How Sewanee made its policy on same-sex blessings

Libby Nelson of Inside Higher Ed has a story we missed when it appeared a few weeks. She writes:

In July, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex relationships, which went into use Dec. 2. The rite, which has much in common with a marriage ceremony, is intended to be used even in states where gay marriage is illegal. Bishops that do not approve of the new liturgy can forbid its use within their jurisdiction.

The new rite posed a particularly thorny question for Sewanee. The university, which includes an Episcopal seminary, is owned by 28 dioceses in the United States, and the bishops of those dioceses make up the university’s board of trustees. The bishops do not share a common stance on the issue, but several members of Sewanee’s Board of Trustees urged their fellow bishops in July to vote against the new liturgy. One, a bishop in South Carolina, has tried to secede from the Episcopal Church as a result.

The controversy placed Sewanee in a tricky position, said John McCardell Jr., Sewanee’s vice chancellor and president. The college itself isn’t part of any diocese, and its religious governing authority is the chancellor, a post that rotates among the bishops of the 28 owning dioceses.

“An absolute yes or an absolute no was just not possible,” McCardell said. The college feared its chapel could become a sort of Las Vegas for blessings of gay unions — an end-run for couples whose bishops wouldn’t permit the rite in their own diocese.

The compromise: Gay and lesbian couples who meet the other eligibility requirements for a Sewanee wedding will be able to have their union blessed in the college chapel, as long as their bishops are supportive.

This notion that Episcopalians are somehow their bishops’ subjects and can only have relationships blessed with their bishop’s approval, regardless of where the blessing takes place, is troubling to me. I sympathize with Sewanee’s situation and think most of the rules they came up with to decide who could be married in their chapel are sensible. But this idea that one’s geographical diocese limits the sorts of blessings one can receive is problematic, isn’t it?

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  1. Ann Fontaine

    A Las Vegas for blessings? That is hilarious – like anyone wants their love celebrated in such a tepid environment. I don’t think Sewanee has to worry.

  2. John Bennett

    The lack of a bishop’s approval does not make a couple less loving or a union less real in the eyes of God.

  3. Thomas Williams

    I wonder about the casually dismissive comment regarding a place that is dear to many, many Episcopalians.

  4. Ellen Tillotson

    The approval of one’s bishop applies to postulants and candidates for holy orders, as it applies for already ordained clergy getting married–an old fashioned notion, but one ought to seek one’s bishop’s consent–almost no one does any more. But it’s part of the gig.

  5. Jim, the situation (regarding the need for episcopal approval) is similar to that for a couple one or both of whom is divorced. The bishop’s permission is required for such a wedding to take place in her or his diocese. The church has a degree of discretion concerning marriage — individual clergy have the right to refuse to officiate for any or no reason.

  6. Ann Fontaine

    Thomas- if you are referring to my comment – I spend a week every year on the “holy mountain” I know it well.

  7. Ann Fontaine

    I wonder if “the domain” is not really part of any diocese though owned by 28 southern dioceses?

  8. Jim Naughton

    Tobias, I don’t object to the church using discretion in individual instances. But what troubles me here is the fact that hundreds of people in a given diocese may be unable to have their relationships blessed because the bishop discriminates against them as a class.

  9. Jesse Snider

    The bishops can approve or disapprove puts me in mind of what the church went through with women’s orders. With hold outs right up to the end. The bottom line is a bishop courageous and forward looking? Do they think this is going away? I’m clearly ashamed that my bishop has closed his mind and heart to this though I haven’t had the opportunity to engage him in conversation about it. It no doubt is centered in fear, the decision to decline to join couples in a loving monogamous relationship can’t come from a spirit of joy can it? Certainly not a spirit of love. They need to work on that “spirit of love”

    “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 Jn4:18

    Trust God to run his church and stop mucking up the works bishops. Remember you will have to answer for your decision before God.

    As for Sewanee let them do as they will, this isn’t about fear or rules it’s about blessing love. In a church that can find blessings for household pets, automobiles, and such I find it very sad we can’t unify to bless love.

