It is that time of the triennium again, as ECUSA starts to build up to its 78th General Convention this summer. Long since having lost its mooring and drifted out to sea, General Convention continues to be populated by those whose object is to move the Church in their desired direction, and who think they can do so by getting General Convention to take some particular action. In the process they do not care how they bend the rules -- even when it means driving the cart before the horse.
Take the subject of Christian marriage, for example. It should be obvious that the term "Christian marriage," also known (in the Book of Common Prayer) as "Holy Matrimony," has a meaning that is different from "civil marriage," right? The Church derives the former from Scripture, and has been handed it down from generation to generation, to preserve, protect and defend -- correct? While the State defines the latter term in accordance with its statutes from time to time?
And that has been the status for nearly two thousand years in various branches of the Church. As ECUSA received that tradition from the Church of England, which received it from the Church of Rome, "Holy Matrimony" is a union conferred by God (as Jesus explained) upon a man and a woman, sealed by their lifetime vows, acting through the divine authority conferred upon Peter by Jesus Christ, and by Peter upon the priesthood whom he and his apostolic successors ordained.
Civil marriage, on the other hand, is a status conferred upon two people (not necessarily, in this day and age, a man and a woman) by the State in which they reside, and whose jurisdiction over them they recognize. Virtually anyone authorized by statute can act as the State's agent in conferring such a status, provided the couple has obtained a "license" in accordance with the State's own requirements. Specifically, the agent does not have to be anyone ordained to the priesthood.
One would have thought until now that the Episcopal Church (USA) had managed to keep the two separate. One would have been wrong.
Once the several States began to authorize civil unions between two people of the same sex, the Church began to seek for ways to incorporate those unions into its authorized rites, as well. At first, it was recognized that the ceremony of Holy Matrimony was unique to the Church -- meaning that its unique, God-given state ("that no man may put asunder") could be conferred only by the Church through its priests, and only by following the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.
General Convention 2009 began to undermine the authority of the BCP when it authorized its Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop "theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships" (Res. 2009C056; emphasis added) -- all the while pretending that no changes were being made to traditional marriage as celebrated in the BCP. In response to its work, General Convention 2012 commended . . . for study and use in congregations and dioceses" certain rites for the "Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant in a same-sex relationship" (Res. 2012A049; emphasis added).
Do you see the subtle word games going on to this point? God forfend that General Convention should be doing anything to alter marriage as such; all it is purporting to do is to develop some experimental liturgical rites to celebrate "same-sex relationships".
But now look at what has happened. The General Convention's Task Force on the Study of Marriage has proposed to revise Canon I.18 ("On Marriage"). I'm not going to reproduce all of the proposed changes here; you can see them for yourself, at pp. 4-6 of the document at the link just given. Just notice, if you will, that as the title goes, so goes the Canon -- the title is changed from "Of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony" to "Of the Celebration and Blessing of Marriage." The words "Holy Matrimony" are removed from Sections 1, 2 and 3, so that the Canon (if amended) will speak only to something called "marriage" as such; it will no longer speak to what is defined by (and in) the Book of Common Prayer as "the union of a man and a woman".
And what is the significance of that change? Seemingly it is rather subtle on the surface, but beneath the surface it runs very deep, into the heart of the Church.
To see just how, consider who reads the canons: practically no one, until a matter of clergy discipline surfaces. Lay people, and even many clergy, are ignorant of the Canons. (For example, no less than the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Maryland recently called for Suffragan Bishop Heather Cook to submit her resignation -- but she couldn't ask to resign, even if she wanted to. She is the subject of a Title IV disciplinary proceeding, and Canon III.12.8 (b) prohibits the Presiding Bishop from considering or acting upon any such request to resign until "the disciplinary matter shall have been resolved ...".)
