Freedom from Religion?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011
I've been watching the effects of the recent Marriage Equality in New York State in the six Episcopal Dioceses there. It presents an interesting snapshot of the Episcopal Church with regards to its theology of marriage as well as its understanding of the Christian understanding of justice, pastoral generosity and radical hospitality.

The six Episcopal Dioceses in New York are New York (Sisk), Long Island (Provenzano), Western New York (Franklin), Rochester(Singh), Central NY (Adams)  and Albany (Love).

Five of the six bishops are supportive of Marriage Equality, with different shades of gray defining them and their definition of the canons of The Episcopal Church.

The one who isn't supportive is very clearly not supportive.

So, here's a very brief summary of where everyone is, to date.

Bishop Larry Proenzano
On July 8th, Bishop Larry Provenzano in Long Island issued a "A Theological Perspective and Practical Guideline on Marriage in the Diocese of Long Island."

Provenzano has been supportive of Marriage Equality and is permitting the clergy in his diocese to preside at and bless the marriages of ALL people, and function as an agent of the state in terms of signing the marriage certificate.

In the spirit of 'sauce for geese and gander', the bishop has announced that all clergy - gay or straight - who are living with a partner have nine months (from July 9th) to be legally and sacramentally married.

He writes, "I deem it to be honest and fair, and I do so direct and require, now that it is legal, that only married couples may live together, either in rectories or elsewhere as a clergy couple living in the midst of our faith community.

What's 'honest and fair' to one is not so much to others.

Bishop Mark Sisk
Bishop Mark Sisk, of the Diocese of NY, said in a letter to clergy about their options for marrying same-gender couples under the law that "in the spirit of the opportunity provided by this new law, it is my expectation that all those who are currently living in committed relationships, will, in due course, have those relationships formalized by the state of New York."

Sisk said, "This is an especially high priority for priests and deacons because in their ordination vows they promised to pattern their lives and that of their families and households "in accordance with the teachings of Christ" so that they may be "a wholesome example" to people.

"... in due course".

Is that more "honest and fair"?

Here's why I raise the question.  Over at "Friends of Jake, Susan writes,
"Demanding that LGBT couples marry or "union" often has negative consequences (based largely on DOMA), including increased tax liability, increased expenses, and my personal favorite, the ever-present threat that you need to file a gift-tax statement for the "rent" your same-sex spouse doesn't pay you for the house you own in your name and live in together....yes, that really can happen."
Bishop Tom Shaw
Allow me to jump over to my home state of Massachusetts where they have been living with Marriage Equality since 2004. It might be interesting to see how one diocese is living with the reality of a still un-level playing field.

The Rev. Canon Mally Lloyd, Diocese of Massachusetts canon to the ordinary, Bishop Tom Shaw, said in a comment e-mailed to ENS July 11 that
". . . in general the bishops' practice during this time of transition and change has been to treat situations with pastoral care whenever possible because the fact that marriage is now legal for gay and lesbian people is a quantum shift in identity and possibility for many of them, and to put a timeline on a couple's readiness for the sacramental rite of marriage when that has never been available to them before seems arbitrary and unpastoral."
In 2004, the State of Massachusetts was the first state to issue licenses for same-gender marriages. The diocese does not have a written policy on the issue.

"We feel it is important to hear the voices and experiences of gay and lesbian people on this subject, and that takes time," Lloyd continued. "The standard here has been that unmarried people should not live together in church-owned housing, but there is no written policy.”

Bishop Prince Singh
Meanwhile, over in the Diocese of Rochester, "the bishop formerly known as Prince" Singh, a longtime advocate for Marriage Equality has issued a statement which clearly celebrates the new law in the State of New York.

He writes,
"I want to assure members of my Diocese that no priest will be forced to bless the civil marriage of the LGBT parishioners. We already practice a provision in our polity that does not mandate a priest to officiate in the marriage of a heterosexual couple for any reason. I will be setting up a task force in our Diocese to help us chart our course to engage this journey reverently, deliberately and in congruence with Church Law. I pray that the all New Yorkers, those who support and those who oppose this Act, will celebrate the fact that the human rights of a community have been affirmed by the state. Since no one is free until everyone is free, Marriage Equality takes us closer to our pursuit of a more wholesome society".
Apparently, the task force is expected to report its findings and recommendations to the bishop within a four week period of time. Until then, I'm told, clergy are not compelled into a 'shotgun wedding' and are free to preside at and bless marriages - but, wait for it - not sign the marriage certificate.