  10. The final paragraph of Ms Nelson’s otherwise interesting article betrays the latent congregationalism/individualism that afflicts the American expression of Anglicanism. Indeed, as to the sacraments and resources of the church, we are our bishops’ subjects. As a priest, I exercise my ministry under the authority of my bishop. As a lay person, I have access to the sacerdotal ministrations of the church as stipulated by the local bishop. By parochial registration, we “belong” to a diocese and, consequently, we are subject to the local understandings of the local bishop diocesan. Consequently, if I, as a priest, want to marry a couple of whom one or both are divorced, I must have the bishop’s permission. Likewise, the couple must request that permission of the bishop through whatever policy and mechanism the local bishop prescribes. If I am doing this in a diocese other than my own (me the priest), I must insure the local episcopal policies and permissions are secured properly. For the sake of brevity, I will not review other examples of this, especially ordination. However, Ms Nelson, in her closing paragraph, fails to appreciate the “camel through the eye of the needle” Sewanee achieved in this policy. They did this in the context of an Anglican tradition of episcopal polity which should be commended and rather than criticized for not being sufficiently congregational and individualistic. I applaud Sewanee for recognizing their obligation to be sensitive to their unique ecclesial situation and still finding a way to move the school forward on this matter.

    Stan Runnels [added by ~ed.]

  11. Jim Naughton

    Stan Runnells, I think the paragraph you are referring to is actually mine. We attempt to make that clear by the use of the block quote, but perhaps quotation marks would help.

    Perhaps I could be clearer. I think the General Convention should have determined whether same-sex couples could have their relationships blest. I do not think General Convention should have left this in the hands of individual bishops. Allowing individual bishops to determine whether LGBT people are full members of the church is problematic, as the LGBT people in one diocese are no more worthy of blessing or more fully Episcopalian that those in the next diocese, yet we are allowing them to be treated differently.

    I believe in the authority of the General Convention.

  12. Kevin Matthews

    Sewanee is not the problem here. They are only trying deftly to walk the line that has been created by this new version of the conscience clause.

  13. Ormonde Plater

    This raises a canonical question. Are seminaries part of the diocese in whch they are located, or are they extra-territorial (like monastic houses)? And does canon law or established custom address the issue?

  14. Evan D. Garner

    In the great and difficult conversation about parishioners being subject to their bishops, what about clergy? Since the proposed rite was published, I’ve wondered whether clergy from a diocese in which a bishop forbids the use of that rite can travel to another diocese where the bishop will allow it and perform such a blessing. With opposite-sex unions, a “travelling clergyperson” seeks permission of the bishop of the diocese to which she or he travels–her or his home bishop. Thoughts?

  15. dvb


    You believe in the authority of General Convention now that General Convention is legislating in a manner of which you approve.

    You believed in the autononomy of individual bishops when they dissented from any number of General Convention pronouncements on this subject.

    Dennis Bosley

  16. Jim Naughton

    Dennis, you are mistaken. I do not care for the current policy, yet I support it, yet hope to see it changed.

  17. David Allen

    Evan, so in TEC a priest is not subject to the wishes of the bishop in whose diocese the priest usually ministers? If the bishop in the diocese where the priest resides and ministers requested that the priest not travel to another diocese and perform a wedding, it is unimportant as long as the priest has the permission of the bishop in which the wedding takes place?

    That speaks to me of a failure of a coherent theology of the priesthood in TEC. From where arises the faculties of the priest if not from the bishop for whom the priest serves? Are priests somehow free agents?

    Bro David

  18. John B. Chilton

    The University of the South stands firmly for the principle that its students and employees(faculty and staff) have a right to be free from discrimination and harassment based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, veterans’ status, and genetic information and free from sexual misconduct, in its educational programs and activities and with regard to employment.


  19. Gary Paul Gilbert

    I am not surprised to see this separate-and-unequal treatment of same-sex couples by an institution owned by twenty-eight dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Some things don’t change. (They offered Robert E. Lee the vice-chancellorship after the Civil War.)

    This sort of singling out of same-sex couples for stigmatization shows that there is still a need for groups such as the Metropolitan Community Churches to continue on their own with a specialization in the LGBT community. The attack by the current vice chancellor and president on Las Vegas in his phrase “the Las Vegas of

    gay unions” says a lot about the condescension of church people to secularists. He should leave Las Vegas alone and focus on his own institution. Las Vegas employs a lot more people than his school.

    The General Convention, I agree, made this mess possible by dumping the issue in the laps of the diocesan bishops. A seminary has the right to refuse a second-class blessing to same-sex couples.

    This poor evangelism for the Episcopal Church will not help bring in or keep LGBTs and liberals in the denomination.

