Friday, September 12, 2008

A Self-Cleaning Ecclesiastical Oven

Five diocesan bishops of California, one suffragan, and two assistants, in company with the Rt. Rev. Jerry A. Lamb (who is not yet, at any rate, the "Bishop of San Joaquin," but at best is a missionary bishop in an unorganized area until such time as the California courts rule otherwise), have denounced California's Proposition 8 on the November ballot. The ballot measure is designed to reverse the 4-3 decision of the California Supreme Court in May of this year to require the State to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples, notwithstanding the State's prior enactment of a civil union law.

The bishops, although using their titles and the presumed prestige that goes with them (otherwise, why sign a joint statement?) offer neither a theological nor a biblical justification for their stance. Despite their having just returned from hearing the wise teachings of Dr. Rowan Williams at Lambeth, their reasons for supporting same-sex marriages are based on sociological ("Society is strengthened when two people who love each other choose to enter into marriage, engaged in a lifetime of disciplined relationship building that serves as a witness to the importance of love and commitment") and equal-protection grounds ("justice demands that same-sex civil marriage continue in our state").

We are thus treated to the spectacle of bishops in the church denouncing a ballot measure, but not on religious grounds. As such, their statement is entitled to no more weight than the statement of any sociologist or philosopher on the subject. So again, my question to the bishops is: Why make a statement in your joint names? Do you believe that you have the right to invoke the name of The Episcopal Church on a matter that is contrary to its current doctrine?

For the support of same-sex marriages is directly contrary to the rubrics for the service of marriage, as stated at page 422 of the Book of Common Prayer:

Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God.
(See also the Catechism, at p. 861.)

Ah, the bishops will reply, but you are invoking Church doctrine on Church marriages, and we are advocating civil same-sex marriages. They are not the same thing, and we expressly note in our Statement that "Some of us believe it is appropriate to permit our clergy to officiate at such marriages and pronounce blessings over the union; others of us believe that we should await consent of our General Convention before permitting such actions."

Sorry, I rejoin---that is an obfuscation, not a clarification. Nowhere in your statement is there an acknowledgment of the official Church position on marriage, as stated in the Book of Common Prayer, that it is only between "a man and a woman." By stating that some of you already believe it is appropriate to allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages, you are giving the voting public, to whom your Statement is ostensibly addressed, the misleading impression that The Episcopal Church either already allows bishops on their own to sanction such marriages, or at least that General Convention has the power to authorize bishops to do so. Both such impressions are untrue, and therefore your Statement is deliberately misleading. (Apparently it is not just our Presiding Bishop who favors making misleading statements in order to attract into the Church those who might otherwise be deterred if they knew the truth of what the Church historically has professed and taught.)

The first implication---that The Episcopal Church presently grants bishops the discretion to allow same-sex church marriages to take place in their dioceses is manifestly untrue, as can be seen by reference to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer just quoted. There is nothing optional about the rubrics on this subject: marriage is "between a man and a woman." Even those bishops who say they are only allowing "blessings" acknowledge this point. So let us pass on to the second: could General Convention, which has the authority under Article X of the Constitution to approve revisions to the Book of Common Prayer, approve a revision in the Church's definition of marriage so as to allow same-sex marriages to take place in its churches?

Well, let us draw out some of the consequences if we conclude that it could. If General Convention can change the rubric to read that marriage is "between any two persons", then as Dr. Mohler asks, why could it not also provide that it is "between any two or more persons"? And if you cite in response the "Christian value of monogamy" as you do in your statement, how does that value differ in any way from the Christian value of monogamy between a man and a woman---except that you have now decided, for non-biblical and non-theological reasons, that the latter is no longer a Christian value? In other words, if you are going to ground a change in the BCP on "Christian values," then how do you derive a "Christian value of monogamy" (from the Greek monogamos, "one marriage") that is separate from the traditional Christian value of marriage between a man and a woman? You cannot do so without engaging in post-modern hocus-pocus, and so that is no basis on which to make such a fundamental change in the BCP.

Or again, if marriage is only to be between "any two persons", then on what basis shall incestuous marriage be ruled out---again, always assuming the parties show the "Christian values of monogamy, commitment, love, mutual respect and witness of monogamy" which you specify in your Statement?

And last but certainly not least, if General Convention can change the rubrics of marriage, it can change the rubrics of Holy Communion, or the rubrics of Baptism or Confirmation. Why not allow baptism of pets, for instance, so that one can be assured to see them in the afterlife? (For a real answer to this question, be sure to read Sister Mary Martha's views here and here. Her theology is far better grounded than is that demonstrated by the stance of the California bishops.)

