Bishop’s Pastoral Letter regarding Marriage and the 78th General Convention
A Pastoral Letter on Marriage and Related Actions of the 78th General Convention
July 18, 2015
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As many of you are aware, the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church recently voted to change the marriage canon (Canon 1.18), by making all references to individuals being married gender-neutral. In addition, Resolution A054, authorizing the use of specially designed liturgies for the blessing of same gender marriages, was also adopted. With the passage of these two resolutions in conjunction with the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on same gender marriage, the majority voice in The Episcopal Church has opened the door for same gender marriages to occur in those dioceses where the bishop allows them.
I am keenly aware that there are some in the Diocese of Albany who see the above actions as an answer to prayer and believe it is time for this diocese to adopt the views of much of the rest of The Episcopal Church, thus allowing for same gender marriages in local parishes. I know there are some who don’t care one way or the other, but just want the fighting and arguments about “sex” to stop. The vast majority of the people of the diocese, however (as evidenced by the overwhelming support of past actions of Diocesan Convention opposing the blessing of same gender unions), see the above actions to be apostate in nature, an attack on the authority of Holy Scripture and the sacramental nature of holy matrimony, as well as a total disregard for the impact TEC’s actions have on the wider Anglican Communion.
Given the wide disparity of views and the highly emotionally charged nature of the topic of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, not everyone will agree with the decisions I make as Bishop of Albany regarding these issues. One of the great difficulties in dealing with issues concerning human sexuality and same gender relationships is that the issues in question focus on the very identity of people we love and care about. I pray that regardless of which side of the issue you find yourself on, you will know that I truly love and respect each of you as brothers and sisters in Christ, and will do everything within my power to remain faithful to our baptismal covenant striving “for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being” (BCP 305), while at the same time remaining true to God’s Word as best I understand it, and carrying out the responsibilities entrusted to me as a bishop.
With that said, as a bishop ordained in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church who vowed at my ordination to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church of God“, promised to “be faithful in prayer and in the study of Holy Scripture” and to “boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ” (BCP 518), I am deeply troubled by the actions of the majority voice at the 78th General Convention regarding these two resolutions as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage.
Despite what some might argue, this is not simply a question of civil rights or marriage equality. It is far more involved than that. The very definition of marriage and the sacramental nature of holy matrimony have been called into question, as well as the authority of Holy Scripture and the unity of the Church, particularly within the Anglican Communion. The spiritual health and well-being of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, particularly within the gay and lesbian community, is also of major concern. I will try in the limited space of this pastoral letter to address these concerns.
Looking first at the definition and intent of marriage as understood by the Church, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer state, “Christian marriage is a solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God” (BCP 422). The marriage service in the BCP goes on to say, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by His presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee…The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God” (BCP 423).
In speaking of God’s intent for marriage, Jesus stated, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6-9 – ESV). As the Son of God, God incarnate, it would stand to reason that Jesus would know God’s purpose or intent for marriage. Jesus could have allowed for, or made provision for, a wider interpretation of marriage (to include that between two men or two women), but He didn’t. Homosexuality is not unique to our generation. It existed long before Jesus walked the face of the earth, yet from the very beginning of creation (as referenced above), marriage has been between a man and woman. The Bible and the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer attest to that.
