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I learned this morning from a friend of the pastoral letter recently issued by the Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano, the bishop of the Episcopal Church’s Long Island diocese, to be read aloud at all services on Sunday, August 7.  The letter, an effort to adapt to the new law establishing same-sex marriage in New York, is such a welter of confusion it will take your breath away.  One might say Bishop Provenzano is trying to make the best of a very novel situation, in a church that has already gone far in the “progressive” direction.  But when you let the city of man tie your shoelaces, Bishop, you’re bound to find your feet tied together and forward movement very difficult.

The first half dozen paragraphs have their share of cringe-making turns of phrase.  We’re told that a marriage can be solemnized in the Episcopal Church if it “conform[s] to the laws of the State and the canons of the Church.”  Just which canons of the Church already contemplate the legitimacy of a same-sex union, he does not say—but I have not tried to keep up with Episcopal progressivism.

We are further reminded that in Episcopal doctrine, “the couple administers the sacrament [of marriage] to each other,” while the priest is “present to witness and bless, and, when included, celebrate the Holy Eucharist.”  These practices will now be extended to “same-gender” couples, in “conformity with the timeless and universal theology of the Church concerning marriage.”  How making way for men to marry men and women to marry women, in a “sacramental” rite of Christians, is in keeping with a “timeless and universal theology” that never heard of such things until just yesterday, the bishop never explains.

But it’s in the seventh and eighth paragraphs that the bishop trips and stumbles.  Here’s the seventh:

As has always been the practice, no priest will be required to officiate at any particular marriage.  It will remain the obligation and pastoral duty of our priests who will officiate at marriages (either gay or straight) to fully prepare all couples, whether gay or straight, for marriage in similar fashion.  No one is entitled to have his or her marriage blessed by a priest of the Church, unless he or she is willing to profess to holding true the teachings of the Church regarding marriage.  Clergy wishing to bless and celebrate the marriage of those previously married and whose spouse is still living, whether gay or straight, will require the permission of the Bishop Diocesan for such marriages, as in the past.

Perhaps it is not surprising that it has “always been the practice” that no particular priest has ever been required to bless any particular marriage.  (One can imagine cases of great inconvenience, or a priest believing that a couple is not “ready” to marry while another priest thinks otherwise.)  But surely a bishop would in the past have frowned upon a priest making it a practice to decline officiating at a whole class of marriages—those involving inter-racial couples, for instance.  Is Bishop Provenzano here giving the priests of his diocese blanket permission to decline officiating at all same-sex weddings?  But what would be the reason given by a priest making such a blanket refusal?  His Christian conscience?  But then does he not owe some obedience to his bishop in the formation of his conscience?  Is it not now, by this very letter, the official Christian view of the Episcopal diocese of Long Island that a man can marry a man in a Christian sacrament?  After all, the bishop tells us that one is entitled to an Episcopal priest’s blessing of one’s marriage if one “is willing to profess to holding true the teachings of the Church regarding marriage” (whatever is left of those teachings . . . ).  Some priest or other will be obliged to do it.  Can any of them cling to a conscientious refusal on grounds of a different view of what Christianity professes?  Or am I imposing too “Catholic” a view of conscience on our Episcopal friends?

And another thing: What can it mean for a priest “to fully prepare all couples, whether gay or straight, for marriage in similar fashion”?  The preparation would have to be —how shall I put this?—superficial in the extreme in order to be “similar” for both kinds of couples.  I think we need say no more about this bit.  And the closing lines of the paragraph, indicating a vestigial concern for divorce, seem quaintly anachronistic in our brave new world of “same-gender” marriage.

The newsmaker, though, is the eighth paragraph of the letter:

For the gay and lesbian clergy of this Diocese who are living in domestic partnerships or civil unions, I hereby grant a grace period of nine months from the effective date of the New York State Law permitting same-gender marriages for those relationships to be regularized either by the exchange of vows in marriage or the living apart of said couples.  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.

As a church that permitted “gay and lesbian clergy” to hold themselves forth as such, the Episcopal Church found it could not resist permitting such individuals to live with their “partners,” cohabiting openly without benefit of marriage.  A kind of ancestral conservatism prevented Episcopalians from boldly sallying forth to bless same-sex unions as sacramental marriages so long as the state was not willing to legalize civil marriage for such couples.  Thus the church found itself obliged to wink at something—sexual relationships openly proclaimed by cohabiting but unmarried “clergy couples” of the same sex—that it would not tolerate if the couples were heterosexual.

Ah, but now comes the state to the rescue!  What the state has blessed, the Episcopal Church can now bless.  Even more, it will now insist on its long-suppressed moral strictures about marriage!  No more of this living in sin, which just yesterday we didn’t have the nerve to call sin!  You folks better get married, because the state has decided for us that we can give you the sacrament!

Or if we want to keep our footing and not join Bishop Tanglefoot in a heap at the foot of the cathedral stairs, we can speak as Christians ought to speak: the Episcopal Church has been tolerating its clergy living openly in sin.  Now it will bless the sin and the sinners alike.  But it will righteously insist on it!


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