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MASSACHUSETTS: Mission partnerships and marriage issues top convention agenda

By Tracy J. Sukraw
10/31/2006
[Episcopal News Service] 

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, meeting as its 221st annual convention October 27-28 at Trinity Church in Boston, focused its attention on mission partnership initiatives that are part of the diocese's multi-year mission strategy.

During its business session the convention approved three resolutions about marriage issues.

Bishop Philip Baji of the Diocese of Tanga, Tanzania, preached at the convention Eucharist and brought news to Massachusetts of the fruits of partnership between the two dioceses devoted to home health care and AIDS relief. Fundraising activities at the convention supported the purchase of a tractor to help the sisters of the Community of Mary maintain their farm in Tanzania.

The convention endorsed a set of mission strategy goals that included:

  • continued AIDS prevention and relief work in Africa;
  • planting new worshiping communities and new campus and young adult ministries;
  • sending clergy assistants to urban congregations;
  • creating a program to fund parish capital campaigns; and
  • commitment to social and economic justice advocacy.

Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE called for a special convention in March 2007 to develop ways to measure progress on the mission strategy goals, as well as to provide congregations with resources for growth and measure of their own vitality and viability.

"We have seen what our love is doing in our diocese and beyond, from the Gulf Coast to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. We have heard how God is calling us to express that love in the future," Shaw said. "This next convention will be the opportunity for us to explore the friendship we have with one another in Christ, how we live as friends in dependence and accountability to create that Spirit-filled moment we call community."

One of the marriage-related resolutions was a substitute measure calling for study and dialogue about Christian and civil marriage. It replaced a resolution that, as originally submitted, would have expressed the convention's sentiment "that beginning January 2008, Episcopal marriages be presided over by an agent of the state" and that the clergy's role "be limited to the blessing of the union as a holy act"-- essentially separating the civil and religious aspects of marriage.

The proposers said that their original resolution stemmed from concern about separation of church and state, as well as a desire to equalize the role of Episcopal clergy in all Massachusetts marriage ceremonies; same-gender marriage is legal in the state, but clergy of the diocese may not solemnize those marriages.

In presenting the substitute, the Rev. Margaret "Mally" Lloyd of Christ Church in Plymouth said that after listening to much pre-convention discussion generated by the original resolution, its proposers realized "more listening and theological debate in different forums" was necessary before decisive action could be taken on the issue.

Thus, a second resolve in the substitute measure -- stating, in part, "that for clergy to function as agents of the state in the legal aspect of a marriage, while customary in the United States, obscures the distinction between church and state" -- was tabled.

The convention went on to approve resolutions asking the General Convention to authorize rites for same-gender marriage in civil jurisdictions where it is permitted and to amend the church's marriage canons accordingly; and to urge the Massachusetts Legislature to defeat an upcoming ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution in 2008 to ban same-gender marriage.

Also approved was a resolution on creating a diocesan environmental stewardship action plan. It calls on congregations to conduct energy-use audits and report on their plans to address deficits in their local environmental stewardship. It also asks the Diocesan Council to "explore the feasibility of financial incentives in the 2009 diocesan budget" for congregations that have made significant progress in addressing environmental stewardship, and requests a long-range plan "that sets goals and strategies for measurable improvements in sustainability and environmental stewardship" at the diocesan offices in Boston and in all congregations and diocesan properties.

A more strongly worded amendment failed for lack of specifics. It would have set a goal of "climate neutrality" — 100 percent elimination of fossil fuel consumption and resulting greenhouse gases. Delegates voiced support for the amendment's principle but wanted to know how such a goal would be accomplished and paid for.

Also approved were:

* a balanced $7.5-million budget for 2007;

* a resolution calling for "a task force to study the practice of Communion of the unbaptized at the parish level and to report its theological and pastoral findings" to the next convention;

* a resolution adding to the calendar a May 17 feast day for Andronicus and Junia for diocesan trial use; and

* a constitutional amendment entitling each congregation to two convention delegates, dispensing with the current method of computing congregational representation which results from year to year in varying numbers of delegates (first reading).

Details on each resolution are available here.

The Diocese of Massachusetts comprises about 74,300 Episcopalians worshipping in 185 congregations.