- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia inched closer to blessing same-sex unions Saturday when delegates approved a resolution affirming “the inherent integrity and blessedness of committed Christian relationships between two adult persons.”

The resolution, which passed by an uncounted show of hands by the 700 or so Episcopalians meeting at the Reston Hyatt, first recommended the diocese respond “to the pastoral needs of our faithful gay and lesbian members.”

A second paragraph defined the “relationships” as “characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.”

“There is a time to take that step and follow Christ,” said Matt Johnson, a delegate from Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Va. “I think this is one of those times. Yes, these relationships have integrity and are blessed. For 20 years, we have been talking about this. Let’s go do it.”

Frank Baxter, 70, a Front Royal resident who said he had been in a 24-year “committed relationship,” agreed.

“I would like to see the diocese accept us as full members of this church while we are still on the green side of the grass,” he said.

But opponents said the “relationships” could apply to any sexual partnership.

“I can envision that relationship with one of those persons married to someone else,” said a male delegate from Church of Our Saviour in Charlottesville. “What do we do about that?”

“I think we’re going to open some doors we do not wish to open,” said delegate Ann Davis from Louisa. “A 30-something woman told me her understanding of monogamy means ‘one at a time.’ There is nothing here about these relationships being ‘lifelong.’ ”

The question of same-sex blessings and gay clergy split the diocese two years ago when 11 conservative parishes left over issues of biblical authority and the diocese’s approval of the 2003 consecration of the openly gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

The diocese sued the departing churches for their property, taking out a $2 million line of credit last year to do so.

On Friday, the diocese announced it had increased that line of credit to $4 million, borrowing $2.5 million to date. The diocese, which lost the lawsuit in Fairfax Circuit Court, is appealing to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Partly because of the theological fissures over the Robinson election and homosexuality, delegates argued long and hard on whether to add the word “blessedness” to the resolution.

Russ Randle, a delegate from Christ Church in Alexandria, opposed the amendment, saying the diocese’s close relationship with the Anglican Province of the Sudan would be jeopardized. A delegation leaves Monday to visit the Sudanese.

“I think we are going too far and too fast,” he said.

He was opposed by the Rev. Lauren R. Stanley, a diocesan missionary to Sudan.

“This will not affect our relations in the Sudan. People in the Sudan do - not - care,” she said, spacing her last few words as delegates clapped in agreement. “The people in Sudan would like to stay alive. They think we’re nuts anyway. … Even though they are in disagreement with us, they are still partners with us in the Gospel. Sexuality is not discussed.”

On Friday, Bishop Co-adjutor Shannon Johnston, who will take over the diocese when Bishop Peter Lee retires in October, signaled his implicit approval of the resolution when he said he had allowed a sexually active homosexual to become a postulant — or candidate — for the priesthood. Although the bishop refused to identify the postulant’s gender, other delegates said the candidate was a woman.

“I do not feel free at this time to ordain persons who are in same-sex relationships,” Bishop Johnston said. “In the interests of disclosure and clarity, personally I hold this necessity rather uncomfortably.”

He wishes to wait, he continued, until he gets results from a diocesan committee, known as the Windsor Dialogue Commission, on what the mood of the diocese is.

“The decisions in our ordination process should not be so far ahead of our own work of diocesan discernment,” he said. “Otherwise, we’d only be going through the motions.”

However, a statement from the Windsor Dialogue Commission has recommended a “listening process” on whether “a consensus is emerging … to permit parishes to bless unions consisting of two persons of the same gender who have committed to a stable and permanent relationship.”

A report from the group given Friday said the majority of the members of the commission agree that same-sex blessings should be allowed, but that no official liturgies should be authorized.

Two other resolutions passed this weekend showed a split among the delegates. One said the Episcopal Church and the diocese have “not reached a consensus about the place of gay and lesbian persons within the life of our church.”

Another recommended the diocese provide “pastoral care” for “people of all sexual orientations.”

“Pastoral care,” according to a recent commission report, means “finding a way to recognize and honor monogamous commitments between two persons of the same gender and to call those couples to responsibility to each other, their communities of faith, and to God.”

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