Nashville Bishop leads charge against marriage equality among Episcopalians

The Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) is a denomination with a long history of embracing LGBTQ people, in some cases leading ultra-conservative member churches to leave the denomination. But many conservatives remain within the church and remain committed to halting progress toward marriage equality in the ECUSA. One of the most active anti-LGBTQ leaders in the church is the Nashville-based Right Reverend John Crawford Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee.

In 2012, the ECUSA charged the Task Force on the Study of Marriage to explore the “pastoral need for priests to officiate at a civil marriage of a same-sex couple in states that authorize such.” In its report to the upcoming 78th General Convention (June 25-July 3, 2015), the task force recommended resolutions rewording the church’s canon law (including changing language indicating marriage is between a man and a woman), supported by a number of historical and theological essays.

Bauerschmidt, along with Zachary Guiliano, Wesley Hill, and Jordan Hylden, co-authored a 22-page rebuttal of the task force’s document, arguing that the changes suggested by the report “would render optional the traditional understanding that marriage is a ‘covenant between a man and a woman’ that is intended, when it is God’s will, ‘for the procreation of children.’ We contend that these changes obscure the nature of marriage as a divinely created social form that is the external basis of the covenant union between Christ and the Church’ (Eph. 5:32). As such, it draws a veil over marriage as an outward and visible sign of this union.”

Despite the document’s claim to merely argue for more reflection on the issue before any changes are made, and for more “protections” for traditionalists, it does little besides rehash well-worn anti-LGBTQ arguments. The highly contested claim that marriage is for procreation, which is at the center of many defenses of the state’s interest in marriage and which has been soundly rebutted time and again, is the central argument in the document against same-sex marriage.

Bauerschmidt’s document, however, carries this to a frightening extreme and strongly asserts the value of a painful union: “marriage’s procreative character, its nature as ‘a providential gift for the survival of the human race within a dispensation of mortality and physical affliction.’ In marriage, men and women embody ‘suffering procreative love.’ Through the pain of childbirth and the toil of child-rearing, they give themselves away in a shared love that passes along God’s gift of life.”

In a direct attack on the LGBTQ community, who have long contested Bauerschmidt and colleagues write, “We must indeed be born again, but we all must also be born, a point often obscured in arguments in favor of same-sex marriage.”

Sarah Smith, a parishioner of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church and a candidate for Master of Theological Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, finds the whole line of argument offensive: “In this logic, why then would we allow people that are past child bearing ages to marry or people who are biologically incapable?  The argument doesn’t hold and there are so many more way of being ‘procreative’ than bearing children through one’s body.  We need to extend these ideas to what it means to help take care of one another and create life for each other and stop holding on to singular ideas of what this means.  Trying to force everyone into a specific model of marriage and family doesn’t help everyone, it really just hinders us all.”

While it is possible that the General Convention later this month will adopt the task force’s language and thus allow ministers to move forward on same-sex marriage, we should not expect this to change the reality on the ground for Tennessee Episcopalians. According to Reverend Rick Britton of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, “Within the diocese, the bishop does have the authority to prevent his priests from performing the services. Even if the national church changes its canons, the bishop still may have some options in keeping it from happen. When the church first allowed women to be ordained, many bishops wouldn’t ordain women until the church made a stronger ruling. My guess is that the bishop will see what his options are after the vote.”

Though Bauerschmidt’s Diocese of Tennessee skews conservative, when compared to the rest of the ECUSA, Britton said, “I think [Bauerschmidt's opinion], from what I can see in the church, is a minority position. Look at the task force on marriage and what they have proposed!” Britton himself is evidence that even Bauerschmidt’s priests are not of one mind on the issue. “I for one am ready! I have expressed myself to the bishop and our parish has expressed itself to the bishop. We are ready for same-sex marriage but we have to respect his authority....”

Having to respect the bishop’s authority, however, is very different from gladly respecting it. As Sarah Smith said, “It’s difficult to be a gay Episcopalian in this diocese because of Bishop Bauerschmidt.  I can’t get married here in Tennessee, and I can’t get ordained.  The church is dying, and there are folks who are able, capable, gifted and called to serve the church, and one MAN is standing in the way.”

Read the document here: 

Marriage in Creation and Covenant

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NOTE - A number of attempts were made to contact Bauerschmidt via the diocesan office, but as of the time of publication the bishop offered no comment.


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