Starting in December, the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts will let clergy bless gay couples, a change announced after a national Episcopalian convention this month approved a new rite for same-sex relationships.
The diocese will continue to forbid clergy from performing gay marriages, something its Eastern Massachusetts counterpart allows. But in an interview last week, the incoming Western Massachusetts bishop said he plans on asking worshipers whether they want to revisit the prohibition.
By a wide margin, Episcopalians at this month’s national General Convention approved a new rite blessing same-sex relationships. Each diocese in the country can decide whether to perform the blessing.
Following the convention, the Diocese of Western Massachusetts announced it would give parishes the option to perform the same-sex blessing.
Bishop-elect Douglas John Fisher, who will succeed Bishop Gordon Paul Scruton in December, called the resolution “a big move in the right direction.”
“This is a great development for our gay brothers and sisters, and we hope to celebrate that with them starting in December,” Fisher said in an interview.
While the new ritual will not constitute nuptials, Fisher left open the possibility the diocese may ultimately approve gay marriage, following the lead of the Eastern Massachusetts diocese, which sanctioned such services in 2009.
“When I get there, I’ll certainly be having those conversations,” said Fisher, currently rector of Grace Church in Millbrook, N.Y. “We’ll see where all of that leads.”
The compromises reached by the convention — approving a blessing but not marriage, and leaving the decision up to each diocese — reflect opposing pressures on the Episcopal Church from supporters and opponents of greater recognition for same-sex couples.
The stakes of the same-sex blessing debate became evident when most delegates from South Carolina walked out of the General Convention.
The blessing basically flouts the canons of the church, one of the delegation’s leaders, the Very Rev. John B. Burwell, told Episcopal News Service.
Each component of the Western Massachusetts delegation — Bishop Scruton, the clergy, and the laity — voted at the General Convention to approve the new blessing. But in their announcement last week that the diocese would let parishes perform blessings of gay couples, the bishop and bishop-elect took pains to acknowledge that some in Western Massachusetts are uncomfortable with the new ritual.
“We recognize that in most congregations there are people who have been eager for our church to provide a liturgy for same-sex blessings and also some who cannot in conscience support same-gender blessings,” Scruton and Fisher wrote. “Our desire is to continue to respect and value the comprehensive diversity of theological perspectives that has been our character as Anglicans, recognizing that none of us and no group among us knows the full mind of God or has the definitive interpretation of scripture.”
For Hinsdale resident Stephanie Mansfield, 71, the new blessing looks like an incomplete victory.
Last year, Mansfield married in an Episcopal church in the Berkshires, but because she and her wife are both women, they needed to have an out-of-state friend perform the ceremony.
Mansfield’s pastor told her she would have liked to perform the ceremony, but because that would have violated the diocese’s rules, the reverend sat and watched with other guests, Mansfield said.
Mansfield, a retired theater manager, said she looks forward to when congregations can make their own decisions about performing same-sex marriages, as well as blessings.
“Hierarchy can be useful, but it can also get in the way,” she said.
Still, considering the variety of opinions within the church, the convention yielded remarkable progress for same-sex couples, said Steve Symes, the Western Massachusetts diocesan coordinator of Integrity USA, which works within the church for full inclusion of gay people.
Symes praised the Western Massachusetts diocese for approving the same-sex blessing and said the deference shown to opponents of the blessing reflects the values of the church.
“We’re a welcoming church to all people,” and that includes those who do not support gay marriage, he said.
Symes, a gay-marriage advocate, said he believes the Western Massachusetts diocese will allow clergy to officiate at same-sex unions within the next several years.
In the meantime, he said, the outcome and tone of last week’s convention left him impressed.
“It’s really a proud day to be an Episcopalian,” he said.
Adam Sege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamSege.