1 December 2016 The First Week of Advent
ON MARRIAGES AND BLESSINGS
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Grace and peace be with you in Jesus, whose coming we await!
After prayerful and respectful conversations with our clergy, the members of the Standing Committee and Diocesan Council during the last six months, I have decided to allow same gender marriages and blessings to take place within our diocesan borders. The actions taken by the General Convention 2015 in Salt Lake authorized same gender marriage and blessings beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, 2015 throughout the Episcopal Church and trial usage of marriage and blessing rites “under the direction and with the permission of” the Diocesan Bishop.
During my first six months, I have been asked by ordained and lay leaders in some of our Faith Communities about the possibility of implementing a process which could lead to adopting a Marriage Policy (that would include both Same Gender as well as Opposite Gender Marriages) by the Rector, Wardens and Vestry. It is in response to this pastoral concern for the people of our diocese, that I have made this decision.
I would like to describe the process of implementation that I am asking all of us to adopt. Let me share it by way of two scenarios.
A priest in our diocese is asked by a gay or lesbian couple to witness their marriage. The couple have made plans to be married at the Century Center in South Bend and would like the priest to witness their marriage. As the Church canons require prior to their marriage, the Member of the Clergy shall determine: a) that both parties have the right to marry according to the laws of the State and consent to do so freely, without fraud, coercion, mistake as to the identity of either, or mental reservation; and b) that at least one of the parties is baptized; and c) that both parties have been instructed in the nature, purpose, and meaning, as well as the rights, duties and responsibilities of marriage. Furthermore, if one or both of members of the couple have been married before, an application for remarriage must be submitted to the Diocesan Bishop. While it is not required by our canons, I have asked clergy who witness same gender marriages or blessings to let me know about it as a matter of courtesy, given the sensitive nature of this matter.
A gay or lesbian couple who are active members of one of our Faith Communities (Congregations) in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana ask their priest to witness their marriage and to have their marriage take place in the church or chapel of the congregation. Given the sensitive nature of this matter and because of my commitment to engaging in prayerful and respectful conversations around this topic, the priest will bring the couple’s request to the Wardens and Vestry. The priest will facilitate a process of discernment and reflection, utilizing the material prepared by the Episcopal Church. This process may (or may not) lead to the adoption of Congregational Guidelines for Marriage. This time of discernment and reflection should include conversations and forums in which all active members of the Faith Community (Congregation) are encouraged to participate. I have encouraged our ordained and elected leaders in our Faith Communities (Congregations) to avoid having an up or down vote on the matter but rather to utilize a consensus process that I have found from experience to be most helpful. This process of discernment and reflection will take time, but I believe it is time well spent in deeply listening to one another as God’s Holy Spirit guides and directs your conversation.
If the Rector / Priest in Charge, Wardens and Vestry of that Faith Community (Congregation) adopt a Marriage Policy which includes witnessing the marriages of same and opposite gender couples, the same canonical requirements apply. The Member of the Clergy shall determine: a) that both parties have the right to marry according to the laws of the State and consent to do so freely, without fraud, coercion, mistake as to the identity of either, or mental reservation; and b) that at least one of the parties is baptized; and c) that both parties have been instructed in the nature, purpose, and meaning, as well as the rights, duties and responsibilities of marriage. Furthermore, if one or both of members of the couple have been married before, an application for remarriage must be submitted to the Diocesan Bishop. Given the relational nature of our diocese, it is my expectation that I will be involved in conversations with the clergy and lay leaders of Faith Communities who want to be engaged in a process of discernment and reflection.
I would like also to directly address the question of respecting theological diversity on this matter. Quoting from the resolution, “that this convention honor the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality; and that no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her theological objection to or support for the 78th General Convention’s action in this resolution.” From Canon 18.7, “it shall be within discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize or bless any marriage.” It is a privilege and responsibility to serve as your bishop. I take seriously our baptismal commitment to respect the dignity of every human being which includes honoring the theological diversity among us.
Will there be challenging situations or circumstances for us? Absolutely. Is there a-one-size-fits-all pattern for these conversations? No. But together, we can demonstrate our reliance on God’s grace and manifest a generosity of spirit as we strive to live out the commitments of the Baptismal Covenant as members of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement!
A WORD ABOUT BLESSINGS AND LIFELONG COVENANTS
There are often reasons why persons choose not to be married but have made a decision to establish a committed relationship with another person for the rest of their lives. This is true for both opposite gender couples and for same gender couples. Among the resources authorized for use in the Episcopal Church is a service entitled The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant. This liturgical rite can be used, if requested, as a way of pastorally addressing the desire of a couple who are active members of one of our Faith Communities (Congregations) to have their relationship blessed by God in the midst of their Faith Community while not having a civil marriage. The Member of the Clergy must obviously exercise great care and sensitivity in responding pastorally.
The opportunity to bless a couple who have a civil marriage also continues and a revised liturgical rite has been provided by the Episcopal Church. Resources for engaging in a process of discernment and reflection are available on the Diocesan website. The Liturgical Resources approved by General Convention 2015 are already available on our website.
Be assured of my ongoing prayer and support for you as you prayerfully consider how best to respond to the working of God’s Holy Spirit. If I can be of any assistance to you, please call on me.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Douglas Sparks, Serving as the 8th Bishop of Northern Indiana