Episcopal Church approves blessing service for same-sex couples
The Episcopal Church had a watershed moment Tuesday evening in its effort to include and respect those in same-sex relationships. With large majorities, its clergy and lay delegates approved a same-sex relationship blessing service that includes prayers and readings and hymns and the words “I do.”
First on Monday, the Episcopal bishops overwhelmingly voted 111-41 to approve a lifelong blessing rite - not a marriage rite - for same-sex couples. The vote came after three years of planning and discussion on the fifth day of its 77th triennial General Convention being held in Indianapolis. Then, this evening, the clerical and lay section of the church's 800-member House of Deputies representing parishes around the nation, approved the new ceremony.
The new ritual won approval from 78 percent of the voting lay members and 76 percent of clergy. "The Missouri Diocese deputation -- priests and laity -- voted unanimously in favor of approving the blessing (rite)," one deputy, the Rev. Jason W. Samuel, vicar of the Church of the Transfiguration in Lake Saint Louis, said. He was jubilant and said his St. Charles County parishioners will welcome the news.
The same-sex blessing rite is called "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant."
The carefully written blessing rite was prepared by liturgists and theologians on the denomination’s Committee on Liturgy and Church Music. The service opens with the words, “We are gathered here…” similar to the to the Episcopal marriage rite. The newly approved rite will not be included in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
“It can’t be a marriage because our canons (church laws) define marriage as between a man and women even where same sex marriage is legal, our canons don’t allow marriage,” Heidi Clark, a member of Christ Church Cathedral, said. For the past three years, Clark served as a member of the national Blessing Task Force that came up with the new ceremony. She and five others specifically shaped educational materials that will be used to assist dioceses, clergy and parishes understand more about the new blessing service. She was not a voting delegate, but her husband, Mike Clark, voted to approve the provisional same-sex ceremony as a deputy representing Christ Church Cathedral.
"There might be eventually a movement to modify those canons but this (change on sexual-orientation equality issues) moves as slowly as tectonic plates,” Heidi Clark said. “I’ve been working on equality for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people for 24 years.”
In this vote, the Episcopal Church became the largest U.S. denomination to officially sanction same-sex relationships. The United Church of Christ, The Friends (Quakers), the gay-founded Metropolitan Churches and a few smaller Christian groups allow same-sex blessings.
“By and large in the Episcopal Church, members have confronted the issues of our times and have wished to engage them, not shy away from them as a church, and try to find where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is leading us in our day,” said the Rev. Todd McDowell, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Kirkwood.
Reviewed in three years
The new rite is good for three years. The vote came with the provisos that over the next three years, the denomination’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music will examine “how the blessing of lifelong, committed same-sex relationships relates to Christian theology and scripture, and to reflect on the matter with our sisters and brothers throughout the Anglican Communion and with our ecumenical partners.”
McDowell said he knows of no one in his Kirkwood parish who is likely to begin the counseling sessions that would lead to the new blessing service. He’s prepared to be surprised.
Episcopalians “have been looking at this seriously for some time,” he said. “We approached this in a thoughtful theological way and I think this (three year trial period) will allow us to see the how the blessing of same gender relationships (works.)
After the study, any revisions will be discussed at the 2015 national meeting in Salt Lake City. Heidi Clark hopes the rite will be made permanent. Each bishop must authorize adaptation of the provisional rite and its resources to meet the needs of his or her diocese. That’s key in dioceses within the six states and District of Columbia where civil unions or marriage of same sex couples is legal, Clark said.
Episcopal bishops in many dioceses and their priests quietly have used rites of blessing for decades but haven’t had a nationally approved liturgy.
“Some of our members have already had these blessings,” the Rev. Anne H. Kelsey, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Central West End. She has conducted a few same-sex blessing ceremonies in the decade she has been Trinity’s rector but does not claim to be a pioneer. As early as the 1990s the parish’s former rector, the late Rev. William Chapman, conducted blessings of same sex members.
“Many of us at Trinity have been waiting a long time for this,” Kelsey said. She let out a melodic whoop when she heard the news. “(Blessings) are part of our common life at Trinity. We’ve been waiting for others to catch up.”
