Saturday, February 18, 2012

General Convention, Same-Sex Blessings, and +Bennison

At its national level, the Episcopal Church (USA) becomes more and more absurd each day. Consider just the following stories:

1. Last August, two leaders of the Church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM), who were involved in developing materials for same-sex blessings, presented their case in Canterbury, England for a meeting of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. Their presentation was not well received.

2. The SCLM went on to approve a report to and proposed resolution for General Convention 2012 on same-sex blessings. The resolution proposes a trial rite for use over the three following years, and calls for a further report to be made to General Convention 2015.

3. That paragon of episcopal virtue, the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Bennison, Jr. of Pennsylvania, immediately jumped on the bandwagon and told his clergy that approval of a rite for blessing same-sex unions at the upcoming General Convention is a certainty, and any priest in his diocese who thereafter fails to perform them on demand could face disciplinary proceedings.

Isn't that remarkable? To go from polite rejection to mandatory usage within the space of six months? As they say, it could happen only in the Episcopal Church (USA) - where the Canons mean nothing and the Constitution is play.

Far be it from this Curmudgeon to throw cold water onto Bishop Bennison's ambitions for power and glory, but with his letter to his clergy I'm afraid he has provided another exemplar for my Collection of Canonical Absurdities. When he threatens his clergy with discipline if they do not perform same-sex blessings on demand, he presumably is relying upon this Canon (I.17.5), which deals with the rights of laity:

No one shall be denied rights, status or access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, disabilities or age, except as otherwise specified by Canons.
His reasoning must, therefore, run something like this: "Once General Convention approves a rite for same-sex blessings, it then becomes part of the 'life, worship and governance of this Church,' and so cannot be denied to anyone on account of their sexual orientation."

Except that it proves too much. The rite for same-sex blessings, if approved, would have to be denied to me on account of my already being married to someone of the opposite sex, for example. Indeed, to have any rite geared solely to LGBTs in this Church smacks of the very kind of discrimination which makes LGBTs demand the Church approve them in the first place.

This is the irresolvable paradox at the heart of every demand by LGBTs to be given equal treatment in the life of the Church -- on account solely of their orientation, which they do not share with others of the same age and gender, and not on account of any of the characteristics which they do share with other Church members. "Marriage" may, for civil purposes, be defined any way the civil authorities want to try it, but marriage as a sacrament has been universally and at all times, throughout the whole church catholic, no matter what the time or denomination, regarded as a sacred rite between a man and a woman. Our Book of Common Prayer so defines it, and so do the Canons (Canon I.18) -- to say nothing of Scripture itself (e.g., Gen. 2:24).

To regard marriage as such is not to discriminate against anyone on account of their sexual orientation. Gay men may marry gay women; that they choose not to, and prefer some other kind of union, is not marriage's fault.

Defining a sacrament by the person(s) for whom it is intended happens all of the time in the Church. Indeed, if we allow that there are seven sacraments recognized in Church liturgy (baptism, confirmation, holy eucharist, marriage, extreme unction, confession, and ordination), we see that most of them are capable of being received by a limited class of persons -- confirmation is excluded to all who have not been baptized, for example, and confession is only for the genuinely penitent who have sinned.

Can the Church really be said to "discriminate" in all such cases? If not, then why is the sacrament of marriage, as it has been universally recognized throughout the whole of church history, all of a sudden to be viewed as "discrimination based on sexual orientation"?

The very fact that the marriage rite has to be changed to accommodate same-sex unions, as well as the very fact that a rite for same-sex blessings has to be concocted from scratch, should tell people a little about what is going on here. Those changes will, by definition, discriminate against heterosexual couples. So for the sake of eliminating one perceived form of "discrimination", we introduce another.

People like Bishop Bennison think that the Church is on a one-way track that will eventually result in the solemnization of same-sex unions, and want to jump on the bandwagon before it has even left the barn. But in taking up the subject of same-sex blessings as a stepping-stone to the redefinition of marriage, the wagon is being placed in front of the horse (to continue with my metaphor).

