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Episcopalians review a new rite for gay unions

Episcopal Bishops Thomas Shaw (left) and Gene Robinson marched in this year’s gay pride parade in Boston

Jonathan Wiggs /Globe Staff

Episcopal Bishops Thomas Shaw (left) and Gene Robinson marched in this year’s gay pride parade in Boston

Episcopalians, gathering this week in Indianapolis for their triennial General Convention, are expected to overwhelmingly approve trial use of a new liturgy for blessing same-sex unions.

The vote could prompt the bishop of Western Massachusetts, where Episcopal priests are still not allowed to bless or marry gay couples, to revisit his policy.

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In 2009, the Episcopal Church lifted a temporary ban on blessing gay unions and said bishops may provide “generous pastoral response” to gay couples, especially in states that allow civil unions or gay marriages.

Many Episcopal bishops now permit the blessing of same-sex relationships, and some in states where gay marriage is legal — including ­Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Diocese of Massachusetts, which runs roughly east of Inter­state 495 — let priests ­officiate at the marriage of same-sex couples.

But because the Episcopal Church canons and the Book of Common Prayer describe marriage as between a man and woman, some bishops have not embraced same-sex blessings or weddings. Bishop Gordon Paul Scruton of the ­Diocese of Western Massachusetts, does not allow priests to do either.

Scruton, who is retiring Dec. 1, and Bishop-elect Douglas John Fisher said through a spokeswoman Thursday that they planned to issue a joint statement following the General Convention vote. They did not indicate what it might say, and they declined a request for an interview beforehand.

At the last diocesan convention in October 2011, Scruton said the diocese would move toward allowing the blessing of same-sex unions if the ­General Convention adopted the new liturgy this summer, said Steve Symes, diocesan ­coordinator of Integrity USA, a group within the church working for the full inclusion of gay people.

Even if it does not happen before Scruton retires, change seems likely to occur under Fisher. During a meet-and-greet where candidates for bishop met voting delegates, Fisher indicated he would look to the people of the diocese for guidance on the issue, Symes said. At last October’s diocesan convention, delegates voted overwhelmingly for a resolution to begin blessing gay unions, Symes said.

“I almost think it’s a slam-dunk — I think it will happen,” he said.

In a phone interview from Indianapolis, Shaw said the proposed new liturgy may not be used often in the eastern portion of the state, where priests have been allowed to craft their own services in conducting gay marriages for several years.

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, which wrote the new rite, has “done a good job,” Shaw said. “It’s just for Eastern Massachusetts, it’s about five years too late.”

But in much of the country, where gay marriage is not ­legal, the new rite would give priests the words to say in blessing gay couples, and it may spur some bishops who did not previously allow such blessings to change course.

Shaw said that at a recent meeting of bishops he was surprised to learn that even in dioceses in traditionally conservative parts of the country, such as Houston, preparations are being made to offer the new liturgy in some parishes.

“I think there will be bishops who say, ‘This is not going to happen in my diocese,’ but for the most part, it seems people seem to have a sense that this is something that’s coming, and that will provide at least some uniformity in the church,” Shaw said. “And there will be blessings in places where there is no marriage equality.”

In Connecticut, where gay marriage is also legal, priests may only preside at the blessing of gay unions but not at marriages.

In a letter to Connecticut priests in May, Bishop Ian T. Douglas and his assistant bishops called the church’s definition of marriage “oppressive to gay couples” and said it caused them “great sadness.” But until the General Convention resolves the issue, they wrote, it is beyond their power to permit priests to officiate at gay marriages.

They also noted that some in the church question whether it even makes sense for Episcopal clergy to act as agents of the state in signing marriage licenses. A justice of the peace could handle that responsibility, and clergy could confer only the church’s blessing.

Reached in Indianapolis this week, Douglas noted that the report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music spells out four options for bishops in states where gay marriage is legal. They can let priests celebrate the liturgy and officiate at the civil marriage, they can allow one but not the other, or they can allow neither.

Church canons defining marriage are not up for debate at this convention, he said, but the report does articulate options for bishops that had not been articulated before.

“I think we will be in a different place following this convention,” he said.

Adoption of the new rite is a notable development for a church that just six years ago placed a de facto moratorium on blessing same-sex unions, to avoid exacerbating conflict within the worldwide Anglican Communion.

“Everybody is feeling good about this,” said state Representative Byron Rushing, cochairman of the Massachusetts delegation to the convention.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter
@wangsness.
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