    No wonder many people today have nothing to do with organized religion.

    A bishop does not make a church but is supposed to serve the people.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  20. John B. Chilton

    “The college itself isn’t part of any diocese.”

    Is it the wannabe lawyer in me that wonders what this means exactly. Is this exactly the issue? That in light of what General Convention said on blessings – left it to the diocesan bishop – it left Sewanee to do whatever it wanted, or (some might argue?) no authority to allow blessings at all, or (others might argue?) no authority to prevent blessings.

  21. tobias haller

    Jim, as I think I noted at a meeting at which we were both present, including the episcopal over-ride was a strategic move to help ensure passage of the resolution.

    There is no episcopal “veto” when it comes to real “trial use” of liturgies that are intended as eventual replacements to the standard rites. But for years now we have been doing “supplemental” rites and the local veto has formed part of the deal. Frankly I think it a deal with the devil, and it undercuts the nature of a “whole church” approach and contributes to a kind of diocesanism.

    But my earlier comment was simply to note that this is the rule for divorce — after much debate on a standard rule, it was finally decided to leave it to the local bishop. Thus you could have a bishop who simply refused to consent to the remarriage of any divorced persons… in theory. Very unlikely these days.

  22. Ann Fontaine

    And of course I don’t think gay or lesbian couples can get divorced or married in Nevada.

  23. I want to note that aptitude of Gary Paul Gilbert’s reference to “an institution owned by twenty-eight dioceses of the Episcopal Church.” That is in fact the relationship, as my I’m sure Stan and Ann know; and that is how the dioceses are referred to in Sewanee: as “the Owning Dioceses.” Sewanee is, in fact, something of an Episcopal mill town. The University owns all the land of the Domain, serving in lieu of government, etc.

    Note that this applies to the University chapels, and not to the local parish, which is in the Diocese of Tennessee. Like many institutional settings, the clergy on staff are canonically resident in many different dioceses, and so accountable to many different bishops. And remember that in many of these circumstances, the limitation is not technically on the couple, but on the clergy and the chapel. So, the question is not whether the couple has a right; but whether I have the authority to participate with them in that. So, even had the University of the South expressed a clear progressive position, there would still be clergy without the support to participate.

    Marshall Scott

  24. Jim–GC did act. Consistent with years of polity, the local bishop is the ‘ordinary’ of the local diocese and has full authority to implement the provisions of sacerdotal and ecclesial provisions authorized by GC. The issue is not full membership, as your reply suggests (that is a baptismal matter, unencumbered by any discretion of the bishop). Rather, it is a matter of the local bishop’s decision how the provisions of the GC should be locally adapted (yes, pulling out the C-L Quadrilateral here in honor of GOEs). Whether I agree or disagree, it is what it is. Unless, we are willing to replace our traditional Anglican episcopal polity with a form of neo-American anglican-lite ecclesiology, we must live and work to change within the system as it is. Those dioceses that disagree with their bishop’s stance on this or other issues (e.g. women’s ordination, etc) should prayerfully consider this when next they elect. In the meantime, let us not pitch a polity that has served God and God’s church well albeit perhaps not as quickly as we sometimes wish.

  25. Ann Fontaine

    Stan – I don’t think this is quite correct– bishops also promise to uphold the decisions of the church — they can’t just run off and do whatever they want – like using a different BCP or ignoring the Const and Canons. The church this time did give the bishops a ‘conscience clause” but that is not a standard – lest we all have little diocesan fiefdoms (of course we do in some places but it is not the norm). General Convention is where we decide things – bishops can’t trump GC.

  26. Jim Naughton

    Stan, I am aware that it is possible to act to change the mind of General Convention. I’ve actually worked with people who have done it a time or two.

    This time around, as Tobias notes, those of us who worked to get this particular piece of legislation passed believed it was politically necessary to leave the availability of this rite to the discretion of the diocesan bishop. We could have gone in another direction but we didn’t because we were pretty sure that we didn’t have the votes in the HoB.

    So this wasn’t a matter of polity per your lecture, it was a matter of how the legislation was drafted. And now, what I am suggesting in these comments, is that we need to revisit this issue the next time around. No one is talking about throwing out the polity here. What we are talking about is ending sacramental discrimination against LGBT people churchwide.

