Dear Parishioners of the Diocese of Tennessee,
I greet you in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, our only Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5) and the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6), who calls us into union with himself and with one another.
The past two weeks have seen your bishop and our elected deputies from the Diocese of Tennessee engaged in the business of the church, at the triennial gathering of the General Convention. The Triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church Women was held during the same period.
I am grateful to our deputies for their work both before and during the Convention. Many served on committees that helped to refine the resolutions that were brought to the Convention. Others helped to monitor the work of other committees from the visitors’ gallery. My wife Caroline and Canon Petiprin helped to organize hospitality and generally took care of the deputies and other friends of the Diocese. I am grateful to all for their work. I think it is fair to say that the Diocese of Tennessee took a prominent role in the work of this Convention.
I write to you today about three very significant matters addressed by resolutions adopted by the General Convention. In this regard, I commend to you the Austin Statement of the Communion Partner Bishops, which I signed along with a number of other bishops. I believe it sets the actions of the church at this recent General Convention within their proper theological frame of reference.
The first concerns Resolution B012, “Marriage Rites for the Whole Church”. This resolution addresses issues of access for same sex couples to the Trial Liturgies for Marriage adopted in 2015, especially in dioceses where the bishop (like myself) holds the traditional teaching on marriage.
It is important for us to understand what has been enacted by the Convention. While making the Trial Liturgies available in all dioceses where same-sex marriage is legal under civil law, Resolution B012 strongly and clearly upholds the longstanding “authority and responsibility” of rectors and priests in charge for “the worship and spiritual jurisdiction” of the parish, as well as the “use and control of the buildings” (Canon III.9.6). In the words of B012, nothing in the resolution regarding access can be construed to narrow that responsibility. Nothing in the resolution overturns the responsibility of rectors and priests in charge, under the pastoral direction of the bishop and in accordance with the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, to direct and determine the worship of the church, including liturgies for marriage, within their parishes.
This resolution also upholds another longstanding provision of our canons, that “It shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize and bless any marriage” (Canon I.18.7).
Resolution B012 also provides access to the liturgies on the part of couples, clergy, and congregations that desire to use them, in dioceses where the bishop holds to the traditional teaching. It does this through a particular structure that upholds the bishop’s unique role as chief pastor and teacher and presider at the liturgy. “The bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites” (B012).
This supplemental episcopal pastoral care means that bishops will continue to exercise oversight of the liturgical life of this church. It also preserves the teaching office of the bishop, especially where the practice of the congregation is at variance with the bishop’s own teaching. Where this is the case, another bishop of this church will provide the pastoral care and the oversight of clergy and congregation that will be necessary. B012 ensures that the Trial Liturgies will be available in Middle Tennessee, under the pastoral care of another bishop.
I see this provision of B012 as a creative application of the principle of the local adaptation of the historic episcopate, as provided in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, originating in the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 1886, and embraced by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. In the words of our bishops in 1886, the historic episcopate is part of the “substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order” on the basis of which the unity of the church might be restored. Here its adaptation works to preserve a degree of unity that we do not wish to lose, in the midst of a serious gap between the bishop’s teaching and pastoral leadership and that of a congregation and clergy.
The nature of the supplemental episcopal pastoral care extended to couples, clergy, and congregations will be determined in the time between now and the First Sunday of Advent, when the Trial Liturgies will be available on this new basis. During this period there will be consultation with clergy and vestries that desire to use these rites, as well as with the clergy as a whole. The implementation of B012 requires this consultation. In the meantime, I will be sharing with you two pastoral teachings, concerning first the ministry of bishops and then concerning the traditional teaching on marriage. Until the First Sunday of Advent, my present policy remains unchanged.
A second action of the Convention concerned the Book of Common Prayer. There was widespread reluctance on the part of the bishops of the church to embark upon revision of the Prayer Book. Rather than begin a scheduled process of revision, the Convention decided to “memorialize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as a Prayer Book of the church preserving the psalter, liturgies, The Lambeth Quadrilateral, Historic Documents, and Trinitarian formularies ensuring its continued use” (Resolution A068). This action preserves our present Prayer Book as our doctrinal and liturgical standard and ensures its use. The Convention also established a church-wide Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision, and called upon the bishop to engage congregations in this process of experimentation and creation. Again, through his engagement, the bishop remains the one providing boundaries to this process.
A third action of the Convention has created, through Resolution A227, a church-wide Task Force on Communion Across Difference, made up equally of proponents of same-sex marriage and of the traditional teaching on marriage, to “seek a lasting path forward for mutual flourishing consistent with this Church’s polity.” We are a church of two teachings, and we are in need of discovering how we can live together and continue to engage in our mission, maintaining the highest possible degree of communion. This Task Force represents a new conversation in the Episcopal Church, decades overdue. I look forward to this process.
Thank you for your attention to this long letter. I love all our congregations in the Diocese of Tennessee, and have been happy to say so at recent meetings of our Province IV Bishops and also at hearings at this recent General Convention. I continue to believe that we seek the face of Christ in those we disagree with, even when the disagreement may concern fundamental issues. I look forward to ministry together, especially over the next several months.
Bishop of Tennessee