Bishop Andrew Smith, the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, announced on Saturday that Episcopal priests may give blessings to same-sex unions in church ceremonies — a decision that has further polarized New Haven’s liberal and conservative Episcopal churches in the last few days.
Smith’s decision authorizes priests to formally acknowledge gay couples who have a civil union granted by the state. But it does not force the priests to do so, giving ultimate authority over the matter to individual churches. Some Elm City church officials said that while they do not condemn homosexuality, they think religiously recognizing same-sex unions goes against Church doctrine. Others said that blessing same-sex unions is an important step toward equality within the Episcopal Church.
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Nine other Episcopal dioceses nationwide, from California to Washington, D.C., have permitted blessings of same-sex unions. While same-sex unions have been legalized in Connecticut and Vermont, Massachusetts is the only state that has legalized the marriage of gay couples. When Connecticut passed the bill legalizing same-sex unions last April, Smith initially did not permit priests in the Episcopal Diocese of the state to bless the unions.
But his announcement on Saturday in Hartford reversed the earlier decision.
“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,” Smith said.
Karen Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said the bishop spent much time in prayer deliberating and was aware of the controversy that his decision would create. But Smith said the time had come to accept gay unions as valid relationships within the Episcopal church.
“I think it is time for us to re-think, re-pray and re-form our theology and our pastoral practices,” Smith said in his address. “To welcome, recognize, support and bless the lives and faith of brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian in the equal fullness of the Christian fellowship.
But many orthodox Episcopalians, such as Reverend Geoff Little of Saint James Church in New Haven, object to the church’s acknowledgement of same-sex unions.
“We have people who identify themselves as gay in the life of the church, and they are fully welcomed to be with us,” he said. “But if they are asking for an affirmation of their sexuality, they won’t get that at this church.”
Reverend Sudduth Cummings, Rector of New Haven’s Saint John’s Episcopal Church, said his congregation holds diverse viewpoints on the subject but that St. John’s leadership does not condone blessing same-sex civil unions.
“We are disappointed but not surprised by the latest development in the diocese permitting blessing of same-sex civil unions,” he said. “This is the current development of a trend for many years, contrary to the mainline and historic interpretation of Holy Scripture and the faith standards of most Christians around the world and the Anglican tradition.”
Cummings said St. John’s will make its position on blessing same-sex unions known to the Bishop but will not engage in public polemics or legal action because he said those approaches are neither effective nor part of its mission. He said St. John’s will continue to welcome all people without distinction.
But Reverend David Cobb of Christ Church on Broadway said he supports the blessing of same-sex unions.
“I think it gives us a chance to, once again, look at what it means for people to build a life together — whether it’s a man and a woman in marriage or two men or two women in partnership,” he said.
Rector of Trinity Church on the Green Andrew Fiddler, who said he has ceremonially blessed two same-sex relationships in the last twenty years, said the church has already reformed its policies toward divorce, re-marriage, women as leaders and ordainment of priests and bishops. Fiddler said while he respects those who disagree with Smith, he would like to see gay partners fully recognized by the church.
“I trust [the Episcopal church] will continue to evolve in its opinions on same-sex unions,” he said.
On Wednesday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers must offer same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples — perhaps through civil unions — though it did not specifically legalize gay marriage.