The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music met this week in Concord, New Hampshire, where we held a hearing with 33 representatives of the dioceses of Province I (which comprises all of New England). The commission was eager to learn from the experiences of those dioceses. The changing status of civil unions and same-gender marriage in those states has meant that many of the dioceses have been addressing questions of blessing same-gender relationships for many years. The province is the only province of the Episcopal Church to develop a resource for clergy ministering to same-gender couples, and most of the dioceses have provided guidelines for blessing same-gender relationships.
In the early afternoon of October 19, in the parish hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord, people came forward, diocese by diocese, to tell their stories. Two church musicians used the vows and prayers from the Book of Common Prayer; they had seen many weddings from the vantage point of the organ bench, and they did not want to be forced to do something different. Another couple pondered what to call their rite and finally settled on “covenant.” Two men who have been in a committed relationship for 27 years moved to Vermont 3 years ago and found themselves warmly embraced by a congregation; in this place, they had nothing to hide any more, and were able to receive the church’s blessing and celebrate eucharist as part of that liturgy.
Again and again we heard about the cost of secrecy in times when relationships had to be hidden and blessings could not be openly celebrated. Couples and clergy spoke powerfully of the joy that came when relationships could be openly acknowledged. Many told us that congregations were transformed when they joined in the celebration of a blessing; for one congregation, the blessing of a civil union as part of the regular Sunday liturgy was especially powerful. Clergy and couples alike were surprised at how jubilant congregations were.
In two dioceses, Rhode Island and Western Massachusetts, the bishop has not allowed clergy to officiate at blessings of civil unions or same-gender marriage. Laity and clergy spoke of their yearning to have blessings celebrated in churches in these dioceses. One man who was married in Massachusetts after 10 years in a committed relationship explained he and his husband knew they could do this on their own because they had learned from the catechism that the couple are the ministers of the rite.
There was a lot to take in! I will be pondering these stories for quite some time. These stories have helped me – and the entire commission – understand more deeply the variety of experiences and the ways God is at work as the church begins to welcome and bless the relationships of same-gender couples.
Chair, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music