The fact that some in our modern 21st Century society may have broadened their understanding of marriage to be more inclusive, allowing for same gender marriages, doesn’t mean God, “the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” (BCP, 96) has changed His purpose or intent for marriage as revealed in Holy Scripture – the living Word of God. In John’s Gospel, Jesus clearly states that the ways of God are often not the ways of the world. He said, “I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). The Lord often calls the Church to share a message that the world (particularly our modern culture) doesn’t want to hear. I believe this is one of those occasions. While we may not always like what God has to say in Holy Scripture, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to hear it, or that we can simply ignore it. Our vision is limited; His is eternal.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5 to 4 split decision to legalize same gender marriages throughout the United States impacts the civil and legal rights of gay and lesbian couples, giving them the same rights as heterosexual married couples, many of which I would support. However, the decision says nothing about, nor does the U.S. Supreme Court have any control over, the Church’s understanding of the sacramental nature of marriage. Despite the Court’s actions and the recent actions of the 78th General Convention, I do not believe that it was appropriate for The Episcopal Church to take it upon itself to change that which God has ordained and that which the catholic (universal) Church has taught and believed for over 2000 years. Even if one believes that God is now making new allowances for gays and lesbians to be married, before any such action is taken, the whole universal Church (or at least the vast majority of the Church) needs to come to that same conclusion or understanding, and not simply The Episcopal Church. The decisions we make are not made in isolation. They impact the entire Body of Christ, either directly or indirectly.
While some would argue that The Episcopal Church is being prophetic in its actions, others, to include myself, believe TEC has shown a blatant disregard for our brothers and sisters in Christ in the wider Anglican Communion, particularly those living in predominately Muslim countries. These brothers and sisters in Christ find themselves under growing persecution partly as a result of their association with the western Church and the western sexual culture. The actions of The Episcopal Church are in direct opposition to the teachings and will of the vast majority of the wider Anglican Communion (as evidenced by the Windsor Report and numerous other communiqués), as well as the wider Body of Christ. As a result, it has caused and continues to cause great division and harm within the Church.
As mentioned above, as a bishop, I am called along with other bishops to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church,” and to “share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world” (BCP 517). I take this calling and responsibility very seriously as indicated by my recent signing of the Communion Partners Salt Lake City Statement and pledge to uphold its precepts. If the Diocese of Albany was to authorize the blessing of same gender unions and marriages, as some would like, not only would we contribute to the growing division within the Church and undermine the Church’s ability to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world, but we would also find ourselves separated from the vast majority of the wider Anglican Communion. Jesus doesn’t want the Church to be divided; He prayed that His disciples would be one. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also me be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21). I believe the recent actions of the 78th General Convention have put a major stumbling block in the way of Church unity and the sharing of the Gospel.
While I am very concerned about Church unity and TEC’s relationship with the wider Anglican Communion and body of Christ, I am also deeply concerned about the spiritual health and wel-lbeing of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. There has been much debate as to the underlying cause of one’s sexual orientation, particularly in regard to same gender attractions. It is often argued that people with same gender attractions were made that way by God and therefore it is in accordance with God’s will for homosexual couples to engage in sexual relations, and the Church should bless such unions. That argument almost always seems to be based on experience and feelings. The main problem with allowing one’s experience or feelings to be the main source of one’s belief is that our experience and feelings can, and often do, deceive us.
There is no doubt more and more people are coming to accept the above argument. To the best of my knowledge, however, there is no genetic evidence to support such a claim. While God has allowed homosexual and bisexual orientations and transgender gender identity to come into the human race as a result of our fallen human nature, that doesn’t mean He designed a person that way or intends for one to engage in sexual relations with a person of the same sex, regardless of their desire to do so.
On the contrary, there is much evidence to suggest just the opposite. Before we even look at what God has revealed in Holy Scripture concerning sexual relations, we have only to look at the design of the human anatomy. God designed the male and female bodies to complement one another in a way that two male or two female bodies cannot. Biologically, the human body is not designed for two men or two women to come together naturally in the sexual act as a man and a woman can. That is not to say two people of the same gender are incapable of experiencing some type of sexual pleasure with each other.
Looking from a theological or religious perspective, in both the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:22) and the New Testament (Romans 1:26-27), God has spoken against sexual relations between two men or two women. He has revealed that the appropriate place to share the gift of sexual intimacy is within the bonds of marriage between a man and woman (Genesis 2:24; Exodus 20:14; Matthew 19:4-6; Romans 13:9; Hebrews 13:4). Any sexual relations outside of that, regardless of how special or satisfying they may seem, are not part of God’s plan nor are they in accordance with His will, and therefore they should be avoided.