  27. Gary Paul Gilbert

    No, Ann, same-sex couples may not marry or get divorces in Nevada but since 2009 they may get domestic partnerships, the West-coast equivalent of civil unions, which provide many of the protections of civil marriage. Of course, they cannot provide all the rights because they were set up to make sure same-sex couples remain excluded from marriage.

    The notion of a Las Vegas of gay marriage is a reactionary trope, which Mitt Romney mobilized in the Presidential race. He claimed to have “prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.” ( He prevented out-of-staters from marrying in the state by dusting off a 1913 anti-miscegenation law, which would only be repealed under the current Governor, Deval Patrick, in 2008.

    The citation and use of “a Las Vegas of gay marriage” seems to be a common trope in certain Republican circles. Its use is not innocent.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

    The law reads

    Section 11. No marriage shall be contracted in this commonwealth by a party residing and intending to continue to reside in another jurisdiction if such marriage would be void if contracted in such other jurisdiction, and every marriage contracted in this commonwealth in violation hereof shall be null and void. Mass. Gen. L. ch. 207, § 11 (2005).

  28. Sewanee is technically referred to as an ecclesiastical peculiar and as such is its own jurisdiction, as an institution, not a place (hence the parish churches are part of the geographic diocese of Tennessee). The University couldn’t very well be owned by 28 Dioceses and under the jurisdiction of one in particular… Hence the fact that the ordinary is the chancellor.

  29. Sorry for my ignorance, but could someone tell me where I might find out which dioceses own Sewanee. Thanks.

    Lan Green

  30. Ann Fontaine

    Here is the web site for the University of the South aka Sewanee.

    “Sewanee is owned and governed by dioceses of the Episcopal Church, specifically the 28 dioceses of the southeastern United States.”

    More here

    Thanks for asking – actually I am not sure most of us on the news gathering staff know these things.

  31. Ann–Bishops and other clergy promise to uphold the C&C. The act of GC in this instance was neither C or C. Rather, it provided a liturgical option (“liturgical resources”) for same gender blessings. The specific language of A049 was clearly optional and discretionary to the local bishop. For the moment, GC has decided this matter in such a way as to provide local discretion by the bishop. Moreover, regarding your statement that bishops cannot “trump GC.” As I am sure you are aware, there remains an active debate as to the implications of GC legislation. Many argue that unless it involves matters of C&C, the actions of GC are “advisory” and reflect the “mind of the church” at a given moment in time. To be sure, most would agree non-C&C acts of GC should be seriously engaged and provide guidance to the practices of the church and its leaders. That said, in this matter, agree or disagree, bishops acting with local discretion are acting consistent with the language and intent of A049 and, consequently, with GC.

    Jim N.–I agree, we are all aware of the peculiarities of the legislative process. However, legislation arises from, reflects, and begets polity. Consequently, your original comment “But this idea that one’s geographical diocese limits the sorts of blessings one can receive is problematic, isn’t it?” suggests a dramatic strategic alteration from historic Anglican polity which holds the local diocese to be the basic unit of the church. Any legislative effort designed to alter this part of our historic polity would result, in my opinion, in a dramatic change in the nature and structure of the church.

    If I might be so bold as to offer a suggestion for your consideration for next GC: let us amend rubrics and canons to remove our obligation to uphold civil law in the exercise of our sacramental nuptial blessings. As this is the primary sacramental component of the liturgy; the removal of our obligation to uphold civil law, would remove any potential impediment from our ability to freely exercise and offer the blessings of the church to all LGBT/hetero couples (my ordaining diocese was in a state where cross racial marriages were illegal into the 1970s) who come seeking our blessings. No matter what we do at GC, our C&C/rubrical obligation to uphold civil law (part of C&C only since the early 1900’s)puts us at risk to certain legal challenges and irritations if activist attorneys general or DAs catch wind of political opportunity.

    Finally, Jim N. the “per your lecture” remark seems to me inconsistent with the open dialogue standards of Episcopal Cafe and The Lead. As this phrase has become a disparaging reproach in our society, I can only conclude you prefer brief, pithy, and superficial commentary in posts in the Lead. I will try to refrain from being detailed, informative, and thoughtful in future posts.

  32. Jim Naughton

    Stan, I don’t think there is a lively debate about whether General Convention legislations are advisory or simply reflective of the mind of the church, unless the resolution is written in a way that encourages that interpretation. I don’t think anyone who articulated that view and was elected bishop could receive the necessary consents.

