Pittsburgh-area Episcopal priests get 'local option' in blessing ceremonies for gay couples

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Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has decided to allow, but not require, priests to conduct blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

The decision Monday came after months of deliberation and talks in the diocese, seeking consensus on a volatile issue that, along with other matters of sexuality, was already a major factor in a 2008 split among local Episcopalians.

Bishop McConnell's decision authorizes priests, beginning in early January, to preside over a rite for blessing lifelong covenants for same-sex couples. That rite was approved in 2012 by the Episcopal Church's legislative General Convention, subject to approval by local bishops and to further review at the next convention in 2015.

Bishop McConnell said he has serious reservations about the theology implied by the language in the blessing liturgy -- concerns focused not on sexuality but on historic Christian doctrines of sin and redemption. But he said allowing individual choice honors a covenant reached by those who remained with the diocese in 2008, calling for unity among conservative, moderate and liberal elements.

"As I have listened to you, I have heard many passionate, and sometimes contradictory, hopes and fears," he wrote in a pastoral letter released Monday. "Some have insisted they will not tolerate any permitted use of a blessing liturgy in this diocese, while others have insisted they will accept nothing less than sacramental marriage for same-sex couples. Between these poles I have heard a host of nuanced positions, usually accompanied by the sincere desire for the unity of the Church."

The diversity of opinion in the diocese "should be allowed to express itself in local practice, by allowing the decision of whether or not to use this rite to be made by each pastor, in his or her own parish," Bishop McConnell wrote. "This 'local option' will allow each rector or priest-in-charge to minister pastorally according to his or her commitments and conscience, while putting none under constraint or duress."

Bishop McConnell also wrote that gay candidates for ministry who are in committed same-sex relationships would be eligible for ordination -- continuing a practice started by his immediate predecessor, interim Bishop Kenneth Price Jr.

Bishop McConnell said he would not conduct same-sex blessings himself but kept his personal views on the matter out of his pastoral letter. "I've always said I am called to be bishop of the whole diocese," he said in an interview Monday.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh includes 37 active congregations and about 10,000 members in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In 2008, a majority of the diocese's clergy and members, including then-Bishop Robert Duncan, left the Episcopal Church over liberal trends in that denomination. They joined with some parishes and dioceses elsewhere to form the new Anglican Church in North America.

The 2003 ordination of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, New Hampshire's Gene Robinson, had ignited long-simmering tensions within the Episcopal Church and strained its ties with more conservative partner churches in the global Anglican Communion.

The Rev. James Simons, rector of St. Michael's of the Valley in Ligonier, said that while he would not personally conduct a same-sex blessing ceremony, he believes the impact of the decision would not be major.

"That's pretty much what most people expected," Rev. Simons said. "I think that what the bishop did was wise and I'm supportive of his decision."

He said his parish, which has a typical weekly attendance of about 125, lost some members during the 2008 schism but that most of those who remain are committed to staying.

"I don't think anybody's going to be particularly shocked" by churches allowing blessings, he added, citing the rapidly growing cultural acceptance of civil same-sex marriage -- now legal in nearly a third of the states, but not Pennsylvania.

Dianne Watson, co-convenor of the local group Integrity Pittsburgh, which calls for full inclusion of sexual minorities in the Episcopal Church, called the bishop's decision a good start.

"This is an incremental step, but the next steps need to be coming more quickly," she said.

Ms. Watson said the local-option approach should not be permanent. And she said same-sex couples should receive the sacrament of marriage -- which the new Episcopal same-sex rite does not purport to be.

"We respect that [Bishop McConnell] is in an evolving diocese," Ms. Watson said. "But if a priest refused to marry an African American, this would be considered a problem. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and asexual persons should have access to all of the rites of the Episcopal Church, no matter which local church they go to."

Bishop McConnell also questioned the theology of the same-sex liturgy. Unlike the church's liturgy for marriage between a man and a woman -- which cites scriptural mandates for uniting the couple "for mutual joy, help, comfort, and procreation of children" -- the same-sex rite is more vague about its own purposes. And, he said, the wedding liturgy depicts marriage as part of Christ's restoration of a humanity that fell into sin in the biblical Garden of Eden.

In the same-sex blessing, though, "the creation remains wholly good," Bishop McConnell wrote. "It is uncertain what that redemptive language means in this new context, what we might need to be saved from or saved to."

He said he would send his concerns to the national Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, which is reviewing the liturgy.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. Twitter: @PG_PeterSmith. First Published November 25, 2013 3:08 PM

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