Liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships begins provisional use

Louisa Hallas and kClare Kemock will have their civil union blessed at their home parish of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois, on Dec. 29.

[Episcopal News Service] In the final debate before General Convention approved a provisional church liturgy to bless the lifelong relationships of same-sex couples, Episcopal Diocese of Chicago Deputy Ian Hallas, 22, spoke about his sister, Louisa, and her civil union.

“The love that she shares with her partner is unconditional and speaks to the ideal relationships all of us should strive to have,” he told the House of Deputies on July 10 in Indianapolis. “I often get asked by churchgoers and nonchurchgoers why I am a part of this body. The reason I return is for my sister. I seek to assure that she not only has the same rites as myself but also the same privileges.”

The new rite, “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” was authorized for use with diocesan episcopal permission beginning Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent.

On Dec. 29, Louisa Hallas, 25, and kClare Kemock, 30, will have their union blessed at their home parish of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. The couple, engaged for just over a year, met working backstage at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Kemock is a costume designer; Hallas now works as administrative assistant for the Chicago diocese’s director of ministries.

The new liturgy and a short theological summary, excerpted from the report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music titled “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing,” are posted here. The entire set of liturgical resources from the report will be available for $24 from Church Publishing in mid-January and includes a theological essay, guidance on canon law, materials to prepare couples for a blessing service and teaching materials inviting congregational conversation and theological reflection.

Although some dioceses have permitted blessing rites, this is the first time the church as a whole has authorized such a liturgy.

“For the church to have said this is an authorized liturgy gives it a different level of authority as oppose to what’s been permitted to be used in individual dioceses,” the Rev. Ruth Meyers, SCLM chair and Hodges-Haynes professor of liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, told ENS. “I know that there were some bishops who were unwilling to allow blessings to take place in their diocese until there was some churchwide decision to allow blessings.”

Besides approving the liturgy, General Convention Resolution A049 directed the commission to continue to review the materials, “inviting responses from provinces, dioceses, congregations and individuals from throughout the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and from our ecumenical partners,” and report to the 2015 General Convention.

“Because we’re a church who learns as we pray and our theology develops through our experiences of worship, we’ll learn more about what it means to bless the relationships of same-sex couples through our experience of these liturgies,” Meyers said. “So the commission will be developing a process of review and will want to learn from clergy and couples and congregations who are using these materials, and there may well be some refinements to the material.”

A separate resolution (A050) authorized a task force to study marriage and directed it to consult with SCLM and the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons about addressing clergy’s pastoral needs “to officiate at a civil marriage of a same-sex couple” in states where it is legal.

Differing approaches

The blessing liturgy is authorized only with the permission of the diocesan bishop, and clergy can decline to preside at a blessing ceremony. Resolution A049 specified that bishops, particularly in dioceses located in civil jurisdictions where same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, could provide a “generous pastoral response” and that bishops could adapt the liturgical materials to meet church members’ needs.

In the months since General Convention approved use of the liturgy, bishops throughout the church have issued pastoral letters outlining the policies for their dioceses.

In the Diocese of Chicago, in a state where civil unions are legal, Bishop Jeffrey Lee previously had issued guidelines and a liturgy for blessing same-sex unions as part of the “generous pastoral response” allowed under 2009 General Convention Resolution C056. Hallas and Kemock already were planning a ceremony when the SCLM-developed liturgy was approved in July. They are finalizing the liturgy for their service, adapting it using the newly approved rite in the way opposite-sex couples often do for their weddings using the Book of Common Prayer marriage service.

“I think it’s wonderful, and I’m overjoyed that this is something that the Episcopal Church has authorized, and it’s just a beautiful liturgy,” Hallas said. “I’m thrilled by it, and I’m also aware that this will now be an option for people in other areas who may have only dreamed about it. This is something that means a lot to the community as a whole, to the church community.”

