MA Episcopal Bishop OKs Clergy Officiating at Gay Weddings

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 30, 2009

Episcopal clergy in Eastern Massachusetts have gotten the okay from their bishop not only to bless, but also to sign off on, same-sex marriages.

Bishop M. Thomas Shaw III granted permission to area clergy to sign the paperwork that accompanies the religious ceremony and makes the marriage legal in a civil sense. The decision came more than five years into the history of marriage equality in the United States, which first became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

The elevation to bishop of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a long-term committed same-sex relationship, took place a year earlier in New Hampshire, and has come to be seen as the tipping point for a global crisis faced by the Anglican church, of which the Episcopalian faith is the American branch. The newly announced ability of Massachusetts Episcopalian clergy to solemnize same-sex marriages might well worsen that crisis, reported the Boston Globe in a November 30 article.

Shaw, however, saw his choice as the right one at the right moment, telling the Globe, "The time has come. It's time for us to offer to gay and lesbian people the same sacrament of fidelity that we offer to the heterosexual world."

Shaw's decision did not take place in a vacuum. Although Shaw has supported equality for gay and lesbian families, he had abided by church policy in the matter of clergy officiating at same-sex unions. However, last July, a general convention of Episcopalian clergy declared that "bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church."

Following that decision, attendees of a diocesan gathering earlier this month passed a resolution encouraging Shaw to grant permission to clergy to solemnize same-sex unions. Shaw did so; he told the Globe that in his diocese there is "a significant number of gay and lesbian clergy who are in partnerships," adding that, "many of our parishes have significant numbers of gay and lesbian people."

In a letter to the state's Episcopalians, Shaw wrote, "We know that not all are of one mind and that some in good faith will disagree with this decision. Our Anglican tradition makes space for this disagreement and calls us to respect and engage one another in our differences. It is through that tension that we find God's ultimate will."

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, where area clergy follow the directives handed down by their own bishops, clergy still may not officiate at gay and lesbian weddings. But pro-equality clergy greeted the fact that clergy in the Eastern part of the state had been given the go-ahead with joy. Former head of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, the Rev. Anne C. Fowler, said, "I'm absolutely thrilled." Added Fowler, who serves as rector at a Jamaica Plain church and who had received a warning for officiating against church policy in 2004, "Now when we say we're an inclusive church, we truly, fully, sacramentally are."

As in other denominations, the Episcopal church has openly gay clergy in committed relationships; in Massachusetts that means some gay clergy are married to their same-sex partners. Such is the case for Rev. Jeffrey Mello and his husband, who resorted to being marred by a Justice of the Peace rather that being wed by a priest of their own denomination.

"Do I wish this could have happened earlier? Sure," Mello told the Globe. "But when I came out, I was 23, and I thought coming out meant I would never get married, I would never have a kid, and I would never be a priest. Now I'm married, I have a kid, and I'm a priest. It took as long as it needed to take." Mello told the Globe that when they heard the news about Shaw's decision, embers of his congregation applauded; some wept.

In Iowa and Vermont, two other states where gay and lesbian families enjoy state-level marriage equality, the Episcopal church has allowed clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings. But conservative congregations have started to abandon the mainstream American branch of the church, some joining anti-gay African chapters of the faith or starting their own parallel branch of the church, the Anglican Church in North America.

Responses to the announcement at conservative chat site, which frequently posts gay news, included one commentator lamenting, "I watched with sadness as the great and beautiful ECUS started down the toilet 25 years ago" when the church initially began to fracture over the issue of female clergy. "It is now in the sewer," the commentator wrote.

Posted another, "Just like the Church of England, Lutheranism and Episcopalianism have by trying to be relevant to the liberal cultural and secular mores of our times have indeed rendered themselves utterly irrelevant and worthless."

A third chat participant wrote, "I don't go to night clubs that play gospel music and I don't go to churches that condone gay marriage. It just don't seem compatible."

Still another took aim at the bishop himself, writing, "According to Bishop 'Fruit Loop' Thomas Shaw, who presides over a randy monastery in Cambridge, he was 'once gay, but now celibate.'"

Wondered one so-called "freeper," "What is a 'sacrament of fidelity'?"

Replied another, "So they mean 'Fidelity' as in 'faithfulness between gay partners?' There's nothing sacred about that."

Wrote one individual, "How much longer until the Episcopal Church creates the sacraments of pedophilia, polygamy, and bestiality? This denomination must make God sick."

Offered another, "Don't play chess with an Episcopalian, they can't tell a bishop from a queen."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.