Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Episcopal Bishop Introduces Same-Sex Marriage Rites

The Boston Globe reports that Bishop Thomas Clark Ely of Vermont has introduced two new rites, similar to traditional marriage rites, for Episcopal priests to use when presiding over same-sex marriages.

Though the international Anglican community remains deeply divided, with the idiots in Africa and South America and their fearful leaders in Canterbury holding onto antiquated, masculinist beliefs that homosexuality is an abomination, and the forward-thinking, people-loving clerics of more civilized cultures pushing for reform and modernization, it is refreshing that an Anglican bishop would risk his professional security by continuing to push for equal treatment of all people in God's churches.

It is important that Christians embrace all people. That is a lesson of Christ's teachings: love thy neighbor. To cling to Victorian ideals fostered by modern fundamentalists that homosexuality is wrong makes no sense. If we stayed in the past, most of us would not be able to feed our families. If medicine and technology and human advancement were stunted because of writings from the Old Testament or Torah, there would be big trouble for all of humanity. So, to stunt our spiritual development by saying that there are groups of people of whom God disapproves is nonsensical.

Homosexuals are taxpayers and they deserve the same protection under the law that heterosexuals are guaranteed with the laws that define marriage. This is not going to go away. Every state will eventually pass laws providing for same-sex unions: it's the only Constitutional answer to the question.

Whether or not churches want to participate is a different conversation. Most won't and that is sad; but, some will and that is reason to be joyous.

Marriage, as defined in religious writings, is a religious affair. Marriage, as defined by law, is a legal affair. The two need not meet - ever - in order for people to be united in their love for one another.

I applaud Bishop Ely and pray that other Christians will follow his lead.


Here is the text of the Boston Globe article, reprinted without permission.
You can find the original article, complete with the advertising that pays for it, here.

New rites for Vt. civil unions
Episcopal bishop sees three-year trial period

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, June 18, 2004

In a move that is likely to further inflame tensions in the global Anglican Communion, the Episcopal bishop of Vermont today will introduce two new rites, very similar to the liturgy for Episcopal weddings, for priests to use while presiding at civil unions of gays and lesbians.

Episcopal priests in Vermont have already been quietly solemnizing and blessing civil unions for four years, since the state legalized them for same-sex couples. But in introducing standardized rites -- a symbolically significant step in a highly liturgical church -- the Vermont diocese is signalling it fully endorses same-sex relationships.

"The commitment we are asking of persons who are entering into holy unions is of the same nature as the commitment we are asking of couples who are entering holy matrimony," Vermont Bishop Thomas Clark Ely said in a telephone interview from the diocesan headquarters in Burlington. "These relationships are expressive of God's love . . . and the church should be willing to recognize and embrace these loving and committed relationships."

Ely said the rites will be used on a trial basis and will be evaluated annually for three years.

The action by the Diocese of Vermont comes as the global Anglican Communion, and its American province, the Episcopal Church USA, are riven by controversies over homosexuality, many playing out in New England. Last summer, the Diocese of New Hampshire elected a gay priest as its bishop; now the dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts are grappling with how to respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage in this state.

A global commission, appointed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, this week was meeting in North Carolina as it examines the impact of the controversies on the 70 million member Anglican Communion.

Ely, who said he has blessed the civil union of a gay Episcopal priest, said the Anglican Communion needs to recognize the "context" in which Episcopalians live, and that in Vermont, that context is that civil unions for gays and lesbians have been legal for four years, and many gays and lesbians are active participants in the Episcopal Church. The lead plaintiff in the case that led to the creation of civil unions in Vermont is a lay Episcopalian who now serves as senior warden at the diocesan cathedral; the state representative who headed the legislative committee that oversaw the creation of civil unions is also an Episcopalian and now the chancellor of the Vermont diocese; and the Episcopal bishop at the time testified in favor of civil unions.

"I'm hoping that the local context in which we're doing our pastoral work is recognized -- the context in Vermont is very different than the context in Nigeria, and I wouldn't presume to understand the cultural context of Nigeria, but I would respect the local culture and context in which that diocese operates," Ely said.

Nigeria, with an estimated 15 million Anglicans, has more Anglican adherents than any other nation, and the Anglican primate there has been an outspoken critic of homosexuality and gay relationships. The Episcopal Church USA has 2.3 million members, including 8,700 in Vermont.

"Vermont has had four years [of civil unions], and Vermont hasn't fallen off the map," Ely said. "I believe that we're in a better place because of our capacity to be able to affirm the loving, committed relationships of gay and lesbian people, and because those couples enjoy the legal rights that are so desperately needed for them."

Because the decision by Vermont is to be announced today, there has been little reaction thus far. But, told of the planned action by a reporter, the New England head of an evolving national coalition of conservative Episcopalians expressed dismay.

"It's a very destructive act in terms of the traditional doctrine of marriage, and the status of the whole Anglican Communion," said the Rev. William L. Murdoch, who is rector of All Saints Church in West Newbury and who serves as dean of the Northeast convocation of the Anglican Communion Network. "It is contrary to the wishes of the archbishop of Canterbury, the primates, and the global leadership of the church, and it shows a disregard for the catholicity of the global church."

Ely said dissent in Vermont over the liberal movement of the national church has been minimal -- he said no parishes in Vermont have asked to affiliate with the Anglican Communion Network or have asked for supervision by a conservative bishop. He said he expected "a few" priests in Vermont would decline to officiate at civil unions for same-sex couples and that clergy would not be required to do so.

The situation in Vermont is unique because civil unions are legal there, but many Episcopal dioceses around the country are struggling with whether and how to bless same-sex couples. Priests in Vermont can sign the state documents couples use to form civil unions, a contrast to Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal but there are no civil unions, and where the bishop has asked Episcopal priests not to sign marriage licenses.

Although Massachusetts Bishop M. Thomas Shaw has barred priests from solemnizing same-sex marriages, he has authorized the blessing of married same-sex couples so long as the actual signing of the marriage license is done by someone other than an Episcopal priest. Ely said he agrees with Shaw's decision, and that there is no question the Episcopal church's canons bar same-sex marriage.

Last summer, the Episcopal Church's general convention passed a resolution declaring that "local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions," and dioceses in Delaware, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C., have official policies allowing the blessing of same-sex couples, according to Integrity USA, an organization that advocates for gay and lesbian Episcopalians.

In Vermont, Ely plans to ask priests to use essentially the same process for uniting gay couples as they use for straight couples -- requiring at least one partner to be a baptized Christian, asking couples to go through relationship counseling before being blessed, and imposing the same restrictions on people who seek a second civil union after a first one breaks up as the church places on couples who seek to remarry after a divorce.

Gay and lesbian couples will be asked to sign a "declaration of intention" that is nearly identical to the declaration used by heterosexual couples getting married in an Episcopal Church. In the declaration, the same-sex couples will state, "We believe that the union of two partners is intended by God for their mutual joy, for the encouragement and support given one another in daily life and changing circumstances, for the deepening of faith as they experience God's love in their love for one another, and (if it may be) the physical and spiritual nurture of children."

Priests will then solemnize the civil unions and pronounce, "In exchanging vows of love, support and fidelity, N and N are now joined in holy and civil union, as celebrated by this community of faith, and as recognized by the State of Vermont. May the grace of God be with them for ever."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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