    You continue to ascribe to me views that I have informed you in some detail that I do not hold. This is tiresome.

    Comments here don’t have to be brief, but I get tired of being spoken to at great length about things that I already know as though the speaker is doing me a great favor by telling me.

  33. tobias haller

    While I agree with Stan R. up to a point, I think it important to note that in Anglican polity the diocese is not the “basic unit.” Anglican churches are unitary in nature. No diocese stands alone as self-sufficient or “sovereign” — to use a word utterly foreign to Anglican notions of polity. In the US polity, a diocese cannot obtain a bishop on its own, for example, and — echoing a principle laid down in the era of the conciliar church — bishops must be approved by the wider church and consecrated by at least three bishops.

    Moreover, the bishop is an executive, not a monarch. In the present issue, bishops were granted a power they do not normally possess. A bishop cannot forbid the use of a portion of the BCP, because the Constitution states that it “shall be in use in all the Dioceses of this Church.” The same is true of official “trial use” which is to be “throughout this Church.” (Article X) The rites for blessing adopted with a proviso in place, due to political expediency, not polity.

    At the same time that I recognize that local option also has a long standing in liturgical evolution, I agree with Jim that in the present day, given the capability of travel and communication, in wondering if it is such a good idea.

  34. Obadiah Slope


    In my Province, Australia, decisions of the General Synod need to be adopted by the General Synod (the latest prayerbook has not been adopted by all dioceses for example), metropolitan Bishops are elected by local synods without reference to the wider church, and some dioceses have reserved the right to leave to national church. We are different down-under, with lots of “local option”.

    John Sandeman

  35. Ann Fontaine

    Thanks Stan – I know that resolutions are not particularly binding and said so in my response– what I am saying is that bishops can’t just run off doing things by themselves in dioceses (as per Tobias response) — but in the case of this legislation – those supporting it made a deliberate choice to allow local option because they thought that was all they could get passed in the HOB. I wished we could have had something that would show our true colors — are we a bunch of bigots or not? As it stands it is one more piece of not very good news for many of our members and yet another reason to pass us by for those who might come to us.

  36. Despite some ill-chosen words by the Vice Chancellor, as I understand it, All Saints Chapel at Sewanee may be the only place in the Diocese of Tennessee where same-sex blessings may be performed. I do agree with those that found General Convention’s episcopal “conscience clause”—real this time rather than contrived in re the ordination of women—may have been “necessary,” for now, but should be removed as soon as possible. As the saying goes the perfect ought not be an enemy of the good. But I have also noticed a strange theological notion in the Cafe discussion that somehow priests are ordained in the priesthood of their bishops—kind of vicariously as it were. I find nothing in the prayer book or in any reputable sacramental theology that this is so. All are ordained in and through the Spirit of God in Christ—not in or really not even by the bishop. Check the ordination rite, bishops invoke this Spirit who does the ordaining. There are no episcopal detours here. “Therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to N.; fill him/her with grace and power, and make him/her a priest in your Church.”

    Joe Monti

    Atlanta, GA

  37. tobias haller

    Thanks, John Sandeman. I take it that even in Australia an individual diocese cannot simply make its own bishop without provincial input. I should have clarified that it is the “province” that is the basic unit of the church, not the diocese. (I was trying to avoid using “national church” but failed to remember the proper term, which is province. In Australia you have such real provinces… in TEC our “provinces” are more or less for housekeeping and mission work, without any metropolitical standing. Sorry for the over-broad statement, written in haste after I “lost” a beautifully composed earlier draft, due to inadvertent mouse pressure. 😉

  38. Jim N. Somehow, I thought posts to the Lead were for the benefit of the whole community in conversation. Apparently, by your remark “I get tired of being spoken to at great length about things that I already know,” my assumption is in error. Instead, the posts in the Lead are singularly directed to you and for your benefit exclusively. As it seems clear your opinions are formed, and I certainly don’t want to add to “tiresome”-ness in your life, I will sign off from this engagement. Hope you have a blessed Epiphany.

  39. Jim Naughton

    Stan, if you can’t speak in a respectful tone to the people you address by name here, you can count on us to continue to call you on it. You and I were having a direct conversation in which your inability to come out from behind your pose of superior knowledge made further engagement pointless. In your latest comment you continue this behavior.

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