In the Diocese of Connecticut, a state allowing same-gender couples to marry, the bishops authorized clergy to use the new liturgy and to officiate at the civil weddings of gay and lesbian couples.

Similarly, Bishop Mark Sisk granted permission for clergy in the Diocese of New York, which also has marriage equality, to perform weddings for gay and lesbian couples beginning Sept. 1, 2012. Based on the debate in Indianapolis, he wrote, “I conclude … that it was the mind of this General Convention to extend the meaning of ‘generous pastoral oversight’ to include circumstances in which we in New York find ourselves.”

In the Diocese of Utah, where same-gender marriage is not legal, Bishop Scott Hayashi issued a pastoral letter and policy permitting clergy to receive episcopal approval to preside at blessings after undergoing a period of study and reflection with the vestry or bishop’s committee and “inviting the entire congregation” to participate in that study.

So far, Hayashi told ENS, three congregations have begun this process.

As Episcopalians, Hayashi said, “we do things in community.” Just as the issue of same-sex blessings was studied and debated before General Convention approved it, he wants to see congregations study and reflect on it, he said. “It’s a great teaching opportunity … to come to a deeper understanding of what relationships are, the functions of liturgy and the goodness of the liturgy.”

“I require this for this particular blessing of same-sex unions because … I believe that is the way we work as Episcopalians. It’s part of our DNA, and I do want the congregation to be able to participate as well as being informed of whatever decisions the leadership of the congregation should make,” he said.

Individuals initially opposed to the blessings also may change their minds after studying and talking about the SCLM materials, or at least come to understand why it’s an important ministry of their congregation and “why the blessing of same-sex couples is a matter of inclusivity, it’s a matter of justice, it’s a matter of God’s expressions of love to all people,” he said.

At one of the three churches to enter the study process, Grace Episcopal Church in St. George, Utah, Rector Catherine Gregg led a three-week preaching series on the issue. She spent two weeks addressing what blessing and union mean, looking at the concepts theologically, pastorally and scripturally. “They are not words that are in the vernacular of society in a way that we might all have some common understanding,” she said.

The last week, she talked about same-gender blessings in the context of the church’s values as articulated in its recently completed visioning process, where “radical hospitality” topped the list. It was easy to link the concepts of blessing, union and radical hospitality “to why we are proud to be a church that offers blessing of same-sex unions,” she said. “It really was not even a hiccup. All I did was give the church language to explain to other people, if they want to, why we do what we do.”

Although no same-sex couples in the congregation are yet ready for a blessing of their relationship, she said, when one is “it will be something that will be celebrated as the blessing of any union that we do here. This is a very open church.”

In the Diocese of Georgia, Bishop Scott Benhase wrote a pastoral letter outlining his decision authorizing his clergy to use a shorter blessing he adapted from the SCLM liturgy. The decision angered some who disapproved of offering any blessing for same-gender couples and others who wanted the full rite authorized.

“I did not choose a middle way because that was the politically wise thing to do. I actually happen to believe strongly where I came down,” he said. “That’s where I am on this issue.”

Before he became bishop, his parish of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, was the first parish in that state to offer a blessing rite, he said. “I have been for over a decade a proponent of the blessing of same-sex couples.”

“My concern is and continues to be that the church has not had a significant robust conversation around the theology of holy matrimony, and to offer a provisional rite that mirrors so clearly holy matrimony, I felt, was unhelpful and confusing and in a sense out of order … I found the rite itself that was approved not to be distinguished enough from the rite of holy matrimony and that it would just lead to further confusion.”

“I fundamentally believe that holy matrimony was intended to be between one and one woman,” he added. “That doesn’t mean that God does not bless and want gay couples to flourish in their relationships, but it’s not holy matrimony.”