People who sit in the pews, however, are familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, and use it at least every Sunday. The proposed change in Canon I.18 would remove, as far as marriage is concerned, the last remaining link between the BCP that every Episcopalian knows and uses and the governing documents of the Church. The rites which General Convention 2012 purported to "commend" (not, please note, "authorize" -- only the BCP and the Ecclesiastical Authority may authorize rites in a diocese) to the Church are not part of the BCP, and cannot become so until the procedures have been duly followed to amend the BCP.
As provided in Article X of the Church's Constitution, it takes the vote of two successive General Conventions to change anything in the Book of Common Prayer -- plus, each of the Church's dioceses must consider the proposed change at one of its diocesan conventions in the three years between General Conventions.
The rubrics of the BCP are thus superior to Canons of the General Convention, because the latter can be amended by the vote of just a single Convention, while the former require the vote of two, plus consideration by each and every Diocese in between.
And the rubrics of the BCP currently define "Christian marriage" as "a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God" (p. 422). Not only that, but the entire ceremony of Holy Matrimony in the BCP is filled with references to "the man" doing and saying this, and "the woman" doing and saying that. The same is true for the "Blessing of a Civil Marriage Cermony" that begins on page 433 of the BCP and for the "Order for Marriage" beginning on page 435.
With this proposed change to the Canon on Marriage, therefore, there will no longer be any canonical link to "marriage" as regulated by the Canon and "Holy Matrimony" as regulated by the BCP. The Canon, if revised as proposed, will simply govern those cases where people already considered civilly married by the State may have their union blessed by a priest, as well as those who, for whatever reason, want to be married civilly by a priest in ECUSA. (As both the current and proposed version make clear in their last sections, any priest may in his discretion refuse to perform any blessing or solemnization of marriage.)
The Canon will no longer make any reference to the BCP, because the words "Holy Matrimony" will have been deleted from it. And the ceremonies provided in the BCP, of course, make no reference to the Canons -- they don't have to, because the BCP ranks higher than the Canons. So the Canon will apply only to those locally authorized ceremonies not in the BCP, and the BCP will continue to regulate traditional ceremonies, which will (after GC 2015) no longer be covered by the Canon.
The undermining of traditional marriage will, if this proposed change passes, be just about complete. The pewsters will think that nothing has changed, because their BCPs haven't changed. But for those who want to transform ECUSA into a secular adjunct of today's society, nothing more will remain to be done. They won't have to amend the BCP, because they have their special rites which individual bishops are already allowing to be celebrated.
Nevertheless, the disconnect between Holy Matrimony as celebrated in the BCP and civil marriage as soon to be authorized by the Canons means that the Church itself will have become schizophrenic on the subject. Clergy can continue (for the present, at least) to celebrate traditional marriages in the forms provided in the BCP, even without any canonical authority, because the BCP furnishes its own authority for them to do so. (After the BCP ceremony, they can still sign the State's required certificate, but that act just serves to make the Church's ceremony also a State-recognized one.) At the same time, they can function purely as agents of the State to solemnize and bless civil unions as their bishops may allow -- because the BCP has nothing to say about it, the canons will (shortly) allow it, and the State doesn't care.
But no one can say that the two forms of "marriage" are the same. The State may recognize both, but the Church has many more requirements for its Holy Matrimony. Which raises the question: why is the Church even bothering to have anything to do with civil marriages? What does the Church bring to such a union, if it is not solemnized according to the BCP? What is the point of having a minister recite the required words, and sign the required paperwork? It still cannot be Holy Matrimony -- unless and until General Convention gets around to rewriting the BCP wholesale, proposes its changes to the dioceses to approve, and then gets a final vote passed by a majority in each order.
I submit the Church, by cheapening itself in the meantime to do civil marriages, is simply providing window dressing for those who would like to be seen as having the Church blessing their union. And a church that exists to provide window dressing is not a church, but a secular wedding chapel.
So go ahead, General Convention 2015: make the Church even more irrelevant than it is already. (You've done such a fine job of it thus far.) It's all part of the process of decay.