Pastoral Letter from Bishop Lambert Regarding Same Gender Marriages

July 28, 2013

Family and Friends of the Diocese of Eau Claire,

It has been a joy serving you as your bishop! While we have much work yet to
do, many good things have been accomplished. My purpose in writing this pastoral
letter is to explain my policy concerning same gender blessings and marriages. It is the
product of much reflection beginning with the walkabouts last October. I also shared my
perspective on this topic at a gathering of the clergy of the diocese on June 4. The
clergy advised me to communicate to you through the form of a pastoral letter and to
delay writing until the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decisions in late June. My hope
is not only to give you clarity regarding my position on same gender blessings and
marriages but also to provide in brief terms my reasons for coming to the decisions I
have reached.

Bishops and the Marriage Canon
From the beginning of the Episcopal Church in the 1780’s, diocesan bishops
have held much authority and responsibility regarding marriage. Clergy could only marry
with the bishop’s permission. In the revision of the marriage canon in 1973 which finally
permitted divorced people to remarry, the clergy were to petition the diocesan bishop for
a judgment. If the bishop approved the petition the couple could marry. In 2012 the
General Convention of the Episcopal Church gave permission for same gender couples
to receive a blessing. Convention approved a specific liturgical rite for this occasion. Still
it was up to the diocesan bishop to determine if a same gender blessing could take
place in the diocese under his or her jurisdiction. Since General Convention where
certain states have permitted same gender marriages, some diocesan bishops have
allowed same gender Church marriages.

The Nature of Marriage
What is a marriage? There are both sacred and social dimensions to this
question. Also, because of our human nature, sin is an unwanted but realistic part of
marriage. Sin is what got us thrown out of the Garden of Eden–out of the Bible’s
description of paradise. I believe marriage at its ideal is the last vestige of the Garden of
Eden. In a private space two people exclude all others and are naked together. This
nakedness is both physical and spiritual. You become vulnerable to another human
being. This means you can be hurt by this person, but you refuse to be defensive.
Instead you trust him or her and bare both your body and your soul. Sexual intimacy in
this context becomes sacramental–the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual
grace. This to me is the sacred, God-intended, side of marriage.

From a social perspective most people want marriage as the foundation of the
family unit. It is regarded as the optimal environment for the nurturing of children. This is
much of the rationale for permitting divorced persons to remarry. It is also why many
people want same gender marriages. Polygamy is prevalent in other nations for these
same reasons.

State Law
There is some debate about the Church’s relationship to the states regarding
marriage. Many clergy favor the European system of having a civil marriage followed by
a separate Church marriage. I disagree. I like our English system where clergy are
asked by the state to officiate at marriages on its behalf. It is one of the few areas where
the state asks clergy for support. I regard this as a covenant, a trust relationship. As
your bishop I require that this covenant be honored; I will not authorize circumventions
of state law.

I forbid clergy to marry a couple when there is no marriage license. Why would a
couple want this? A primary reason would be to marry in “the eyes of God” but avoid
reductions in pension or Social Security benefits. The same is true regarding same
gender civil marriages that take place in other states. The State of Wisconsin does not
permit same gender marriage. For this reason I will not allow our clergy to provide a
renewal of vows in Wisconsin for any couple who have had a civil marriage elsewhere
but could not obtain a Wisconsin marriage license. In Church terms this is called the
solemnization of a marriage. For me a renewal of vows of any kind must stay within
both the legality and spirit of our Wisconsin laws.

General Convention approved same gender blessings in 2012 as a pastoral
measure. It was a way of reaching to same gender couples and approving of their
relationships in a somewhat official way. In my own reflections I have come to
understand that I cannot relegate same gender oriented men and women to the margins
of Church life. As a Christian and as Bishop of Eau Claire I have compassion for
individuals and couples who historically have been unable to obtain the Church’s
support for their relationships. This isn’t an abstract understanding. Compassion means
“to suffer with.” It comes from the heart and is connected to the theological virtue of
love. Combined with this is Jesus’ imperative to do something to help.

It is from this perspective that I will not permit same gender blessings in the
diocese. My objection to the blessings is that they are a half measure. An engaged
cross gender couple isn’t interested in a blessing. They want to get married. This is what
I want for same gender couples. The question is how to do it.

Plato in his philosophical work, The Republic, wrote of compromise. He
emphasized that taking opposing perspectives and weaving them into a balanced
outcome produces justice. A family court judge does this on a daily basis. He or she
determines alimony, child support, and custody issues. The contesting parties usually
aren’t satisfied. Still the decision is sound. A compromise has occurred in the name of
fairness. Plato would say justice is served. Today compromise is regarded as a dirty
word. We connect it to appeasement or weakness. The tragedy is that without
compromise little gets accomplished. For me, in the name of compassion, I must do
something for my brothers and sisters who are in same gender relationships. I want to
find a way for them to marry. I must also honor Wisconsin state law. I won’t break my
covenant with a system I hold in high regard.

My compromise is to authorize Eau Claire clergy to take same gender couples
out of state to be married. In this way, our diocese can provide same gender marriages
without contradicting the long standing and significant covenant we have with the State
of Wisconsin. Right now I have arranged for same gender marriages to occur in two
states. They are Vermont and Minnesota. Why just these two places? It is because the
bishops of the Diocese of Minnesota and the Diocese of Vermont have agreed to my
proposal. Also, the marriage laws of those two states permit non-resident same gender
couples to marry. Would I authorize a same gender marriage to take place elsewhere?
Yes, but the couple needs to work with me regarding those arrangements.

Here is what I anticipate will happen: A couple contacts a priest or deacon of the
Diocese of Eau Claire willing to officiate at a same gender marriage. That person
notifies me. If there are prior marriages that ended in divorce, a petition for judgment to
me is necessary. The couple is to ask me where in Minnesota or Vermont they wish to
be married. I contact Bishop Prior of Minnesota or Bishop Ely of Vermont to make the
arrangements. The marriage then moves forward in a normal pattern with the Diocese
of Eau Claire priest or deacon conducting the service.

Authorized but not Mandatory
The marriage canon specifically states that clergy can refuse to officiate at any marriage for any reason. Under no circumstance will I pressure a priest or deacon to be
involved in a same gender marriage. Each priest or deacon has to make up her or his
mind as to what she or he will do. Whatever that person decides to do I will respect. As
for myself, I have learned that the bishop’s role is to be comprehensive, a symbol of
unity in diocesan life. In recognizing the importance of unity accomplished through
compromise, I am authorizing others to officiate at same gender marriages but will not
officiate over them myself.

Do you know you are part of a wonderful congregation in a small but increasingly
innovative diocese? God is indeed good! With Jesus as brother and guide and the Holy
Spirit daring us into new possibilities, God, the Father, is moving us forward in exciting
ways. I hope you will stick around, bring your friends, and celebrate our beloved
Church! With my love and best wishes, I am,

Your brother in Christ,
W. Jay Lambert
Bishop of Eau Claire

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