Priests can bless same-sex marriages in most N.Y. dioceses

"It is not the priest or bishop who marries the couple," says Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of New York state. Photo courtesy of
"It is not the priest or bishop who marries the couple," says Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of New York state. Photo courtesy of
Published July 27, 2011

When the State of New York [began] to allow same-gender marriages on July 24, priests in four of the six Episcopal Church dioceses [were able to] solemnize those marriages.

The bishops of the dioceses of Central New York , Long Island, Rochester and Western New York have announced that priests there may preside at the marriages of same-gender couples while in Albany and New York the bishops have refused.

Specific language exempting religious organizations and their clergy was inserted into the bill as part of complex negotiations led by Cuomo to get the bill passed. The law says that such organizations and people cannot be required to solemnize a same-gender marriage nor can they be sued or otherwise legally punished for refusing to do so.

Enactment of the New York law takes place for Episcopalians against the backdrop of General Convention 2009 Resolution C056m, which says that bishops, “particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.”

Some of the bishops who gave their priests permission to solemnize same-gender marriages cited C056’s “generous pastoral response” as at least part of the context for their decision. And all of those allow such actions acknowledged that not all in their dioceses agree with that decision or the law itself.

As the bishops weighed in with their policy stances, the NYC-Metro chapter of Integrity USA said that while it “would rejoice if all bishops were to immediately solemnize marriages, we realize that this is not immediately likely for varying reasons, and we urge charity and pastoral engagement on all sides in other dioceses.” The group also said that clergy ought to hold same-gender couples to the same standards of preparation expected of heterosexual people as well as the marriage rubrics in the prayer book.

Citing the marriage rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer, Diocese of Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano said in a pastoral letter that he will “allow for the use of such rites that bless marriages between persons of the same gender and further permit the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the midst of such blessing.”
His letter, titled “A Theological Perspective and Practical Guideline on Marriage in the Diocese of Long Island as New York,” was sent to all diocesan clergy and is to be read in Long Island parishes on Aug. 7.

“It is not the priest or bishop who marry the couple. The priest or bishop is present to witness and bless and, when included, celebrate the Holy Eucharist,” Provenzano noted. “The function of the ordained person in the rite of marriage is to bless the marriage and provide the appropriate words in the exchange of vows, which indicate within the vows the church’s call for permanence and fidelity on the part of those who marry each other.”

Diocese of Rochester Bishop Prince Singh, a strong supporter of the state law, said July 21 that he and a marriage equality task force he appointed shortly after the bill was signed “rejoice in the extension of civil rights to same-sex couples in New York” and “believe this extension to be fully consonant with the Good News of God in Jesus Christ proclaimed by the church.”

They also said that the state’s decision to make same-gender marriage legal “follows quite naturally with the history of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, which has tirelessly promoted the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the life of the church, including blessing their relationships as a pastoral response in many parish contexts, for almost 40 years.”

The group recommended that parish clergy “proceed with fully welcoming all couples who seek to enter the marriage covenant of fidelity, mutuality and service.”
Not all in the diocese will agree with that recommendation, Singh and the task force acknowledged, and they urged all diocesan members to “constantly seek reconciliation and act in ways that uphold both our convictions and one another’s dignity.”

Diocese of Western New York Bishop William Franklin said in a pastoral letter that he is called “to lead our diocese into the new era which dawns” on July 24.Franklin’s letter [was] to be read in the Buffalo-based diocese’s congregations on the day the law takes effect.

“I act under the highest human authority in our Episcopal Church, the General Convention, which is made up of the bishops and the elected representatives of the clergy and laity,” Franklin said, citing Resolution C056.

The bishop said he made his decision after meeting with both gay and lesbian clergy as well as “all the rectors and vicars of our parishes who hold traditional views on human sexuality.” There was also a diocesan-wide meeting on the issue and Franklin consulted with other committees and diocesan officials, he said.

“As your bishop, I believe that I am acting out of the tradition of the via media, the middle way, which has been a key to the identity of our church for centuries,” he said. “We do not all have to agree to remain in one diocesan community.”
Meanwhile, in the Diocese of Albany, Bishop William Love said in a pastoral letter that the diocese anticipated that the state of New York might some day allow same-gender marriage and, in 2008, passed two canons barring diocesan recognition of such relationships.

Canon 16.1 “specifically bars any other union” than that between a man and a woman, Love said, “even if they be recognized in other jurisdictions.” This stance, he said, “is in agreement with the mainstream of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the wider church.” The canon says diocesan clergy “shall neither officiate at, nor facilitate, nor participate in, any service, whether public or private” involving a same-gender marriage.

Canon 16.2 bars the use properties of the diocese, parishes and other Episcopal-related bodies within the diocese for any marriage ceremonies other than those for a man and woman.

The full text of the canon is here.
Love said that “the overwhelming majority of the people and clergy of the diocese of Albany do not and cannot support the new marriage legislation” and that “there are some very well meaning people in the diocese who are sympathetic to and support the legalization of same-gender marriages and the blessing of such unions.”

Noting what he called the church’s “long-standing commitment to acknowledge homosexual persons as loved by God, and as recipients of pastoral care within the church,” Love said that he hoped and prayed that “every parish in the Diocese of Albany will welcome and share God’s love with anyone who is seeking a deeper relationship with and desiring to worship and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the Diocese of New York, Bishop Mark Sisk said that Resolution C056’s offer of generous pastoral response “does not supersede the [marriage] canon that we have all vowed to uphold” even though “it does offer an opening for a generous and grace filled accommodation to local circumstances.”

Episcopal Church clergy sign an oath at their ordination promising to “conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the church. Title I, Canon 18 of the church’s canons defines marriage as that between a man and a woman, and says that “every member of the clergy of this Church shall conform to the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also to the laws of this Church governing the solemnization of Holy Matrimony.”

Sisk said that in light of C056, clergy who wish to bless same-gender couples may use the Blessing of a Civil Marriage rite in the prayer book (page 433). Thus, a couple seeking the church’s blessing would first have to be married in a civil service.
”I do not believe that Resolution C056 empowered bishops to authorize clergy to perform such marriages,” Sisk said. “Nor do I believe that it is appropriate for clergy to circumvent the vows we have taken by becoming separately licensed by the state to perform such marriages.” 
Sisk left to his clergy’s “good judgment” what he called “the sometimes difficult balancing of the pastoral needs of the particular individuals, the interests of the parish community, the needs of the larger church, and specific questions as to the exact logistics of when and where marriages and blessings take place.”

?The above is an abridged version of a longer article available at


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