- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

One of the largest and most liberal Episcopal dioceses in the country is banning its clergy from solemnizing same-sex “marriages” in anticipation of Monday, when the Massachusetts Judicial Supreme Court has said homosexual couples will have the right to “marry.”

The decision was announced in a May 6 letter by Massachusetts Episcopal Bishop Thomas Shaw to clergy in the 79,000-member diocese, the country’s third largest after Virginia (89,000) and Texas (86,000).

“I have … advocated for the full civil rights of gay and lesbian people and their families,” Bishop Shaw wrote. However, “there is a contradiction between what our civil laws will allow and what our canons and the Book of Common Prayer state, which is that marriage in the Episcopal Church is between a man and a woman.”

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This was a surprise decision because Bishop Shaw and his two assistant bishops openly support homosexual “marriage,” as do a majority of Episcopal delegates who voted at a March 13 diocesan convention to approve the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

However, anyone who signs a marriage license and conducts an actual marriage ceremony, rather than a church “blessing,” for a same-sex couple as of Monday will be breaking church law and subject to defrocking.

“Maybe this is a sop to the people like myself who feel badly as to what’s going on and who are splitting from the Episcopal Church,” said Gerry Dorman, a board member for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Anglican Council, an Episcopal group that opposes same-sex unions.

“They’ve been ordaining gays and blessing same-sex unions here for a long time,” he said of diocesan officials. “The diocesan directory lists same-sex spouses as well.”

Several dioceses in the Episcopal Church routinely “bless” homosexual couples who are not permitted to “marry,” such as a much-publicized rite last month in San Francisco involving a retired Episcopal bishop, the Rev. Otis Charles, who “married” his male partner. The diocese retaliated a day later by revoking his license to officiate and removing him as an assistant bishop.

The dioceses of Delaware, Nevada, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have official same-sex “blessing” ceremonies. Similar rites for the Long Island, Hawaii and Washington dioceses are being developed.

However, only in Massachusetts will clergy be able to perform the legal functions of solemnizing a marriage, which includes the signing of a marriage license.

“The question is,” said the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor at the liberal Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), a seminary in Cambridge, Mass., “can priests be legal agents of the state if their own church says no?”

A lesbian professor at EDS, the Rev. I. Carter Heyward, told the Boston Globe that she plans to defy church law and perform two lesbian unions this month. She did not respond to a phone inquiry yesterday. The Diocese of Massachusetts also did not respond to inquiries on how Miss Heyward would be disciplined for her act.

A minister with the New England synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America informed Bishop Margaret Payne of an intent to disobey, according to the Globe. The synod declined to release the name of the clergy in question, but did say in a statement that the denomination does not even have rites for same-sex blessings.

Pastors also may not officiate at a same-sex “marriage,” the statement said.

Episcopal clergy who disobey any orders from their bishop are subject to “inhibition,” which means they are not allowed to function as a pastor for a set amount of time, usually six months. If they have not changed their actions, the bishop can then file a “presentment against them in an ecclesiastical court, where they will be defrocked if found guilty.”

Most Christian denominations forbid same-sex blessing ceremonies, as do Orthodox and Conservative Jewish groups. However, the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish groups do. The Unitarian Universalist Association, which is based in Boston, not only allows the practice but has scheduled dozens of same-sex “weddings” at its churches across the state.

Meanwhile in Boston, a federal judge yesterday declined to grant an emergency stay on same-sex “marriages,” and conservative legal groups said they were taking their case to the federal appeals court.

“We will appeal this case as far as necessary to ensure that the separation-of-powers principle is upheld in Massachusetts. The Republican representative form of government must be restored so the people can have a chance to define marriage,” said Matthew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, one of several conservative groups representing 11 Massachusetts lawmakers and a Catholic activist.

In arguments Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro, the plaintiffs said the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overstepped its authority when it unilaterally redefined marriage law to allow same-sex “marriage” in its Nov. 18 Goodridge decision.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office and lawyers with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders said the high court was within its purview in its decision.

Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.

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