Someone has been spending too much time with his Chancellor, me thinks.

Okay, NY is a Very Big state. Hang in there with me. We've just three more bishops and dioceses to go.

Bishop 'Skip' Adams
In the Diocese of Central New Your, Bishop Gladstone B. ("Skip") Adams III wrote, in a pastoral letter dated June 27th, that "I am hereby giving permission, deferring to your pastoral judgments and local application, for the possibility of you presiding over same-gender marriages."

He also wrote:
"The people of Central New York are not of one mind on this matter. The decision of the State has prompted rejoicing for some and deep sadness for others.  This is true among the faithful of our Diocese and my own decision as Bishop will cause similar response.  Whatever your response to these decisions, I encourage you to be measured as you care for one another, for as a community of faithful people in Christ, we are still called to support one another as we seek to be "The passionate presence of Christ for one another and the world we are called to serve."
Nothing about signing the marriage certificate or the expectation of LGBT clergy who are living with a partner to marry.

Apparently, the bishop will take up the conversation with diocesan clergy in October.

Bishop William Franklin
In the Buffalo-based Diocese of Western New York, Bishop William Franklin, also welcomed the new law.

Franklin said he is writing a policy statement for the diocese, which will be issued before the law goes into effect.

That works comes as the bishop finished a series of meetings with various groups of clergy and diocesan leaders to listen to their views on the topic of marriage equality.

No word, as yet, as to any of the particulars of what that policy will look like in terms of LGBT clergy living together in the rectory or elsewhere in the community, or whether or not clergy can preside and officiate at marriages and whether or not they can act as agents of the State of New York and sign the marriage certificate.

In his statement, Franklin wrote:
I personally see gay marriage as a matter of human rights and social justice. I believe today’s vote in the New York State legislature to approve gay marriage was the right thing for the legislature to do, and I welcome the decision. At the same time, I recognize that there are many in our community who disagree. Their thoughts, like my own, are prayerfully and honestly held and deserve to be heard respectfully.
 Is that  "honest and fair"?

Bishop William Love
I hate to end on a sour note, but I'll conclude this brief survey with Bishop William Love of Albany, who obviously defines "honest and fair" in a manner most peculiar to Christian love.

Bishop Love issued a Pastoral Letter which was to be read in all congregations on Sunday, July 3.

Openly Episcopal in Albany reported the response in one congregation in that diocese:
When the letter noted that "New York has now joined five other states in redefining marriage," there was loud and sustained applause from the congregation. Where the letter referred to diocesan canon that "specifically bars any other union" than that between one man and one woman, there arose an audible hiss. When the Bishop expressed his expectation that all "the clergy and laity of the Diocese Albany" will support him in upholding diocesan canon over the law of New York, more than one head was shaking in disbelief.
The resolutions which changed diocesan canon were previously reported by Openly Episcopal:
Resolution #5 passed, but the number of votes for and against were not noted. This is the amendment to Diocesan Canon that bans the celebration or blessing of a marriage "or any other union, except between one man and one woman." The associated Resolution #6 was also adopted. In a vote by orders, clergy weighed in with 110 yeas, 9 nays. the lay delegates voted 70 for and 20 against, with 4 abstentions. This was the amendment of canon which specifies that "a member of the clergy must live within the covenant of Marriage between one man and one woman."
So, there is Marriage Equality in New York, but in at least one diocese in that fair state, while the principle of 'religious freedom' has been upheld, there is no freedom from religion to continue to oppress based on prejudice and bigotry.

As I look at the whole picture, I'm struck by the celebratory but deeply cautionary tone taken by these bishops.  I suppose that is to be expected, given the present reality of our canon law.

I'm also deeply struck by the fact that, with five "yeses"  - one with clear polices and four "in process" - and one firm, clear, absolute, resounding "No way, Jose" - this presents a pretty clear reflection of the present reality of The Episcopal Church.

It bodes well for General Convention to accept the work done by the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music to work with the House of Bishops to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships.