In the Diocese of Northern Indiana, Bishop Edward Little II wrote a pastoral letter outlining a different type of compromise. He did not authorize clergy to use the blessing liturgy in the diocese but is permitting them to use it in neighboring dioceses. The bishops of the dioceses of Chicago, Western Michigan, Michigan, Ohio and Indianapolis, which all border the Northern Indiana diocese, all agreed that priests could request permission to use a church in their dioceses for a blessing service, he wrote. “Those priests should also apply for a ‘license to officiate’ from the bishop of the neighboring diocese, since the liturgy would be under that bishop’s sacramental covering rather than mine.”

Reaching this decision “was a struggle,” Little told ENS. “It took me many months to land where I landed.”

He was dealing with two commitments that he holds in tension as diocesan bishop, he explained: “my own understanding of sacramental theology, which led me to believe that this liturgy is not one that I could authorize; I believe that decision to present it to the church was a significant mistake” and the commitment to “provide a safe space for everyone within the church.”

Little said he’d been “rather vocal” about providing that safe space for conservatives within the church and, “if I was going to be honest about maintaining a place for theological minorities, it had to work both ways.”

Northern Indiana is a diocese of 36 congregations in 13,000 square miles, so no church is more than an hour from the diocesan border, he noted.

“Within the diocese, I’ve had a good deal of support from people sort of on both sides of the issue who see what I’m attempting to do as a kind of godly compromise,” he said. “Beyond the diocese, the reactions have been more extreme.”

“I’ve had some very helpful and positive face-to-face conversations with several gay members of the diocese who came in to see me with some concerns about the policy. I think relationally we’re in a good place,” he said.

“A bishop is the bishop of everyone,” he added. “You’re not just the bishop of people you agree with.”

SCLM Chair Meyers said she encouraged people to look at the resource materials including the study guide, “even if they are not ready in their congregations to take this step or not understanding why the church is taking this step.”

Another important part of “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing” is the pastoral resources for those preparing couples for a blessing, which the commission prepared in the expectation that such couples would undergo a time of preparation the same way straight couples do before a wedding, she said.

For Hallas, it’s significant that the church has authorized a common liturgy, rather than continuing to offer different rites in different dioceses.

“Because there is a rite for marriage in the prayer book that is used throughout the church, I think it’s appropriate and fitting for there to be one for same-sex couples as well. It really creates unity,” she said. “It affirms the feeling that we are all part of the same body and cared for.”

“The blessing rite is an incredible gift, not only to the church and the LGBT community, but to persons everywhere. It truly respects the dignity of all persons and shows that God cares for and loves us all and that God’s love and care is not exclusive to a heterosexual marriage or relationship.”

Said Meyers, “I think it is a statement of the Episcopal Church in its welcome of gay and lesbian couples and families.”

Before Ian Hallas spoke in favor of the blessings resolution at General Convention, he asked his sister’s permission to discuss her situation. She watched his testimony from home. “I told him it was the best gift I’ve ever gotten from him,” she said. “It was very sweet.”

Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.

Comments

  1. Well, Texas does not allow civil unions or marriages. In the Diocese of Texas, our Bishop, Andrew Doyle, is cautiously allowing us to move in the direction of blessing same-sex unions. At this point, two churches in the diocese are studying not only the rite, but also Bishop Doyle’s “Unity in Mission”, a monograph addressing how and when each parish, with the bishop’s approval, may bless a covenant between a couple of the same sex. It is NOT a marriage, it is a covenant between the two, blessed by the priest, using the rite accepted by last General Convention.
    Each church that considers this must take on the task of reading and discussing both documents, and then voting to approve or not whether that particular congregation will perform those rites. Each time an approved church wishes to perform such blessings, it is only at the bishop’s approval. Any church may choose to not even address the issue. If a priest differs from his/her parish, it is possible for a priest to perform this rite at some other place, rather than in the parish church, (at the bishops discretion) or not to perform the rite within that congregation even if the parish membership is for it. It is an amazing document of unity, and well worth the read. It can be found at:

  2. Alda Morgan says:

    To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time understanding the difference between the committed relationship of gay men or lesbians and the committed relationship of a man and a woman, which we call matrimony. No one has adequately explained this distinction for me. When I regard the relationships of our gay or lesbian friends, I consider them to be married, though without the blessing of our church. This is a conviction I came to quite a long time ago.