Kelsey plans to talk about the approved rite in her Sunday sermon and is confident that afterward, it will be a joyful topic among parishioners over coffee, she said. Beyond her city parish, she knows some Episcopalians will not be pleased. A couple St. Louis Episcopal priests declined to comment on the issue.
“I am sure some will be very distressed, we hope the unity of the church is more important to them,” she said. McDowell said no priest will be forced to conduct the ceremonies.
Much of the discussion, though not all, was streamed over the internet. The priest who gave the minority report told the assembly that the rite was “a clear theological departure, a new theology of human sexuality that differs from the Book of Common Prayer, Anglican Church and wider Christian Church.” He mentioned a string of Christian denominations who do not believe in blessing same sex unions. “This singular motion will result of the Episcopal Church not only being out of step but out of line with others in the (Christian) faith,” he said before the vote.
The new Episcopal national rite is not supposed to be used until the first Sunday of Advent, Dec. 2, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. Preparation of the same sex couple with counseling by a priest or deacon will be required, just as it is for nuptial blessings in marriage.
Kelsey, Clark and McDowell each said that couples who want the blessing are good Christians who want a deeply religious service. If they wanted just a celebration, they could follow the growing trend of young American men and women who skip church services, grab a friend with an internet “ministry degree” and have services in parks, museums, hotels and backyards, Clark said. Today in many American wedding celebrations the actual service may be only “a footnote” to a three-day festival of parties, Clark said.
Priests won’t give the blessings to strangers, Las Vegas chapel-style, but only to members of their church, McDowell said.
Just as in marriage, the clergy can refuse to marry a couple for any number of reasons. Generally rectors require from four to six two-hour counseling sessions with brides and grooms.
“The first thing we ask is: Why do you want the church’s blessing,” McDowell said. “And we’ll do that with same sex couple blessings.”
The Kirkwood rector likely would require single sex couples to take the Inventory Focus, a long questionnaire the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha publishes. The couple’s answers help the priest identify the couple's similarities, difference and what has not been talked about. The inventory gives the priest a starting point, he said.
“We take that very seriously,” McDowell said.
Priests and congregation who wish to use the new liturgy must first obtain their own diocesan bishop’s permission. With just 41 bishops opposing the rite, most are likely to OK the provisional rite. Missouri Bishop George Wayne Smith discussed how the rite might be used in St. Louis at a diocesan clergy meeting weeks ago. He’s expected to OK it before December.
The Episcopal Church has about 1.95 million members in the United States. Like most mainline Protestant denominations there’s been a drop in membership over that past two decades.
For Episcopalians the drop is a deep 16 percent in this century. Leadership opening doors on the gay issue has cost the denomination members and strife with the larger Anglican Church. Sixteen years ago the American denomination authorized the ordination of gays. Then in 2003, the church elected and consecrated as the New Hampshire Episcopal diocesan bishop Gene Robinson who had lived for years in a relationship with another gay man. Membership dropped after both.
Whole parishes in some cases, left the American denomination. Some joined other dioceses within the international Anglican Church; others including many priests joined other denominations. So many ordained priests asked to become Catholic priests that the Vatican gave special permissions for these usually married ordained men to become Catholic priests.
Aspects of gay and lesbian ordination and sacramental inclusion have been discussed by American Protestant denominations since the mid-1990s. This summer the Presbyterian Church USA and United Methodists opposed opening the doors wider to sacraments for gay persons. Like Trinity Episcopal, some Presbyterian churches in the St. Louis area have had single-sex blessings for more than a decade, though there is no national rite to perform them.
In May, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church rejected an effort to remove a line from the church's beliefs’ statement that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching."
The 8-day 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church began July 5 and concludes Thursday. The convention’s large basket of issues under consideration include taking stands against the US embargo of Cuba, reorganizing the Episcopal Church’s administration, recruiting new members, and calling for U.S. mortgage reform. This new single sex blessing rite only took about two hours of the eight-day meeting.