The leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, Bishop Andrew D. Smith, has authorized priests to give blessings to same-sex unions during religious ceremonies. The move threatens to further alienate the conservative wing of his church and deepen a fissure between progressive and orthodox Episcopalians nationwide.
"I believe in my heart and soul that it is time for this church, this diocese, formally to acknowledge and support and bless our sisters and brothers who are gay and lesbian, including those who are living in faithful and faith-filled committed partnerships," Bishop Smith said on Saturday in a speech at a diocesan conference in Hartford.
The decision, reported yesterday by The Hartford Courant, does not authorize Episcopal clergy to officiate at civil unions or create an official prayer service for the blessings. Rather, it permits parishes to acknowledge gay and lesbian couples who have had a civil union granted by the state. Connecticut approved civil unions last year.
The decision allows each parish to choose whether to acknowledge same-sex couples during religious services, said Karin Hamilton, spokeswoman for the diocese.
Nationwide, nine other Episcopal dioceses – in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Long Island, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont and Washington, D.C. – have enacted policies allowing the blessing of same-sex couples, according to Integrity, a national Episcopal gay organization based in Rochester. Kansas used to have the same policy, but it was rescinded there in 2003, when the diocese ordained a new bishop, Dean E. Wolfe.
"What happened in Connecticut is great news for the church, because what it says is that we're going to continue to move forward to fully include all of the baptized in the body of Christ, whether they're gay or straight," said the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity and an Episcopal priest in Los Angeles. "We should be in the business of building bridges, not walls."
But the Rev. Canon David C. Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, an orthodox umbrella group, said that Bishop Smith's decision "is proof of his disregard for the larger Anglican Communion and further evidences his militancy with the homosexual gay agenda."
"Bishop Smith and some other bishops as well are literally choosing to pull themselves and their churches out of the broader religious community," Canon Anderson continued. "In the future of the Anglican community, there might be no place for people like Bishop Smith."
With about two million members in the United States, the Episcopal Church has taken significant steps toward inclusiveness in the past few years, most notably with the election of V. Gene Robinson in 2003 as bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop in the history of the denomination.
The same year, clergy and laymen overwhelmingly approved a resolution that recognized the blessing of same-sex unions as a prerogative of individual parishes.
The moves strained relations between congregations in the United States and those in the global, more traditional, Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the American arm.
A 2004 report commissioned by the communion's leader, the archbishop of Canterbury, recommended that the Episcopal Church apologize for the ordination of Bishop Robinson and stop blessing same-sex couples and electing gay bishops.
The Episcopal Church responded at its triennial conference this year, calling on dioceses to avoid backing the election of openly gay bishops.
But in Connecticut, Bishop Smith has continued to push forward his changes, as he has done since becoming the diocesan bishop seven years ago.
In 1999, he changed a longstanding policy to allow the ordination of gay clergy members. In 2000, he and other religious leaders voted to extend health benefits to the same-sex partners of diocesan employees.
"I believe that it is time for us to rethink, repray and reform our theology and our pastoral practices; to welcome, recognize, support and bless the lives and faith of brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian in the equal fullness of Christian fellowship," Bishop Smith said in his speech, which drew effusive cheers.
The Rev. Christopher Leighton one of six priests who rebelled against Bishop Smith over his support of Bishop Robinson, said yesterday that Bishop Smith's position on the blessing of same-sex unions only complicated matters.
"He had a very fiery speech, interrupted by applause at several points and in the end, he got a standing ovation," said Father Leighton, of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Darien. "This is where the vast majority of the diocese stands on this matter; the problem is that the worldwide Anglican community will have no part in this."
Father Leighon added, "It's not that we're against gays. It's rather that we're affirming the traditional beliefs that only a man and a woman should be intimate for life in holy wedlock."
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