If sexual intimacy is intended by God to be experienced only between a man and a woman within the confines of marriage (as God’s design of the human body suggests and Holy Scripture proclaims), I believe that it is not only inappropriate, but unjust for the Church to promote same gender marriages and bless a sexual behavior that God has spoken against. The same is true for heterosexual couples engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage. To do otherwise is to encourage people to live in a state of sin which they have no intention of repenting of and to place an impediment in their relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, thus threatening their spiritual health and well-being. Rather than helping those we love who are homosexually oriented, we are inadvertently hurting them as well as ourselves. Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
With that said, I do not believe God calls the Church to attack or condemn people who are homosexual or bisexual in orientation or transgender in gender identity, but rather (as Christians) we are to love them as God loves them and to support and uphold them as best we can without encouraging them to engage in a behavior that is physically and spiritually detrimental to them. While God loves every person He creates, that doesn’t mean He approves of or blesses all of our behaviors. He clearly doesn’t. Oftentimes we misuse the gift of free will that God has given us and enter into sin. The Lord doesn’t call us to remain in our sin, but to confess it and by His grace turn away from it and turn back to Him.
One’s sexual orientation in and of itself is not sinful; how one chooses to live it out can be. Regardless of whether or not we have any control over our sexual orientation, we all by God’s grace can control how we respond to our sexual desires. I believe it is God’s intent for men and women who are not married to abstain from sexual relations. I realize that is not easy and certainly isn’t the way of the world.
In trying to discern how best to lead the Diocese of Albany and share in the leadership of the wider Church during these troubled times, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same gender marriage and the recent actions of the 78th General Convention opening the door for same gender marriages in those dioceses where the bishop allows for it, I have been praying and continue to pray, seeking God’s will and the mind of Christ; I study and meditate on the Holy Scriptures, study Church teaching and doctrine regarding the sacrament of marriage, apply reason in regard to the design of the human anatomy, as well as listen to the voice of the wider Anglican Communion expressed in the Windsor Report and numerous other communiqués, and listen to the voice of the homosexual community. In so doing, I cannot in good conscience, despite listening to the very moving stories and experiences of many gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ, give my approval for the Church’s blessing of same gender marriages.
The Diocese of Albany will continue to uphold the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage as that “solemn and public covenant between a man and a woman in the presence of God” (BCP 422). The Diocese of Albany’s marriage canons, Canon 16.1 “Celebration or Blessing of Marriages by Clergy” andCanon 16.2 “Marriages on Church Property” remain in effect. In addition, as stated earlier, I will honor and uphold the precepts of the Communion Partners Salt Lake City Statement.
Those gay and lesbian couples who, in spite of all that has been said above, still want to and believe they should be married, can take advantage of the provisions allowed for in General Convention Resolution A054. I will work with the bishops of the surrounding dioceses to assist them in doing so. I have, in fact, already begun conversations with the bishops of Vermont and Central New York. Whatever provision is ultimately decided upon will not violate Diocese of Albany Canons 16.1 and 16.2.
While I am aware that not everyone will agree with the above decisions, I have tried as best I can in the course of this letter to explain in detail why I have made the decisions that I have. My inability to approve and give my blessing to same gender marriages is not due to a lack of love and respect for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ, but just the opposite. Because I do love and care about them, I cannot authorize that which I believe ultimately does more harm than good. It is my hope and prayer that everyone who seeks to worship God and grow in their faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, regardless of their age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity will be respected and made to feel welcome in every parish family within the Diocese of Albany. We have all fallen short of the life God calls us to, and yet, as witnessed by Jesus’ offering of Himself on the cross for the sins of the world, God loves us and calls us to love one another. May all of our dealings with one another be guided by a spirit of love.
Faithfully Yours in Christ,
+William H. Love
Ninth Bishop of Albany