James Thrall contributed to this report.
[ENS — August 7, 2003] — While liturgies blessing same-sex unions are celebrated in some parts of the Episcopal Church, the church is not ready to authorize creating common liturgies for such services, General Convention has decided.
In a vote by orders, with 58 lay deputations and 62 clergy deputations of 108 voting “yes,” the deputies concurred with bishops in adopting an amended resolution recognizing “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.”
The resolution also commits the church to “continued prayer, study and discernment on the pastoral care for gay and lesbian persons.” As part of the process, a commission appointed by the presiding bishop will compile and develop resources “to facilitate as wide a conversation of discernment as possible.”
The resolution allowed the church to speak clearly in describing “a fact that is longstanding and within the bounds of the church,” said the Rev. Francis Wade of Washington, co-chair of the Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music Committee. “As an individual, I feel very good about the way it passed,” he said.
The committee felt they were offering an unambiguous statement of where the church is at the moment. His diocese is one whose bishop permits blessings for same-sex unions, he said. “That’s part of our life. This affirms … we are within the embrace of the church.” Given that the Episcopal Church “experiences its theology through liturgy,” however, he said it was important to notice that the resolution does not call for the development of rites. “That would be a significant step for us, and we did not take it,” he said.
The Rev. Kendall Harmon of South Carolina, a member of the committee, said that while he agreed that the church spoke with clarity, he disagreed with what it said. “The cavalier treatment of the Scriptures at this convention was astonishing,” he said. “A great deal of momentum has been added to local option” for creating rites for blessing same-sex unions, he said.
During the deputies’ debate, he presented a minority report, calling the resolution “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Particularly dangerous, he said, is the clause about “recognizing” that local faith communities “explore and experience” such liturgies.
“If we are experiencing such liturgies, and they are within the bounds of our common life, then the Episcopal Church has already sanctioned and blessed homosexual behavior,” he said. While some people will stress that the church is “recognizing” rather than “authorizing” these blessing, he said, “let’s be honest, this is authorization.”
Harmon said he thought it is “highly likely that a clear authorization of same-sex rites passes next time” ≠ partly because many people opposing such a move will not participate in the next convention, he said. “We’ve been in two churches for a long time,” he said. “The lid is blown off. There’s a sense of relief in that.” The question now is how to move ahead in a time of unprecedented, “dramatic realignment,” he said.
But Wade said it is better to think of the church as continuing to live in “tension” over an area of its life in which there is disagreement. “We are choosing not to resolve that tension, but to live with it,” he said.
While the resolution will not make a big difference in her diocese of Los Angeles, where blessings already occur, convention’s action will be welcomed by bishops who were seeking national authorization to respond to pastoral needs of gays and lesbians, said the Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of Claiming the Blessing, an organization that supports gay and lesbian concerns.
“We came looking for a bigger step. I was hoping for authorization for common language for rites,” she said. “I think this is a compromise that takes us a step forward. … I think it makes us stronger and better able to move forward with the good news of the gospel.”
During the deputies’ debate, the Rev. Lee Crawford of Vermont said that after the ceremony in which she and her partner had their long-term relationship blessed, “several heterosexual couples tearfully told us that hearing our vows made them reconsider their own and strengthen their understanding of them.” An 86-year-old woman said she was taking the service bulletin home to show their vows to her husband because “he never promised these things to me.”
J. Patrick Waddell of El Camino Real said he would be returning home to celebrate his 25-year anniversary with his life partner. “Gay and lesbian couples are a fact of life in this church,” he said. “We need the church to give us the same sort of support” that heterosexuals enjoy.
And Tessa Craib-Cox of Chicago, who described herself as a “cradle Anglican, now Episcopalian, and straight woman,” whose “life has been blessed and enriched by many gay and lesbian friends,” likewise said the church should be ready to assist “gay and lesbian people who long for their relationships to be blessed.”
She and other deputies pointed out that the bishops had given “overwhelming” support to the compromise.
The Rev. Sharon Lewis of Southwest Florida, however, said, “Please hear my heart. To be against this resolution is to be against further separation in this church, to be against widening the deep wounds in our body.”
The Rev. Daniel Martins of San Joaquin also called the resolution a “Trojan horse.” On the face of it, he said, “it seems like an irenic, peaceful compromise” which gives supporters of same-sex unions “much less than they originally aimed for.” But, he warned, the resolution will be taken as yet another precedent for arguing that “no core doctrine” forbids such unions.