Thursday, March 11, 2010

Same-sex blessings: Where are we?

The issues of inclusion of gay and lesbian people are at the forefront this week in several spheres, including in The Episcopal Church. Under lively discussion this week in my parish, and generally in the Diocese of Virginia, is a resolution approved recently by Diocesan Council (or convention) a few weeks ago calling up Bishop Shannon Johnston to impanel a study group on same-sex blessings.

The diocese resolution is in response to last summer's national General Convention which called for a "generous pastoral response" by the bishops to allow for such blessings in those places where it is needed. Many in the LGBT community are interpreting the recent Virginia resolution as, essentially, a call upon our bishop to go slow before allowing any such blessings in his diocese.

The issue is timely for us at St. Paul's because Bishop Shannon Johnston will be with us on Sunday. I think it is important that before he arrives we understand the issue, and the nuances of church governance that underly the issue. I want to share with you some background that I have given our Vestry and leaders in our Gay Straight Concerns Group and the Charlottesville chapter of Integrity.

First, to read the national resolution (C056) approved by General Convention, click HERE.

To read the Virginia resolution, click HERE.

Here is what I have shared with the Vestry:

This is complicated because the national resolution (C056) provides that bishops may provide a "generous pastoral response" for same-sex blessings at their individual discretion. That means all of the authority on this is in the hands of the bishop, and not in the hands of a Diocese Council or an individual parish or its priests.

Indeed, this is consistent with the practice of marriage rites. The parish and its Vestry has no authority to require its clergy to preside at a marriage rite, or to order its clergy to refrain from presiding at a marriage rite. The bishop has limited authority over his priests on this. The bishop could direct me to not perform a wedding, but he could not order me to preside at a wedding. Presumably, the same principle would hold true for a same-sex blessing. When I preside at a wedding, canon law provides that I seek the bishop's written permission in certain cases (divorced people primarily).

My ordination vows include that I will follow the "pastoral direction" of my bishop, and same-sex blessings certainly fall in that category. So even if the Vestry wanted me to preside at a same-sex blessing, I am not really free to do so without the permission of the bishop (I suppose I could ignore or defy the bishop, but let's call that for what it is).

I would also argue that the Virginia Council has no authority on this topic, and that its recent diocesan resolution is only a recommendation to the bishop; a close reading of that resolution shows that it is, indeed, phrased as a non-binding resolution. Only the bishop can act on the recommendation contained in the resolution, and he also could ignore it or modify it. It is my hope that he will impanel a study group, and in the meantime, that he will allow those of us who are willing to preside at same-sex blessings to do so with his permission and support.

Let me also mention that I have had at least three conversations with our bishop on this topic, including at General Convention in July on the day he voted for C056, and he has been consistent in saying that his intention is to allow priests who are willing to preside at same-sex blessings. He has also said that he wants to work out a consistent liturgy with those clergy who are willing. I should also mention that several dioceses have impaneled tasks forces on this topic, and are moving forward. There is already a body of resources to work with on this.

Finally, I think it is important that we engage in a conversation with Bishop Shannon about this when he is here Sunday, and I trust that it will be respectful and fruitful.

No comments: