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Bishop tells Episcopal clergy: Don't bless gay unions


After 17 weeks of controversy over a ceremony in a Bolton Hill church that many Episcopalians are calling a lesbian wedding, Bishop A. Theodore Eastman has ordered the clergy of Maryland's Episcopal diocese not to bless any more homosexual unions.

In letters mailed Wednesday afternoon to every priest and senior warden under his jurisdiction, Bishop Eastman said:

"Because the Episcopal Church has made no official provision for the blessing of same-gender covenants, and because there is clearly no consensus locally or on the wider scene about the significance of these rites, I have directed the clergy of the Diocese of Maryland to refrain from such blessings."

What touched off the months of unabated and heated theological discussions among clergy and laity about whether the church should approve and even promote same-sex relations was a ceremony July 4 in Baltimore's Memorial Episcopal Church, conducted by the Rev. William W. Rich.

Father Rich, who is a chaplain at Goucher College, says the ceremony he devised at the request of the women involved was not a wedding but "the blessing of two people committed to each other."

However, a local lay group, Concerned Episcopalians, accused the bishop yesterday of "evasiveness" about details of the service, saying, "In all respects, to any reasonable person, it looked and sounded like a wedding."

Issuing its own statement, signed by Thomas G. Young III, Benjamin F. Lucas II and James H. Ridgely, the traditionalist group said Bishop Eastman's action was "a completely inadequate response to the scandal which occurred."

Concerned Episcopalians told him his letter "makes it abundantly clear that your conception of your pastoral role as bishop . . . is woefully flawed" and it called for Father Rich's removal "from the exercise of any priestly duties in this diocese."

The priest himself said it was never his intention to stir up a theological debate.

Although he still believes his pastoral concern for the women required him to perform such a ceremony and the church was the proper setting, he said he now realizes that a more private religious service in a home -- as originally suggested by Bishop Eastman -- would have avoided needless controversy.

The Rev. F. Lyman Farnham, the rector of the Bolton Hill parish who was away at the time of the July event, authorized the use of the church for it and so informed his vestry -- the parish board. Bishop Eastman said the two women are active members of the church. Father Rich described one as a friend of long standing.

Bishop Eastman said he was assured by the priest "that the liturgy in question was not in any sense intended to be a marriage as Christians understand that sacrament."

"It was meant to be a private event addressing personal, pastoral needs," the bishop added. "Neither the two women involved nor Father Rich desired to advance a cause or make a public statement of any kind."

But the priest said he was aware of the sharp criticism directed at him and at the bishop by some Episcopal clergy -- both male and female -- who believed the ceremony "mimicked" or "mocked" the sacrament of matrimony. It included a procession up the aisle to organ music, was preceded the evening before by a rehearsal dinner and was followed by a reception in a Baltimore hotel.

The controversy among Episcopalians has been so intense that Bishop Eastman held two special meetings -- on Sept. 27 and Oct. 20 -- to allow all diocesan clergy to air their views. Father Rich said these closed meetings elicited "a wide variety of responses: the conservative, the liberal and those in the middle." The priest added, "All the letters and phone calls I have received have been supportive."

He and others who were present described the meetings as valuable opportunities for the clergy to speak forthrightly about issues of sexual morality and the pastoral care of gays and lesbians. The controversy comes at a time when the Episcopal Church and other sharply divided Protestant denominations are wrestling with whether to give public support to same-sex unions.

"Foment on the issue of same-gender marriages was part of the atmosphere within our church" when Father Rich first approached Bishop Eastman for advice, Concerned Episcopalians said yesterday, and the bishop "failed to take basic precautions to protect the use of consecrated space for unauthorized purposes and, in failing to do so, precipitated a scandal."

The Rev. William N. McKeachie, rector of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church, is one of those who criticized the approval of "a sexually active relationship between two women," calling it a "clear example of the tendency in the mainline churches to discard traditional teaching in favor of approvals based merely on how people feel." "Whether the questions are those of theology, ethics or morality," Father McKeachie said, "this defines how the mainline churches are selling out."

Bishop Eastman recalled that Father Rich had asked him "about the possible blessing of a same-gender relationship" a full year before the July 4 ceremony. Both the bishop and the priest said the ceremony that took place was at least partly the result of a misunderstanding.

"I reminded him [in the summer of 1991]," Bishop Eastman said, "that the church makes no provision for such a rite, and said that the only authorized alternative would be the blessing of a home and those who dwell in it in 'The Book of Occasional Services.'

"Father Rich understood this to be a suggestion rather than a directive and, in consultation with the couple, eventually designed a special service to be held in the church as was their preference." Despite the ensuing specific and general discussions of same-gender covenants, Bishop Eastman conceded, "We have just scratched the surface."

He said his letter to the parishes -- which as far as he is concerned is "the completion of the consultative process" -- was approved unanimously by his Diocesan Council.

"It is evident that there are strong convictions on all sides, a good deal of confusion about the meaning of non-sacramental blessings, and a desire among many to discuss the matter further," Bishop Eastman said in his letter. "What is happening here, of course, is being repeated in other dioceses of this church and in other denominations as well."

Noting that several recent General Conventions of the Episcopal Church called upon all Episcopalians "to give life to the claim of homosexual persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral care and concern of the church," the bishop promised that he would "continue to work with gays and lesbians and other members of the church to discern the mind of Christ as we seek for ways to strengthen the moral resolve and undergird the faithful commitments of all our people."

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