The commission is to report to the 77th General Convention in 2012 in Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the Church Pension Group wrote in a July 11th statement that it decided nearly a month ago to follow the requirements of the New York law and provide "parity of benefits for legally-married same-gender spouses." A letter explaining the change was recently sent to all participants.

The CPG wrote:
" . . . under the laws of the State of New York, employers subject to New York State law must recognize same-gender marriages that are validly solemnized within or outside the State of New York for the purposes of providing benefits to employees."
The rule changes apply to participants in the Church Pension Fund Clergy Pension Plan, the defined-benefit Episcopal Church Lay Employees' Retirement Plan and the Church Pension Fund Clergy Post-Retirement Medical Assistance Plan (known as the Medicare Supplement Benefit).

So, here's the deal: If Ms. Conroy and I, who live in the State of Delaware, where there is not presently but will be, effective January 1, 2011, Civil Unions (but not marriage), get married in New York (or anywhere where there IS Marriage Equality), neither our marriage nor our present domestic partnership will be recognized by the State of Delaware.

Indeed, even if we did marry in NYC, we would have to trade in both our NJ Domestic Partnership AND our NY Marriage Certificate for a Civil Union in Delaware.

Yes, we'd have to apply for the Civil Union, go to our local Town Hall, and "get unionized".

But wait . . .there's more . . . (here's where the insanity begins) . . . the Church Pension Group will honor our Marriage Certificate in New York City because, well, because "marriage is marriage" and the law of NY is the law of NY and the CPG is based in Manhattan. That would be New York.


Except, of course, for this little problem with the Federal Government which is still laboring under DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), even though the Obama Administration has ruled it 'indefensible".

Oh, and the canons of The Episcopal Church and the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer still define marriage as "between one man and one woman".

Stay tuned for a resolution to General Convention in 2012 to change those canons. You'll be able to tell when that happens when the fireworks start in Indianapolis.

The Anglican Covenant Contract will simply have to wait. You know. Just like the rest of us are waiting for the church to recognize and celebrate and bless Marriage Equality. Which, of course, would be 'an offense in the Anglican Covenant Contract which would have "relational consequences".

Until then, of course, Ms. Conroy and I would be legally married in NY where the State would recognize our marriage but neither the State of Delaware nor The Episcopal Church would or could, but we would be married in the eyes of the Church Pension Group.

And you thought being Queer was for sissies.

One would think that the Church would be ashamed of itself.

Imagine! State governments are changing the laws in the name of "justice and freedom for all" but the Church, which is supposed to have been built on the justice of God is still "listening" and "praying" about what to do.

I suppose one could applaud the good bishops for being "wise and prudent" men who are "listening to the will of the people" before setting policies and procedures into place.

I know. I understand. I've been in the church most of the whole of my life. I've been ordained for 25 years. I get it. This is the way the institutional church works.

You'll excuse me if I hold the applause. Indeed, you'll understand if I pull the plug on the blinking 'Applause' sign - at least the one in the church sanctuary.

Discrimination is very ugly. It is hideous when dressed in religious garb, posing as "God's plan" and "the will of God for you in your life."

Some of you are sighing disgustedly and asking, "Oh, for goodness sake, Elizabeth! Won't you ever be happy? You're side has won. Is winning. Just be patient. What more do you want?"

Oh, I don't know. How about this?

I suppose I not only want 'freedom of religion' but freedom from prejudice that masquerades as religion - especially those who profess to follow in the footsteps of Christ Jesus.

I've been waiting for the justice of Marriage Equality for a long time.

Indeed, if you had asked me thirty-four years ago when we lost custody of our kid solely based on the fact of our sexual orientation, I never would have guessed that the very state that took away our parental custody would be the first to enact Marriage Equality.

There's a lovely poetic justice about that - one I truly celebrate.

Just please don't expect me to fully rejoice until Marriage Equality is the law of the land for everyone. Everywhere. 

And.... and.... AND . . . that every Christian, Muslim, Jew and any other religious denomination can celebrate and bless that which God has brought together and no one should cast asunder.

At that time,  I will raise my voice with all the choirs of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven and sing at the top of my throat and from the bottom of my heart, "Glory, glory Hallelujah!"

Until then, I will continue to follow Mother Jones' advice:

"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

I at least still have that right.


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