Wednesday, June 11, 2008

California bishop urges all couples to seek civil union first, then church blessing

Andrus views proposal as 'a way forward' to support gay marriage rights
By Pat McCaughan, June 11, 2008

[Episcopal News Service] Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California is encouraging all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, to obtain secular marriages before seeking the church's blessing, as a way to support same-gender couples and "our continued witness to God's inclusive love."

"For too long the onus has fallen on marginalized people to bear the burden of inequalities that exist within the Church, and the decision by our state's Supreme Court has given us the opportunity to level the playing field," Andrus wrote in a recent pastoral letter to clergy and lay leaders of the San Francisco-based diocese.

Andrus also said he intends to serve as a deputy marriage commissioner, and urged clergy and lay Episcopalians also to "be deputized" and volunteer to preside at same-gender marriages, which are slated to begin June 17.

"There are over 4,000 civil same-sex marriages planned in a short period of time in the city of San Francisco alone and the city is asking for help in meeting demand," according to Andrus' letter, which was posted on the diocesan website June 9.

"The Diocese of California seeks to provide, by advocacy and example, a way forward for The Episcopal Church (TEC) so that the marriage of same-sex couples will be a part of our official marriage rites, without distinction," he wrote. "Although TEC does not have canonical rites for same-sex marriage, it is our goal that all couples be treated equally by the Church, as they are equally loved by God."

The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, an organization of Episcopalians committed to full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] persons, called Andrus's proposal "a creative response … a generous orthodoxy."

It was unclear if bishops in the California dioceses of El Camino Real, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Joaquin and Northern California, would follow Andrus's lead.

Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles has said he is establishing a task force with other bishops as well as within the diocese to help clarify how the court decision will affect local congregations and to work through "policies and procedures with reference to upholding the laws of the state of California and the canons and constitution of the church.

In a May 21 letter Bruno reminded clergy and laity "that pastoral acts are personal decisions between clergy and members of your congregation. In the meantime, please remain patient and prayerful."

Creation of a 'holiness in relationships' task force is underway in the Diocese of San Diego. Bishop James Mathes had said earlier that he is supportive of the rights of gays and lesbians yet "mindful that our church has not yet made the decision to bless same-sex unions. We are in the midst of a challenging but vital conversation about holy relationships in this diocese and indeed across the (Anglican) Communion."

Bishop Barry Beisner of Northern California said that bishops in the six California dioceses have been talking to each other and cooperating with one another. In a letter to clergy posted May 25 on the diocesan website, Beisner wrote, "[T]his change in civil law does not change our policy or practice in the Church, or the Church's definition of marriage."

In November 2007 the Northern California diocese passed a resolution asking General Convention 2009 in Anaheim to develop rites for blessing of same-sex unions. "Until General Convention makes an official change regarding these matters, our current policy continues," Beisner wrote.

Bishop Mary Gray Reeves of El Camino Real was away on vacation and unavailable for comment.

In California's Central Valley, where the Stockton-based Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is rebuilding after splintering last December over such issues as the ordination of women and gays, Bishop Jerry Lamb said he is focused on restoring the diocese. "We have many, many other issues to deal with," Lamb said in a telephone interview late Tuesday.

'Prophetic opportunity'
Andrus called the May 15 California Supreme Court decision a "prophetic opportunity" and noted that the church has worked for full inclusion and to further the rights of LGBT people for 40 years.

Continuing those efforts will include "bringing the witness of our LGBT sisters and brothers to this summer's Lambeth conference," the July 16-August 3 decennial gathering of bishops from across the Anglican Communion at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, Andrus said.

Andrus also said he opposes a November 4 ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to limit marriage to a man and a woman. If passed, it would overrule the Supreme Court decision, which struck down an eight-year-old ban on gay marriage. The court on June 6 refused to stay its decision, paving the way for same-sex couples to legally marry starting June 17.

"The Diocese of California will publish advertising around June 17 celebrating the Supreme Court ruling and inviting same-sex couples to our churches for pre-marital counseling and nourishment in communities of faith," Andrus said.

Full inclusion will also mean "providing leadership at next summer's General Convention to bring our marriage practices and theology in line with our fundamental baptismal theology," Andrus added.

Integrity's Russell, an associate priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, said Andrus' actions "go the extra mile" by shifting the burden for past inequities away from those who are marginalized and by "offering straight couples the opportunities to step up and share that inequity."

By "encouraging all couples to do the civil union separate from the blessing of the church … that's now what gay and lesbian couples have," said Russell, who said she'd just returned from preaching at the June 7 ceremony celebrating the civil union of Bishop V. Gene Robinson and his long-time partner, Mark Andrew, in New Hampshire.

Robinson and Andrew held two services—a secular service in which they became legal partners followed by a blessing of their relationship at St. Paul's Church.

Russell said that requests for weddings have increased at All Saints, Pasadena, which has included a "One-stop Shop for Marriage Equality in California" link on its website, with several same-gender weddings "coming up quickly," on or around June 17.

"We're not changing our policy (regarding weddings), but we are opening it up to comply with the laws of the state of California," she said. That policy require couples to receive mandatory premarital preparation and that at least one person belong to the church, with some exceptions.

California has an estimated 108,734 same-sex households, according to 2006 U.S. Census figures. The state offers same-sex couples registering as domestic partners some legal rights and responsibilities afforded to married couples, including the right to divorce and to sue for child support.

Proponents of the November 4 ballot initiative hope to add California to the list of 26 states that have approved constitutional amendments banning same-gender marriage. If passed, it is unclear how the measure would affect the status of marriages performed prior to November 4.

Russell called the court ruling "an unasked for, but extraordinary opportunity to examine what we mean by the sanctity of marriage.

All Saints has received support from its congregation and across the church, "from straight couples (who) … say how much they believe their marriage is strengthened by the example of other committed couples embracing the same values they do," she said. "I like to think this is a whole new chapter for the institution of marriage to be stronger."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII. She is based in Los Angeles.


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