Bishops consider divines disobedience

Civil_marriage_is_a_civil_right When it comes to same-sex couples living together, with (or without) sex, New England has a reputation for being just a little bit more innovative than the rest of the country. Not for nothing was such an arrangement in the 19th century termed a "Boston marriage."

Now, as Boston Globe reporter Michael Paulson writes, Episcopal bishops in New England find themselves in the fascinating situation of having the denomination's tacit O.K. to gay blessings -- but not having its permission to allow their clergy to officiate at gay marriages (yet).

Episcopal bishops in New England and Iowa, the only parts of the nation where same-sex marriage is legal, are preparing for a wave of requests to allow priests to oversee the ceremonies as the result of a decision last week by the Episcopal Church that opens the door to church weddings for gay couples.

In interviews yesterday, none of several bishops interviewed said they were immediately prepared to allow priests to officiate at same-sex weddings, which remain prohibited by the canons of the Episcopal Church.

But, citing the denomination's decision Friday to allow bishops in states where same-sex marriage is legal to "provide generous pastoral response" to same-sex couples, the bishops indicated that they are looking for ways to allow priests to at least celebrate, if not perform, gay nuptials in church.

Note the use of the word "immediately" in the second paragraph. Don't you get a sense of immanence?

The fact is that many diocesan bishops including Thomas Shaw of Massachusets (as Paulson notes), have already been allowing for blessing of gay unions. Paulson doesn't have quotes indicating that some bishops are considering allowing their clergy to officiate at gay marriages -- but given that the denomination has authorized members to gather materials for same-sex marriage, it's got to be in the back of of some of their minds. Maybe that's what Bishop Lane means by "flexibility" and "good pastoral judgements."

Paulson, a very able writer sitting in the midst of progressive ground zero, has a rather unusual opportunity to ask the bishops some pointed questions. One question that I'd like answered -- what is the effective difference between offering a blessing on a relationship and celebrating a marriage? Is the only difference a piece of paper needed by the state?

OR is there a theological difference? Isn't this flap really about asking God's blessing? Funny the way those quoted seldom mention the one who is supposed to be the chief actor.

In the meantime, there is some real news here -- that the bishops are trying to come up with a united response to the expected hordes of requests to officiate at gay marriages. The other striking aspect of the article, at least to me, was New Hampshire bishop Gene Robinson's desire to wall off civil marriage from church ceremonies.

"My feeling is that it's time to separate the civil action from the religious action for all couples, and my guess is that we will continue that practice, which is to say we will ask clergy to get out of the civil marriage business and continue to offer the church's blessings of civil unions and of same-gender marriages," said Robinson. As a practical matter, that means marriages are solemnized by justices of the peace, who sign the legal documents, and then blessed by clergy.

Who exactly is the "we" here? The local bishops? The Episcopal Church? Bishops Gene Robinson and Tom Shaw? Seriously, having ministers stop officiating at marriages is a very big step, one that hasn't gotten a huge amount of media attention. Let's see if it gets more.

I've heard the argument both ways -- get churches out of the marriage biz, or get the state out of approving marriages. Frankly, I can't see either happening any time soon -- but I'm glad to see Paulson publicize the dilemmas that loom for bishops in a geographic region where the state has actually gotten out ahead of the Episcopal Church. It's hard to tell if a coordinated response will even be possible.

I imagine that it's almost as exciting being a New England journalist as it is being one in, say, California. You never know, until later, if you are in the vanguard, or on the fringe.

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