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  • Writer's pictureFr. Daniel S.J. Scheid SCP

What is Father Dan Thinking? 2-25-24

“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”

 

“All means all – no exceptions!”

 

“Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here!”

 

The Episcopal Church, especially in the twenty-first century, liberal-majority expression of our tradition, prides itself on inclusion. People who have been burned by or burned out in other Christian denominations find a home here. Christians unwelcomed because of who they are find a home here. People who are trying on Christianity for the first time check us out because of our reputation for openness, for welcoming seekers and skeptics, for not pushing too much doctrine and dogma on the Christian-curious.

 

This is, by and large, a good thing. I came to the Episcopal Church because we maintain a Catholic expression of the faith while being less-rigid than the tradition I was raised in. I came because we invite questions; few topics, if any, are off the table. I came because of a generally liberal approach to the Bible, theology, and politics. I came because we ordain women and, at the time, were then tip-toeing toward blessing same-sex couples and ordaining out (and even partnered) gays and lesbians. And, of course, I came because our clergy can marry, divorce, and remarry.

 

Perhaps some of you came to the Episcopal Church for similar reasons to mine or the broader reasons I listed in the paragraph before. We seem to be a denomination of fewer and fewer “cradle Episcopalians.” Well over half of my seminary cohort of nineteen were born and raised in a different denomination. Among us were married men, women, and openly-gay and lesbian folk – each of us called to be priests, but unable to in the traditions we came from.

 

This freedom comes with some costs. We’re seen by some as wishy-washy, as anything-goes, pinning us down is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. I’ll admit that sometimes even I find our lower-case “l” liberality a bit frustrating. What’s the “right” answer? Well, it depends on whom you ask! Is there even such a thing as the “right” answer anymore? The conjunction “and” is one of the more important words in the Anglican vocabulary, for good and for, well, not quite ill, but for occasional vexations.

 

I saw a survey statistic recently. Nearly a third of twenty- and thirty-somethings have a favorable view of “open relationships” including within marriage. This is not your garden-variety infidelity. This is when both committed, formerly monogamous romantic partners, married spouses, even, choose to enter sexual relationships with other people with the consent of their primary partner. What does the Episcopal Church have to say about that? Certainly there will come a day when a couple will come to their priest saying they’ve entered into just such a phase in their marriage. “We’re both happy with this arrangement, Father … are you?” This hasn’t happened to me yet, or to colleagues who post on social media priest chat rooms, but with a survey result like that, it’s only a matter of time.

 

About a year ago I heard of a clergy colleague in a far-away progressive diocese, with a progressive bishop. This priest (I don’t know him) went to his bishop (who I do know) with the news that he and his spouse had opened their marriage. The bishop promptly removed the priest from his congregation and inhibited him from functioning as a priest. There was no “and” (or if or but) with that bishop. Among progressive colleagues who commented, one said it was the right decision, and at the same time surprising, given our denomination’s permissive reputation.

 

A big difference is that bishops have canonical authority over priests. Priests have no such authority over congregants, except for the nuclear-option of refusing Holy Communion to a person “who is living a notoriously evil life” (the evil left undefined) – BCP 409.

 

Is an open relationship a public scandal and a notorious evil? A major transgression of the marriage vows of mutual faithfulness? A phase that a couple will grow out of, with the encouraging counsel of their priest (Are you truly happy? Or is something deeper going on?)? Or a change in social mores that the Episcopal Church, parts of it, at least, may choose to adapt to?

 

As far as I know, there’s no theologian or ethicist doing specific, scholarly work on this topic. How do scripture, tradition, and reason – the three-legged stool and three-braided cord that forms our church’s moral theology – speak to this? Could there ever be a case made for a sacramentally-faithful open marriage? Or will the progressive bishop’s firm, unflinching “no” remain the church’s answer? How might the parish priest, who is usually a general practitioner, counsel such a couple?

 

Hypothetical quandaries such as this don’t quite rise to the level of keeping me awake at night, but they do cross my mind with some frequency, especially when changes in society challenge and contradict church teaching. Are there limits to all and no exceptions and wherever? How are the graces and gifts of the church best put to use for someone who is living outside traditional boundaries? Our impulse is to embrace. Do we ever keep an arm’s distance?

 

I’m curious what you think about this. Assuming that an open relationship isn’t your issue, how would you expect your priest to counsel and care for someone for whom it is?  

 

God’s blessings and peace,

  

Dan +

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