The process itself reveals what is backwards about it. As I noted, the SCLM (and General Convention) view their task as one of developing a rite for such a blessing. Well, we already have such a rite -- it begins on page 433 of the Book of Common Prayer ("The Blessing of a Civil Marriage"). The trouble for LGBTs is that it uses outmoded terms such as "husband" and "wife", and "him" and "her."

Obviously, since "civil marriage" is not a term defined by the Church, any proposed changes to that rite on account of changes in the civil-law definition of "marriage" should begin there: what does the Church accept as a "civil marriage" which is worthy of God's blessing? In taking up that issue, the Church would at least be approaching the subject in a manner which is logical. But no: the SCLM is dealing with the matter of developing a new rite first, and will propose a study of just what the church regards as "marriage" after it has first adopted the rite.

It's as though a legislature were to pass a law regulating the care and feeding of unicorns, and then designated a committee to study just what unicorns are, in order to make the law more effective. The proper order in which to do it would have been to take up the study of unicorns first, before passing any laws on the subject.

There is, however, an even greater Constitutional problem that will face General Convention should it try to authorize a trial rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. That is a subject, however, which requires a post of its own, so please watch this space.


  1. Dear Mr. Haley,

    I read a comment on another site (a Catholic one IIRC, as it happens) in which the author made a point which, I think, goes to the heart of why the LGBT activists within the Church engage in such self-contradictory arguments. I have as yet been unable to relocate the article but the essence of the observation was that "wrong craves affirmation that it is right." Not to be the master of the obvious, but I rather strongly suspect that the source of that craving is to salve the guilty consciences of those who are wrong, sense it, but refuse to acknowledge that which they innately know from the natural law.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  2. General Convention Canon I.18.4 provides, "Sec. 4. It shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize any marriage."

    In 45 years of ordained ministry I have on only one occasion declined to solemnize a marriage, and that was because the proposed marriage did not comply with the laws of the state.

    I have not been asked to solemnize a marriage of same sex persons and don't expect to be asked, but unless the 2012 General Convention repeals this section, I doubt Bishop Bennison will be able to carry out his threat.

    But we can expect some negative publicity and other kinds of social pressure on clergy who don't jump on the bandwagon. That has happened before and probably will again.

    Tom Rightmyer, Asheville, NC

  3. Tom Rightmyer, thank you for quoting Canon I.18.4, and for pointing out how it gives absolute discretion to clergy as to whether or not to solemnize a marriage. The LGBTs in the Church, however, are on a different track. They want the Church first to provide blessings upon their unions, and not the solemnization of the unions themselves (that will come afterward).

    So Canon I.18.4 will have no application to the ability of clergy to refuse to do blessings of same-sex unions, once those blessings are authorized by General Convention and a diocesan bishop. For members of the clergy to refuse to do them, they will have to hang their hat on the optional character of the blessings themselves -- since no one is amending the Prayer Book yet, the rites will of necessity have to be "optional."

    But we are not there yet -- as I will shortly point out in an upcoming post, General Convention has another think coming if it thinks it will be able to authorize optional rites for blessing same-sex unions in 2012. (Want to bet whether GC will pay any attention to the constitutional restrictions on its right to propose any such ceremonies? I thought so -- but I am going to point them out, anyway, so that some bishops and deputies at GC 2012 might be encouraged to raise them from the floor, and force the Convention to make plain its violations of the Constitution.)

  4. In TEc Bishops who hold the "right" beliefs are allowed to abandon doctrine and disciple.

    Bishops with "wrong" beliefs are presecuted for speaking up for doctrine and discipline.

    Of course it all depends on what the meanings of right and wrong are.

  5. LOL! Pewster. Once again right to the heart of the matter ..... Well done, good and faithful servant.

  6. If competent authority rules that Canon I.18.4 does not apply because a request to bless a same-sex union is not a marriage, does that authority have an ecclesiastical right to command what a large majority of the bishops of the Anglican Communion "cannot advise?" Do clergy have freedom of conscience to follow that advice? Does General Convention have authority to bind conscience?

    Lambeth 1998 10.1 "... a. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
    b. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;..."