuality. "It was distressing for me to hear, on the floor of the House of Deputies, people who would leave the church if the eighth resolve were passed," he said. "That threat is left on the doorstep of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and those of us who support them." In his diocese, where there is a sizable number of conservatives, "I know of no one in Maryland who is threatening to leave the church," he added.

The bishops' debate on the seven resolves in D039 was brief. Labeling it an "ill-advised" step, Bishop Gordon Charlton, retired suffragan of Texas, claimed the resolution puts common law arrangements between heterosexual couples on the same plane as holy matrimony. While holy matrimony is the church's clear preference as the only acceptable alternative for homosexual persons, he said, "it is clearly not required for Christian people any longer."

Major shift in church thinking

In a press briefing following the bishops' session, Bishop Charles Duvall (Central Gulf Coast) said that, despite concerns raised over the interpretation of "life-long committed relationships," the bishops were able to reach a strong agreement on D039.

"I am not for people living together outside of marriage. Period," said Duvall. "But I think any concerns in that statement that could be interpreted as encouraging that can be dealt with pastorally at home." It was certainly not the intent of the house or Committee 25, he added, "to encourage living together outside of marriage."

Duvall said the resolution, even without the eighth resolve directing the preparation of liturgical rites, is still a major shift in church thinking. The resolution is an official acknowledgement "that there are people who live differently than the stated teaching of the church. That's a fairly significant admission," he said.

Resolution D039

The text of resolution D039 as approved by the General Convention follows:

  • Resolved, that the members of the 73rd General Convention intend for this Church to provide a safe and just structure in which all can utilize their gifts and creative energies for mission, and be it further
  • Resolved, we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships, and be it further
  • Resolved, we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God, and be it further
  • Resolved, we denounce promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members, and be it further
  • Resolved, this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values, and will provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them, and be it further
  • Resolved, we acknowledge that some, acting in good conscience, who disagree with the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality, will act in contradiction to that position, and be it further
  • Resolved, that in continuity with previous actions of the General Convention of this Church, and in response to the call for dialogue by the Lambeth Conference, we affirm that those on various sides of controversial issues have a place in the Church, and we reaffirm the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives, while acknowledging the Church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage.

The following 8th resolve originally included in the resolution was defeated in both houses:

Resolved, that desiring to support relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage which mediate the grace of God, the 73rd General Convention directs the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to prepare for consideration by the 74th General Convention rites for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services by means of which the Church may express that support.