Dallas Episcopal Bishop Says No Gay Weddings Here On His Watch

Major focus this week in the wake of the Supreme Court gay marriage decision on Texas county clerks who will or will not obey the law and on private institutions as well. Baylor University, for example, changed its mind and said married students could have gay sex (sort of). Now someone will have to tell them how.

One important local institution flying below the gaydar has been the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. On July 1 the General (national) Convention of the Episcopal Church followed the Supreme Court ruling by voting to allow but not compel its bishops to authorize gay weddings in their dioceses. The very next day Dallas Suffragan (interim) Bishop Paul E. Lambert joined 19 Episcopal and Anglican bishops around the globe in opting out of the new rules on gay marriage in the church.

The 19 declared together in a published dissent that, “As bishops of the Church, we must dissent from these actions.” So if you and your intended are gay Episcopalians and you go to church in Dallas, Honduras, North Dakota or the Dominican Republic, you can forget about a church wedding any time soon.

We really are an international city, are we not?

The Dallas diocese has agreed on calling (hiring) a new full-time bishop, George Sumner, who is scheduled to take office in November. He’s head of a college in Canada, went to Harvard and the Yale divinity school, so we’ll see. But for now, forget about it.

I’ve forgotten more about the Episcopal Church than I ever knew, in spite of growing up over the store as a preacher’s kid. But I do remember it’s not always easy to get a bishop to talk to you. So I was pleasantly surprised when Lambert called me back from a road trip and talked openly and at some length about his beliefs:

His main mantra was, “Once you go down this slippery slope, where do you draw the line?” But he gave me lots more than that.

“In the Episcopal church,” he said, “we always have, as Anglicans, believed that the three things we look to for authority are scripture, tradition and reason.”

I kept my mouth shut. Of course I was thinking, “Oh, yes, scripture, tradition and reason, all three of which were used to justify slavery.”

He went on: “The scripture commends marriage to be worthy between a man and a woman. No matter how you look at it or twist it around, it is very clear. Our lord, Jesus, said when a man takes a woman to become one flesh, what God has joined together let no man put asunder: I mean it just goes one after another.

“I do not believe that we in the 21st century, we very few Christians (who are) Episcopalians, have the warrant to make those decisions to change the interpretation of scripture by redefining what we believe to be holy matrimony.”

He also cited his own role as a latter-day apostle: “The bishop of the church, I believe, and I know this is subject to interpretation [by] bishops who are in favor of all this, but I believe that as a successor to the apostles I am responsible for upholding the apostolic faith, which in part is teaching marriage as between a man and a woman because that was revealed to the original apostles by Jesus and passed from generation to generation. And obviously it skipped someplace along the way.”

He added a third reason which I may not have fully understood. He was headed off on vacation and said he wouldn’t be available again until he got back. But this is what he said:

“Nobody on the Supreme Court has died for us, and therefore they don’t have the warrant to make change other than in the civil law, and I understand that completely.”

Do you know what he means? He doesn’t want anybody on the Supreme Court to die, right? He doesn’t seem like that kind of guy.

“Nine people can’t reinterpret marriage for the world,” he said. “And they don’t have any authority over the Episcopal Church.”

But that’s been taken care of. The Episcopal Church at its annual convention in Salt Lake City a week ago voted overwhelmingly to authorize gay ceremonies of marriage. The church’s House of Bishops prayed and debated for five hours before voting 129-26 in favor, according to The New York Times

This position taken by Bishop Lambert is allowed by a compromise in the rules but nevertheless puts the Dallas diocese distinctly out of step with the Episcopal Church and Episcopal religion. At the very least it makes the Dallas diocese “Episcopal with an asterisk.”
I asked Lambert what he would tell a gay couple if they asked him whether they were welcome in his diocese.

“It would be the same response I gave to the gay men and women that were in my parish in Texarkana. ‘You are the beloved children of God and you are welcome in this place.' We are all children of God, and we need to live into the reality of that. The same as for the three or four men that I stood by their bed as they died from AIDS. I was the only minister in town that would come to their aid and administer the sacrament to them.”

The bishop is open to gay clergy in the church. He thinks all single clergy, gay or straight, should be celibate. But I think he believes gay sex is bad or at least not too good, married or not.

“We have a lot of gay clergy in the church,” he said. “I believe the same thing as with single male and female clergy. As long as they lead celibate lives, there is no impediment to being a participant in the life of the church.”

I asked if he would consider an active homosexual sex life an impediment even for a married gay priest.

“Yes, I think I would,” he said. “But I wouldn’t put too much of a twist on that, Jim, because we have ordained gay men and women in the church and they have been very faithful ministers of the church.”

Is that don’t ask, don’t tell? Or please just don’t bring it up? Knowing Episcopalians as I do, I would guess the latter. And knowing gay Episcopalians as I do, I would guess most of them might grudgingly forego a church wedding if they got to be ushers. But as I say, what do I know?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Diocese of Western Louisiana does not permit gay marriage ceremonies. The Diocese of Western Louisiana does permit gay church weddings. Bishop Bruce MacPherson of Western Louisiana, who signed the dissent, was retired when he signed it.   

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze