Church ponders next step on gay vows

Law in discrepancy with Episcopal rules

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / July 21, 2009

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Episcopal bishops in New England and Iowa, the only parts of the nation where same-sex marriage is legal, are preparing for a wave of requests to allow priests to oversee the ceremonies as the result of a decision last week by the Episcopal Church that opens the door to church weddings for gay couples.

In interviews yesterday, none of several bishops interviewed said they were immediately prepared to allow priests to officiate at same-sex weddings, which remain prohibited by the canons of the Episcopal Church.

But, citing the denomination’s decision Friday to allow bishops in states where same-sex marriage is legal to “provide generous pastoral response’’ to same-sex couples, the bishops indicated that they are looking for ways to allow priests to at least celebrate, if not perform, gay nuptials in church.

“The problem is the prayer book says that marriage must conform to the laws of the state and the canons of the church, but if we respond to the laws of the state, we are in violation of the canons of the church,’’ said Bishop Stephen T. Lane of Maine, where the situation is further complicated by a possible referendum to overturn same-sex marriage. “We’re trying to respond pastorally, but not to get so far beyond the bounds of what the church understands that our clergy are just sort of hanging out there.’’

Lane also said bishops of New England, where same-sex marriage has been approved in every state but Rhode Island, are hoping to reach a common plan, because “we don’t want people running back and forth between the New England states.’’

“The folks who would like to be married are members of our congregations and will have a legal right to marriage should the law be upheld,’’ Lane said. “Clergy are caught trying to be faithful both to the canons of the church and the laws of the state, and some flexibility will help us make good pastoral judgments while the church wrestles with the definition of marriage and the rites in the Book of Common Prayer.’’

The Episcopal Church is one of several mainline Protestant denominations grappling with how to respond to increasing societal acceptance of same-sex couples. But the issue is particularly thorny for Episcopalians because the denomination and the global Anglican Communion to which it belongs have been riven by controversy over the 2003 election of an openly gay priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

In an interview yesterday, Robinson said he expects to get married to his longtime partner once same-sex marriage becomes legal in New Hampshire, in January. Robinson said Episcopal priests in New Hampshire have been long been allowed to bless same-sex couples, including those in civil unions, and that he expects to continue to ask priests to bless, but not legally officiate at, same-sex weddings.

“My feeling is that it’s time to separate the civil action from the religious action for all couples, and my guess is that we will continue that practice, which is to say we will ask clergy to get out of the civil marriage business and continue to offer the church’s blessings of civil unions and of same-gender marriages,’’ said Robinson. As a practical matter, that means marriages are solemnized by justices of the peace, who sign the legal documents, and then blessed by clergy.

In Eastern Massachusetts, Bishop M. Thomas Shaw has been one of the most vocal supporters of same-sex marriage, but also one of the most determined to differentiate between civil and religious marriage.

He has barred Episcopal priests from officiating at same-sex marriages, and has disciplined two priests over that. He has, however, allowed priests to bless same-sex marriages, and he himself celebrated a liturgy for the same-sex wedding of Jarrett Barrios, then a state senator and now incoming president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Shaw said he is not sure what to do now that the Episcopal Church has allowed some leeway for bishops in states where same-sex marriage is legal. He will consult with other bishops, clergy, and lay leaders in his diocese before deciding how to proceed.

“In this diocese, we have a substantial gay and lesbian membership, and we want to take care of them in the best way possible,’’ Shaw said. “But I’m not sure what that means right now.’’

In Connecticut, Bishop Andrew D. Smith seemed similarly uncertain about what to do because same-sex marriage is legal in his state and is barred by his church, while a “generous pastoral response’’ by bishops has been authorized.

Bishops of Western Massachusetts, Iowa, and Vermont did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.