Monday, March 18, 2013

Blessings, Bustin' Out All Over

In the wake of the Episcopal Church's adoption of an official rite for blessing of same-sex relationships, dioceses across the country have begun offering this ministry to the gay and lesbian couples in their communities.

Integrity has surveyed the domestic dioceses of the church and published an interactive map on our website that shows where such blessing services are permitted.  There are some real surprises in the data: the bishops of some fairly conservative dioceses have authorized the use of the rite, or are considering it.

In places where there is no civil recognition of same-sex relationships, couples often have to obtain their legal status as a couple in other states before their church can witness their vows.  In places where marriage equality has been achieved, most dioceses have authorized their clergy to perform the same civil function as they do for heterosexual couples, although the church still maintains a distinction between the blessing rite and the sacrament of marriage.

The first blessing service in Texas took place February 23 at St. David's: AustinAnthony Dale Chapple and Dennis Glenn Driskell, a couple for 23 years who were legally married in New York City, repeated their vows in front of family in friends and then served as chalice bearers at a Eucharist at which the rector of St. David's, the Rev. David Boyd, presided.

"The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant (Same Gender Blessing) in Austin,Texas this week was a historic and joyous occasion. Our best wishes, thoughts and prayers go out to Anthony Chapple and Dennis Driskell," said S. Wayne Mathis, Integrity's Province VII Coordinator. "While this marks the first official same gender blessing in the state of Texas, my prayer is that someday the blessing will become commonplace in each and every parish. Let us remain vigilant and be a voice for equality."

Photographs and more background about Anthony and Dennis's service may be found here.

Not too far away, St. Stephen's: Houston celebrated its own first blessing rite as Integrity members Jeff Meadows and Gary Patterson, a couple for over 15 years, exchanged vows on March 17th.  "What this has meant to us is now the church has said, 'Yes. You are a couple. You are living together. You love each other. You are taking care of each other. But you need the same kind of care and understanding we give to our mixed-gender couples that are married,' " Patterson said.

Read their story in the Houston Chronicle here.

Meanwhile, on March 2nd, the Diocese of Southern Virginia also witnessed its first blessing of a same-sex couple as St. Andrew's: NorfolkIn an interview with the Hampton Roads Vicginian-Pilot, the Rev. John Rohrs, Rector of St. Andrew's, was careful in his description of the blessing rite, at which he officiated.
"It's not a wedding. It's not a marriage," he explained. "It's a unique liturgy designed to ask God to bless the relationship of a same-gender couple and their lifelong commitment."

St. Andrew's has a lengthy history of LGBT inclusion, beginning with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.  After a retreat this winter, Integrity's Provincial Coordinators were welcomed to Sunday worship, at which the congregation was invited to witness in the upcoming blessing service.

Under the direction of its bishop, the Right Rev. Herman Hollerith IV, the Diocese had undergone a long and careful process leading up the decision to conduct blessings to occur on a trial basis.  In the months leading up to General Convention, a task force called Leading a Holy Life was established for conversation about the issue, and a blog was set up with thoughtful essays by people across the spectrum of opinion.

After General Convention, the Diocese published a policy governing when and how the blessing rite would be used, beginning in January.  Province III Coordinator Susan Pederson described how the process worked at St. Andrews:

“Last fall, Rev. John Rohrs and the Vestry of St. Andrew’s began the discernment process to determine whether or not there was ‘a reasonable consensus’ of support within the parish. They began with an Adult Forum on the subject during the Sunday School hour, and a variety of people came. Rohrs began to educate the congregation on the process and the guidelines. After the initial meeting, a couple approached Rohrs and asked if he would conduct the service for them. Later that month the Vestry voted and approved unanimously to seek authorization.”  Bishop Hollerith approved the application, and the rest was, as they say, history.

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