The Sewanee Compromise: trouble in the offing?

by Eric Bonetti

While many have applauded the decision by Sewanee to allow the blessing of same-gender relationships in the chapel, the details of the decision may prove troublesome in the not-so-distant future. How so?

The issue lies with the school’s decision to grant a couple’s home bishop or bishops a veto over the decision of campus clergy to bless the couple’s union, at least if they plan to use the school’s chapel. In short, the whole premise of the Sewanee Compromise is this: Want to do something potentially controversial? If so, you now have two or more bishops to whom you report—your home bishop, and the bishop or bishops of the couple seeking your blessing. And any one of them can exercise a veto over your actions, at least if you plan to use the Sewanee chapel.

This is a dangerous precedent, one not approved by general convention, and one that risks incentivizing cross-border raids.

We hope, of course, that American and Canadian bishops will work collaboratively to resolve differences. But we know that some will not.

And what happens if one of the bishops comes from another province? Is Sewanee saying that it will permit a veto by one of the Nigerian bishops? If so, by whose authority has Sewanee allowed cross-province involvement in such decisions?

Similarly, is Sewanee prepared to offer the same “courtesy” to clergy from other faiths? For example, may an Orthodox rabbi prevent a heterosexual couple from marrying if one of the spouses is Orthodox? Or lives in Israel, where restrictions exist on inter-faith marriages? One hopes that our sisters and brothers of other faiths will be accorded the same prerogatives.

On a larger scale, the Sewanee Compromise provides impetus to a troubling move away from the “broad tent” of historic Anglicanism. No longer are we content to maintain uniformity of communion, while avoiding uniformity of belief. Our traditional approach of welcoming Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and virtually every other shade of religious belief has fallen prey to a de facto belief that we must cease and desist if our views or practices differ from those of others.

Perhaps most telling are the stated concerns of Vice Chancellor John M. McCardell about “forum shopping” among couples whose bishops oppose blessing same-gender relationships. Neither local law nor local canons impose residency restrictions for same-gender couples who wish to get married in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington or several other jurisdictions, yet he is worried that Tennessee, which does not recognize same-gender marriages, will open the floodgates?

Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely that travel agents will soon be running a Sewanee-based, “Get Your Relationship Blessed and Get Two Nights’ Free Lodging” weekend special any time soon. But then, given the school’s efforts to increase its endowment, perhaps the idea is worth a second look.

Eric Bonetti lives in Northern Virginia. He is executive director of a small non-profit that provides affordable housing to persons in need and is a member of Grace Episcopal in Alexandria, VA. He is a frequent commenter on Episcopal Café.

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8 Comments
  1. Dave Belcher

    I realize that it was perhaps the editors of the Cafe and not you, Eric (if I may), who appended this particular title to your piece, but I don’t think what you’re talking about here is “The Sewanee Compromise,” but “The Episcopal Church’s Compromise.” All Sewanee has done is consent to the authority of General Convention, which decided for the provisional (not trial) use of the proposed liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions (“Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be A Blessing”) on condition of “permission of the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority.” In this sense, no, a breakaway bishop, even though a legitimate bishop, would hold no such ecclesiastical authority in TEC to permit (or deny permission to) the presbyter or the couple from the administration/reception of the liturgy of blessing.

    Dave Belcher

  2. E B

    Hi Dave. My point here was that ecclesiastical authority derives from the diocese in which the officiant is canonically resident, versus the dioceses in which the couple reside. The latter is purely a creature of Sewanee’s invention and is set forth in neither A049, nor the canons.

    Or put another way, it will be an awkward situation indeed if, for example, one of the bishops involved repeatedly fails to respond to a request for approval. What then? At a minimum, the clergy in question is on thin ice if he or she attempts to proceed with the matter, especially given the vagaries of Title IV, Canon 7’s provisions for discipline of clergy across diocesan lines.

    Far better, I submit, to allow the matter to be resolved according to the dictates of the conscience of the officiant, his or her bishop, and the couple.

    Eric Bonetti

  3. Gary Paul Gilbert

    Thank you, Eric, for this great article! Yes, indeed, where does the authority of the bishop of the partners come from to prohibit a priest from another jurisdiction to bless a couple?

    Neither Sewanee nor General Convention looks good in this mess. But Sewanee invented this stupid rule.

    I understand why more people have nothing to do with the church. Secular ethics is often more enlightened than religious ethics.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  4. Dave Belcher

    Eric,

    Thanks for your response. I understand where you’re coming from and I’m sympathetic to the point, but, I also think it’s important to point out the unique position Sewanee is in as a seminary. The chapels on the seminary grounds are not parishes, per se. For this reason, the candidates for marriage (and this also falls on those seeking a blessing of their union under the canonical rubrics of resolution A049) at the seminary are typically students, faculty, and staff (or someone on the governing board, an alumnus, or a child of one of these)–all of whom come from a broad range of different dioceses. While all clergy (who might officiate) have taken vows of obedience to their bishops, there are also many students who are in discernment processes in their respective dioceses who, while not required to “obey” their bishops just yet, are indeed in a peculiar position of deference, if you will, to their home diocese(s). This, in part, should explain why the couples’ bishop(s) might be involved. Moreover, one of the emphases of resolution A049 is the affirmation of the theological diversity of the church. As I see it, Sewanee is simply allowing for just such an affirmation. Again, it’s important to recognize that the context of the blessing liturgy (one of the chapels at Sewanee) is not the home parish in which any given couple will continue their ministry to and within Christ’s body. The point is not simply to bless the union between these two persons, but that their union, blessed by the church, will reflect the church’s life to the church and likewise the church will hold the couple accountable to the life of the church–it is a sacramental process of mutual engagement in learning through the Spirit to live into the call to holiness. Obviously, there are many within the church, however, who deny or are unsure that any such blessings are “sacramental” in the sense I’ve been describing. Moreover, those dioceses of the church who share these theological views (some of which are owners of the seminary), recognizing the sacramental nature of marriage between consenting, heterosexual, male-female couples, but not consenting, homosexual couples, will not be able to receive the blessing and union of same-sex couples in the same way (or at all in some cases). You and I may both wish to impress upon so many of our bishops and friends in the church the great gifts we have all learned from and benefited from in our LGBT brothers and sisters (which is to say, the great gifts that our LGBT brothers and sisters *are* to us and to the church)–and I do!–but our General Convention, *for now*, has determined to affirm theological diversity so that we might continue to learn from one another even in our disagreement and conflict…and I actually think that that affirmation has something to do with the sacramental nature of both marriage and the church–namely, that we are yoked to one another even in conflict and great disagreement. That may not be “the compromise” some want right now, and I understand that, but it is the mind of the church on the matter currently.

    Peace,

    Dave Belcher

  5. E B

    Dave,

    Thank you for your cogent, well-reasoned comments and the tone with which you express them. I enjoy the give-and-take on the site, but recently bailed on one thread due to the snarky tone of some of the comments. Not that snarky can’t be a lot of fun–it’s just that my feeling here at e-cafe is that “we are all in this together.” Yes, I know….shades of the inauguration.

    Eric Bonetti

  6. Dave Belcher

    Thanks, Eric. I don’t often comment here and I know that this particular issue is rather controversial (as well as the way controversial issues on this site can at times turn ugly in the comments section), so thanks for engaging this conversation with such care and respect. I really do appreciate that.

    Peace,

    dave belcher

  7. Thank you for instructing me about this. We have here one more example of the need for greater diligence and study of our canon law. To whom do we appeal for answers to these questions?

  8. E B

    Hi Chris. Yours is a good point. The canons and constitution are online at http://is.gd/SL3Wx5 . Additionally each diocese has its own canons and constitution, as well as a variety of policy documents to address matters ranging from appropriate discourse in the church to prevention of sexual misconduct.

    Being a church geek and having a law degree, I probably get into the governance aspect more than others, but I haven’t really come across much in the way of user-friendly publications on this topic. It would be fun, though, to connect with members of one’s own diocesan canon committee, I suspect.

    Anyone know of any good publications on these topics?

    Eric Bonetti

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