In fact, the Bishops' citation to a Resolution adopted by the 75th General Convention shows precisely what is wrong with the current polity of The Episcopal Church. That Resolution provided: "That the 75th General Convention oppose any state or federal constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex civil marriage or civil unions." So we have the General Convention taking a political stance on a matter that ultimately it has no power to change with regard to the Church itself---and still be true to its doctrine. It is saying, in effect, "We are The Episcopal Church in General Convention assembled, and we say that same-sex marriages ought to be allowed at civil law, even though we can never authorize our clergy to officiate at them, without jettisoning the entire Scriptural tradition behind our liturgies." This would be no better than the ploy sanctioned by our Presiding Bishop to bring unbelievers into the Church, as referenced earlier.

Such a statement, whether from the deputies at General Convention or from the California bishops, might be acceptable if it made the Church's own teaching clear, and if it also began: "We, the undersigned, say as individuals, and not on behalf of The Episcopal Church, that same-sex marriages ought to be allowed . . ." Apparently their own individual authority, however, carries insufficient weight: they have to drag in the prestige of the Church, and make it seem like they are lending a theological import to their position which is not theirs to give. By implicating the authority of the Church in political matters, their actions are no different from those of the popes who enmeshed the Church in temporal matters, to the detriment of its moral authority.

What is worse, the fact that they see no advantage to issuing a statement as individuals tends to undermine their entire position. For if having the weight of the Church behind them is the only way they can expect to gain advantage in the political arena (and let's be candid here: the statement was not issued until it became politically necessary, in their eyes, to defeat Proposition 8), then we see that it is only by abusing their authority in the Church that they can advance their individual political views. And it is precisely for that reason that the IRS takes an interest in examining the tax-exempt status of churches who advocate political positions: they are granted exemption from taxation because they are supposedly a religious, and not a political, organization. (That does not stop certain clergy from agitating to have their cake and eat it, too. Apparently no lessons have been learned from the egregious example set by the Church in the Middle Ages.)

There is finally another aspect to mention here, since this is principally a blog about Church canon law. Title IV, Canon 1.1 states that a "Bishop . . . shall be liable to Presentment and Trial for . . . [h]olding and teaching publicly or privately, and advisedly, any doctrine contrary to that held by this Church." As we have seen, advocating same-sex civil marriages is not exactly a "doctrine contrary to that held by this Church"; but the advocation of same-sex Church marriages would be. Now under the changes to the canons that are to be considered at GC 2009 in Anaheim, there is a proposal that would impose on lay members elected or appointed to an office a duty "well and faithfully [to] perform the duties of that office in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of this Church and of the Diocese in which the office is being exercised." The proposed canon would allow the the appropriate Ecclesiastical Authority, with the advice and consent of the related Standing Committee, summarily to remove any such lay member if it were determined that the office holder had either failed in that duty, or even had expressed an "intention to disregard it in the future."

My question, then, is this. Nine bishops of this Church have announced their intent to allow same-sex marriages in their churches if General Convention should authorize it---which it almost certainly will be asked to do at Anaheim next June. Such authorization, if it comes, will take place without any corresponding change to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, since under the Constitution any such change requires two successive sessions of General Convention in order to take effect. Such a stated intent to violate the rubrics, and by General Convention 2009 to authorize their violation, would provide sufficient grounds under the proposed Canon I.17.8 summarily to remove all lay deputies voting for such a resolution. And if that is the case, why should it not also be grounds for the removal of the bishops and clergy who vote at General Convention to support such an authorization, on the basis that as to them, it is a violation of Canon IV.1.1 quoted above?

Just think: we could have a wholesale cleaning of the house. And best of all, it would be self-enforcing, since they would convict themselves by the act of voting for the Resolution!

The liberals in TEC have managed to invent the Self-Cleaning Ecclesiastical Oven.


  1. "By stating that some of you already believe it is appropriate to allow clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages, you are giving the voting public, to whom your Statement is ostensibly addressed, the misleading impression that The Episcopal Church either already allows bishops on their own to sanction such marriages, or at least that General Convention has the power to authorize bishops to do so."

    Unless they are referring only to their power to officiate at civil marriages, perhaps.

  2. I don't think that's a possible distinction to draw, Tom. Canon I.18.1 makes it crystal clear that Episcopal clergy are not permitted to perform civil marriages in violation of Church law:

    "Every Member of the Clergy of this Church shall conform to the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also to the laws of this Church governing the solemnization of Holy Matrimony." (Emphasis added.)