    However, I also realize that we Episcopalians (as well as a lot of other folks) are in a wide range of different places when it comes to this situation. I’m moved by the care, sensitivity, theological integrity, and comprehensiveness that has apparently gone into the forming of these rites and the accompanying materials. Surely, from what I’ve read here, the Commission has thought widely and generously and pastorally and I am grateful for that faithfulness. I look forward to reading and pondering the result of their committed ministry.

  3. Nancy Bracey says:

    How beautiful this is. May it be available in every parish. It is right and just!

  4. Jeff Allison says:

    I’ve read the liturgy and just don’t like it. I will use the service in the official prayer book and change whatever words and prayers need to be changed.

    I readily welcome the allowance of the service, but prefer that the liturgy for all marriages be changed to an inclusive language.

  5. Emmetri Monica Beane says:

    The first thought that comes to mind . . . I wonder what happens in Virginia. Civil unions are not part of the law here. However, if a couple goes to a jurisdiction where civil unions are legal and enter into a civil union there. Can they ask a priest to bless their union here? It sounds like the resolution from General Convention does not make the liturgy available here because civil unions are not legal here. I would appreciate clarification on this.

    • Ruth Meyers says:

      The liturgy is intended for a church blessing, not necessarily for a civil union or marriage. The commission’s report to the 2012 General Convention includes a section on the church’s canon law and the laws of the state. The chancellors who studied this matter concluded that the First Amendment would permit clergy to offer the church’s blessing to a couple in any state, provided the clergy person was not also claiming to be marrying that couple. (You can find that report in the Blue Book on the 2012 General Convention website; it will be in the published resource as well.)

      Ruth Meyers
      Chair, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

  6. Donald Jack Newsom says:

    In 1988 evangelist Tony Campolo wrote the following,

    “Very often evangelical homosexuals find themselves incredibly torn, not only between their basic sexual orientation and what they believe is taught by the Word of God, but also between life in the homosexual community, which seems to hold some promise of acceptance and companionship, and life in the ‘straight’ world, which may be filled with estrangement and loneliness. Undoubtedly there are some evangelical homosexuals who choose to live in the homosexual community because they see no alternative to living out life alone if they choose to remain celibate Christians and to take their places among the rest of us. Their agonies over the prospects of loneliness are seldom appreciated by those of us who do not have to face the problem. We, who would be sensitive to the needs of homosexuals, must be looking for some creative answers to this dilema.”
    (20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch; ISBN 0-8499-0655-5, page 116)

    It is my understanding from what I have seen and been reading that this is the Episcopal Church’s answer to the dilema posed by Campolo nearly a quarter of a century ago.

    In the same text Campolo goes on to describe a covenantal relationship in which two homosexual men in Chicago ” . . . promised to live with each other ’til death do them part,” while simultaneously promising to abstain from homosexual intercourse. It is this latter, regarding abstention from homosexual intercourse, that seems to be absent from the discussions on this subject. Perhaps the framers of this Liturgy for blessing same-gender relationships regard this as an implied condition.

  7. Julian Malakar says:

    With the advent of 2012, TEC sailed their boat first time in history with new gospel of same-sex sexual love that are supported not by biblical teaching, but by experience. In the past all Church activities had basis on the word of God. It is sad that SCLM in the liturgy of same sex blessing could not give any word of God from the Bible that would ensure us, God bless the same sex couple as He does for straight couple. It is interesting to notice TEC still believe that the Bible is word of God.

    New voyage with new gospel based on experience would raise many questions in future that would not have reasonable answer in consistence to biblical gospel and further divide the Church. Experience is relative term varies from person to person and would not be reasonable to justify as God’s word. St. Paul’s life experience is believable as word of God after his vision of Christ while going to Damascus to kill Christian; we have none like him at present time. As St. Paul said love is most important in our life above all other two characters hope and faith. But that love does not encourage same sex love. It is that love, neighbor loves for neighbor without sex. May Christ bless His Church with His love and peace.

