New Dallas Episcopal Bishop Tells Gay Members to Marry in Fort Worth

Sorry, Dallas gay Episcopalians. You still can’t get married in your own church, even with the “enthronement” (Episcopal-speak for hiring) of a new bishop last month. As one of his first orders of business, Bishop-elect George R. Sumner announced he’s sticking with a prior rule that nobody gay gets married in an Episcopal church in this town.

Since last summer when the national church voted to allow same gender marriage except when an individual bishop disagrees, the Diocese of Dallas has disagreed. But according to a group of gay Episcopalians, Sumner has afforded them a concession which they are calling, derisively, his I-30 plan.

The new bishop says it’s OK if gay Episcopalians drive to Fort Worth, where the Episcopal diocese does allow same-sex marriage, and get married there, according to Daniel Robinson Donalson of Dallas Episcopalians for Unity. Donalson was one of the authors of a letter (copy below) sent recently to Sumner denouncing the I-30 plan as grudging, demeaning and un-Christian.

I did exchange brief messages with Bishop Sumner, and I hope to be able to discuss all this with him later, after he composes a message about it for his blog. But I was not able to get him or anyone else at the diocese to confirm the existence of the I-30 plan, and a previous message from Sumner to the diocese on the topic seems to have disappeared from the diocesan web page.

Last time we talked about this, then Suffragan (Episcopal-speak for “acting”) Bishop of Dallas Paul E. Lambert was refusing to allow clergy in his diocese to perform same-gender weddings, even though the national church voted in early July at its general convention to allow them. The new rules allow bishops and individual ministers to opt out and continue to refuse to allow or perform same gender weddings.

Bishop-elect Sumner took office November 14. Donalson told me Sumner had a productive breakfast meeting with gay parishioners not long after coming to town and asked them to stay in contact with him.

Gay and liberal parishioners knew ahead of his arrival that Sumner was coming from a very conservative place within the national church. Nevertheless, Donalson said, the I-30 plan was a disappointment.

“These injustices are not imposed on any other couples in the Diocese,” the Dallas Episcopalians for Unity said in their letter to Sumner. “We believe they are only likely to cement the feelings of division — not unity, our purpose — within the Diocese. We see the point blank refusal to make any marriage accommodation, together with the failure once again to state a clear message of welcome to LGBT Christians in the same statement, as a rejection by the Diocese of Dallas and its conservative majority of any charitable purpose.”

But if anything, the I-30 plan may constitute sort of a reach leftward for Sumner, who could just as easily have told gay parishioners that homosexual sexual activity itself, let alone marriage, is not acceptable to the church. In 2010 Sumner co-authored an article arguing that homosexual sex is a violation of biblical injunctions and the teachings of Jesus.

The same article argued that some homosexuals can be cured of gaydom and that those who can’t always have the option of celibacy. Allowing gay marriage, the article said, might wear down the resolve of homosexuals trying to remain celibate. 

At the request of the diocese, I submitted written questions to Sumner asking him if my interpretation of his article on homosexuality was correct. He wrote back: "The article you refer to affirms that the Church's main message to everyone, gay or straight, is God's gracious love in Jesus Christ. It says that pastoral sensitivity and flexibility are important.”

I asked if the bishop could confirm existence of the I-30 Plan referenced in the DEU letter. A spokesperson for the diocese told me to ask the people who wrote the letter. Yeah, but ... Oh, well. Guess we're not going to get a whole lot of candor on that one from the diocese.  

In the meantime, all of Christian affiliation is declining in the United States, down almost 8 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. The Episcopal Church has lost half its membership since 1966, with a 12 percent decline in the last nine years, making it No. 12 of the top 15 American Protestant denominations.

Donalson, a 32-year-old business analyst, told me that as many as a third of the 1,200 faithful who attended Sumner’s enthroning wore rainbow arm bands in sympathy with homosexual members. But the leadership of the Dallas diocese has always been arch-conservative.

“Honestly I don’t even know if we will hear from him again,” Donalson said. “I hope that we do. He asked us to be willing to work with him and have dialogue with him, and we expressed that we would be more than willing to do that. Since the breakfast, we have not heard anything from him.”

The one thing Donalson said his group does not plan on doing is go away. “At this point, I feel that what the group is planning to do is incorporate ourselves so that we can take on a more formal structure, so that we can really step up our game in opposition of this policy.”

Episcopal pop quiz: How many people know what a “sexton” is? Hint: not one of the Village People.

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