New York bishops praise passage of Marriage Equality Act

Published June 28, 2011
The New York State Senate voted 33-29 on June 24 to pass the bill making New York the largest state in the U.S. to allow same-sex marriage. Photo: Piotr Marcinski

At least one U.S. Episcopal Church bishop in the state of New York has said that clergy in his diocese may solemnize same-gender marriages as soon as the state’s recently passed Marriage Equality Act goes into effect.

“The Episcopal diocese of Long Island will engage this new law with a generous and open response allowing, under the provision of our General Convention, the use of rites for same-gender marriage by priests of this diocese who believe they are called to preside at the exchange of vows, once the law has taken effect in 30 days,” Bishop Lawrence Provenzano said in a June 25 statement.

Meanwhile, Bishop Prince Singh of Rochester said in a statement e-mailed to Episcopal News Service that he would soon set up a diocesan task force “to help us chart our course to engage this journey reverently, deliberately and in congruence with church law.” Singh told ENS that he was “working on some more specific direction for the diocese.” He had actively campaigned for at least two years for passage of the law.

Diocese of Western New York Bishop William Franklin said in a statement welcoming the law’s passage that he will be holding meetings soon “for members of our diocese to listen to how Episcopal churches in Western New York might integrate this decision into our life.”

Diocese of New York Bishop Mark Sisk said in a statement that “the legislation, as enacted, appears to be closely aligned with the long standing views of this diocese that the civil rights of all people should be respected equally before the law.”
All four praised passage of the act. The bishops of Albany and Central New York did not respond to ENS requests for comment.

The New York State Senate voted 33-29 on June 24 to pass the bill making New York the largest state in the United States to allow same-gender couples to wed. Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont also allow such couples to marry. In New York, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed the measure at 11:55 p.m. on June 25 and the law will go into effect 30 days from that date, meaning that same-sex couples could begin marrying in New York by late July, the New York Times reported.

Specific language exempting religious organizations and their clergy–and leaders of the Society for Ethical Culture in New York–was inserted into the bill as part of complex negotiations led by Cuomo to get the bill passed. The law says that such organizations and people cannot be required to solemnize a same-gender marriage nor can they be sued or otherwise legally punished for refusing to do so.
Sisk noted in his statement that the new law “does not determine church teaching about the nature of sacraments.

“That is our continuing work,” he said. “However, nothing in the unfinished nature of that work should cause us to hesitate to give our most profound thanks for the step that has been taken in affording equal civil rights for our brothers and sisters.”
Sisk had written to the New York Times in May to note his and the diocese’s long-standing support of allowing same-gender couples the right of civil marriage.
Sisk has not previously issued guidelines for blessing same-gender unions, instead saying that the clergy of the diocese could be “trusted to exercise good and attentive pastoral care to all.”

“They don’t need my permission to do that; that is their duty,” he said in a 2010 letter to the Episcopal church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. “Exactly how they carry out that duty is their business. They need neither my permission nor keep their actions secret from me.”

Provenzano’s predecessor, Bishop Orris Walker, had earlier authorized a rite for blessing what he called “covenantal relationships,” which he said could include “people who act as caregivers to each other” and elderly heterosexual couples who choose not to marry due to “the loss of certain financial benefits” as well as same-gender couples.

Passage of the New York law takes place for Episcopalians against the backdrop of General Convention 2009 Resolution C056, which says that bishops, “particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.”

The resolution directs the Standing Commission 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. A website here contains some of the materials gathered thus far. In March, the SCLM held a churchwide consultation on the issues surrounding C056. ENS coverage of that gathering is here and here.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/writer of the Episcopal News Service.

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