  8. Joyce Ann Edmondson says:

    I think there is a long needed discussion of the meaning of marriage between a man and a woman that currently includes being open to the pain of childbirth, care of children in marriage, sacrifices made by both, the necessity for both partners to work, the education of children for the Kingdom. As communities change to incorporate couples who may not have to fully face these issues, (which have biblical consequences involving procreation and family life) might there be a way for a new definition to serve the community as well? Do we need to redefine marriage itself? What does the Bible say? We used to believe that marriage was related to the union of man and woman with Christ and the ultimate reason was for bearing children for the kingdom. Sexual pleasure was the means to an end. We may need a new definition of marriage itself at this point in time to include the ways we serve the community as partners in marriage.

    • David Handy says:

      By this reasoning heterosexual couples who are unable or unwilling to conceive and bear children should also be denied the right to marry. There are many couples who at time of their marriage are beyond the age of conception, who because of their physical condition are unable to conceive, or who have been voluntarily sterilized. And there are couples who simply choose not to have children. These couples are no different from childless same-sex couples with respect to procreation, and it seems hypocritical to allow such heterosexual marriages just because the participants look like other people who might indeed procreate sexually. (It reminds me of some the arguments against having women in the priesthood.)
      And beyond all this of course couples unable to conceive in the most common way, both heterosexual and homosexual, have recourse to adoption and various medically assisted methods of conception.

  9. Fr. Michael Neal says:

    I love you all, but what part of Romans 1 do some of you not understand………..just asking…….that is unless you do not think Gods word is absolutely true……………….Grace to you…………

  10. Why do we even have rules? The blessing of same-sex unions wasn’t authorized until the last convention but priests were doing it before then anyway. The convention ruled that communion can only be received by the baptized but priests give it to the non-baptized anyway. Seriously, why do we even have canons?

  11. Jeffrey Parker says:

    I respectfully suggest that the clergy get out of the business of acting as agents of the state. All marriages would have to be civil, and the issues surrounding who is qualified to be married would remain in the public domain. No one would be deprived of equal treatment. I would personally prefer to call same-gender couples a civil union rather than a marriage.
    Parishes or Dioceses could make their own decision on what marriages or unions they would like to bless.
    I would note that in an environment where the church blesses pets, houses, and so forth, it is incongruous not to bless people, whether is for a birthday, anniversary, or a civil union.

  12. Mellicent Wishau says:

    Why are we so worried about what goes on in the privacy of someone’s home? As a lifelong Episcopalian I have been taught that my relationship with God is personal and God is my judge and not the priests or bishops. Many people are guilty of “sins” by what they are thinking or not doing. I congratulate the LTGB community for being honest with themselves and everyone around them instead of trying to be someone else or living a double life.
    I have known Louisa and Ian since both were very young and I’m equally proud of both for the extraordinary adults they have become. They were raised by parents and ( hopefully their church) to be comfortable expressing themselves openly with their gifts and talents and spreading the Gospel of God’s love.

  13. the Rev'd Mike Waverly-Shank says:

    A few thoughts from the orthodox side –
    1. the rubrics of the BCP have the weight of Canon Law. they define marriage as between one man and one woman.

    2. A least 17 books of the Bible directly or indirectly define marriage as one man one woman. And
    This includes what Jesus said and did. What else is the wedding at Cana story all about?

    3. It ought to make us stop and think when about 80 percent of the Anglican Communion does not allow same gender marriage or blessings.

  14. Hank Tansley says:

    Won’t do it in my diocese. Our bishop says it is sick.

  15. Jane Bryson says:

    It’s nice to know that at least PART of Illinois is going to follow the General Convention Resolution A049 that was passed with a 3 to 1 margin.

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