In the final debate before General Convention approved a provisional church liturgy to bless the lifelong relationships of same-gender 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.
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-gender 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-gender 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-gender 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-gender 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-gender 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.