The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has backed away from recognizing same-sex unions, instead voting over the weekend to form a panel of laity and clergy that will set standards for church-sanctioned blessings of such unions should they be approved by the entire 2-million-member Episcopal Church.
About 346 delegates to the diocese’s annual council meeting at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria narrowly voted — by a show of hands — to form the panel, which will also include lawyers who specialize in church law.
A substitute amendment suggesting the diocese allow openly gay clergy and same-sex blessings failed after a lengthy debate.
Saturday’s vote was a less radical choice for the 80,000-member Virginia Diocese, the largest in the Episcopal Church; signifying a slowing down in the momentum that is propelling the entire denomination toward eventually allowing same-sex unions. Several dioceses, although not Virginia, allow actively gay clergy, and the denomination’s second openly gay bishop, Canon Mary Glasspool of Baltimore, is expected to be consecrated this May in Los Angeles.
The Virginia vote was in response to last summer’s decision by the Episcopal General Convention, meeting in Anaheim, Calif., to pass resolution C056, which empowered the denomination to begin “collecting and developing theological resources and liturgies” for same-sex blessings. The denomination is expected to endorse some kind of rite at its 2012 meeting in Indianapolis.
Sixteen Episcopal dioceses — including four since last summer — already allow same-sex blessings.
Saturday’s resolution was a compromise between three previous proposed resolutions; one that proposed Episcopalians keep to a traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, and two others that proposed the diocese lift its current prohibition against same-sex blessings, ordaining sexually active homosexuals or allowing them to serve in a parish.
The resolution admitted that diocesan clergy and parishioners “remain divided over the wisdom and theology of blessing same-gender relationships” but at the same time admitted that churches feel pressured by the “the growing differences between Christian and civil understanding of marriage and relationships.”
Should the denomination move forward on same-sex blessings in 2012, the resolution said, the diocese must address how clergy, for reasons of “theological principle,” may refuse to perform such blessings. It will also look at several other matters, such as whether the diocesan bishop has to sign off on these unions, what to do if a gay couple wants a divorce, and how to proceed since the state of Virginia does not recognize such unions.
Only five states permit gay marriages, with the District slated to do so as of March 2.
Several members of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston, Va. — which drafted the original resolutions approving openly gay clergy and same-sex blessings, protested the compromise resolution, saying that a panel was not the direction they wanted to go.
Its rector, Jim Papile, said they viewed the compromise “with incredible dismay,” saying it dealt more with marriage, whereas their original resolution dealt with same-sex blessings.
Saturday’s meeting was a continuation of a Jan. 29 diocesan council that was adjourned early because of an approaching snowstorm. At the earlier meeting, delegates approved a $4.8 million 2010 budget, about $12,000 less than the previous year’s budget.
Diocesan officials also addressed a $4 million line of credit — of which $3.5 million has been spent to date — that it has taken out to fund a three-year lawsuit against 11 conservative churches that left the diocese in 2006 and early 2007. When market conditions approve, the diocese will sell parcels of unconsecrated land to help pay the $3.5 million.
The diocese seeks to win back millions of dollars of property taken by the departing churches, which left over liberal trends in the denomination. After the conservatives won the lawsuit at trial, the diocese appealed. The case will go before the Virginia Supreme Court this year.
The departure of the conservatives, which reduced the diocese’s membership by about 10,000, was referred to several times Saturday as causing much “pain” to the remaining Episcopalians. However, a last-minute amendment to form a “reconciliation task force” between Episcopalians and former Episcopalians failed for lack of time to consider it adequately.