Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New York Times "Gets It"

So often after a "big vote" at a General Convention, I've woken up the next morning to read a secular news report and wondered how the reporter could have been in the same room we were and so utterly failed to understand what it was we ended up doing.

Not so with
today's NYTimes and Laurie Goodstein's piece on yesterday's vote on blessings in the House of Bishops:

Episcopal Bishops Give Ground on Gay Marriage

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The bishops of the Episcopal Church agreed Wednesday to a compromise measure that stops short of developing an official rite for same-sex unions, but gives latitude to bishops who wish to go ahead and bless such unions, particularly in states that have legalized such marriages.

Over two days of debate, some bishops said they felt compelled to act because of their pastoral responsibility to gay couples who were increasingly coming forward to ask the church to bless their unions. Many also said they saw it as a simple matter of granting equal rights to gay men and lesbians.

The measure was written to defer to bishops who oppose adopting a liturgy for same-sex blessings and to those who say their constituents are not ready for such a step. But it opens the door to doing so in the future, saying they will “collect and develop theological and liturgical resources” for same-sex blessings, and report to the next convention three years from now, which could then design an official rite.

Even with the nuance, the vote was a momentous step for a church that has been mired in intrafactional warfare over homosexuality for more than a decade. Advocates for gay rights in the church celebrated it as a victory, noting that the vote count was a resounding 104 in favor and 30 opposed, with 2 abstentions.

“It’s a big step forward,” said Bishop Thomas C. Ely of Vermont. “The House of Bishops worked hard to get to the place where we could have such a large majority voting to move forward on the development” of a rite for same-sex blessings.

The Episcopal Church is not the only religious denomination to take such a step. The Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism allow ceremonies to sanctify such unions.

The vote came one day after the church voted to open the door to ordaining more openly gay bishops. Both measures are likely to bring even more pressure from conservatives in the global Anglican Communion to cut ties with the Episcopal Church, its American branch.

The measure will now go to the church’s House of Deputies, which represents the clergy and lay people, who are consistently more liberal on legislation than the bishops and are therefore expected to approve it at the convention this week.

Some bishops had already been permitting their priests to perform same-sex blessings in recent years, without the larger church’s formal approval, using homemade liturgies and rituals.

The measure says that bishops in states “where same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church,” meaning that they now have official permission to perform same-sex blessings. The word “may” was included to make it clear that no bishop is required to permit same-sex blessings.

The Rev. Raisin Horn, the priest of Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, said that since Iowa legalized same-sex marriage, she has not had any requests for ceremonies, but that she expected that some couples would come forward now that the church had sanctioned it.

“If a same-sex couple comes to me and they want a marriage rite, they would go through the same premarital counseling, and have to show the same quality of relationship that I would want to see in any couple,” Ms. Horn said. “I will not have to say to them, all the right things are in place except for your sexuality.”

Episcopal conservatives, who met for a worship service and strategy session at a nearby hotel conference room at lunchtime, said they felt increasingly demoralized.

The Rev. Steve Wood, pastor of St. Andrews Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said: “The conservatives are treated more as zoological oddities. We’re patted on the head, nice-nice, and then we get steamrolled.”

Many conservatives predicted Wednesday that the decisions in Anaheim would surely lead to permanent schism in the Anglican Communion. They made reference to an opinion article written in The Times of London by Bishop Nicholas T. Wright of Durham, England, a highly influential Anglican scholar, who wrote that the Episcopal Church was conscious that what it had just done amounted to “formalizing the schism they initiated six years ago” when they consecrated a gay bishop in a same-sex relationship.

But many Episcopalians at the convention here believe they will have support and will not be ostracized. They are drawing on the testimony of Anglican guests from Africa, Asia and Latin America, who they have brought to the convention here as proof that they have international allies.

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