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By Julia Duin
The outgoing bishop of New Hampshire, Douglas E. Theuner, right, presents the incoming bishop, V. Gene Robinson, left, with a crosier, carved by a Palestinian shepherd, as a gift during Robinson’s investiture ceremony Sunday, March 7, 2004, at St. Paul’s Church in Concord, N.H. Robinson officially became the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop. Robinson’s elevation led to a split within the Episcopal Church on the issue of same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Lee Marriner)
One religion story that escaped almost everyone’s notice this past weekend is that the nation’s largest Episcopal diocese voted to allow church-sanctioned same-sex unions.
Time was when the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia was way too conservative or even middle of the road to consider such an action. The northern tier of the diocese used to be populated with several large conservative congregations that would have never agreed to same-sex blessings. But these congregations pulled out of the diocese several years ago in response to the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. The leave-takers, the majority of whom voted to leave during a dramatic series of votes in nine churches on Dec. 17, 2006, were also less than thrilled that a majority of the Virginia diocese’s bishops and delegates to the 2003 Episcopal General Convention in Minneapolis voted to ratify Robinson’s election.
Things since have changed in the Old Dominion State. The resolution passed last weekend read:
“Resolved, that the 216th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia thanks Bishop Shannon Johnston and the diocesan team for the very fruitful ‘Listen … And Be Heard’ sessions in 2010, and urges our bishop to ‘provide a generous pastoral response’ by moving forward with guidelines with regard to public blessings of same gender unions.”
These sessions were set in motion two years ago as 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,” according to a 2009 resolution. Most conservatives who would have protested the idea of a consensus on such a controversial topic had long since departed the diocese.
This past weekend during the diocese’s annual convention in Reston, Johnston, who took over the diocese more than a year ago from retired Bishop Peter J. Lee, set the stage with a speech that clearly laid out how he hoped the vote would go. “I have always affirmed that committed, monogamous same-gender relationships can indeed be faithful in the Christian life,” he said.
He was not as definite two years ago, when he admitted to having approved an openly gay candidate as a postulant – or candidate – for the priesthood while at the same time telling delegates, “I do not feel free at this time to ordain persons who are in same-sex relationships.” Instead, he wanted to ascertain the mood of the diocese on the matter.
By the summer of 2009, the Episcopal Church, at its General Convention in Anaheim, basically approved same-sex blessings, meaning that the mood of the diocese had been overtaken by events. And some Virginia Episcopalians began to ask why the nation’s largest diocese was not leading the way in also allowing these unions. A year ago, the 80,000-member diocese again deferred to a panel to debate the issue. But the outcome was in little doubt. After all, Virginia Theological Seminary, the nation’s largest Episcopal seminary located in Alexandria and a major incubator for the Virginia diocese’s new clergy, just got an award last April from Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) “for its twenty-year commitment to the inclusion of homosexual students, faculty, and staff.”
Thus, this past weekend’s vote is not a huge surprise. Mary Ailes, the lone blogger I’ve been able to locate at the event, gives this account of how the vote went. Sounds like there wasn’t much debate.
After all, who were they to go up against their own denomination, which has already posted what they called a “theological conversation” on what blessing gay relationships will look like? Look here to see a list of the 19 dioceses that have official written policies allowing the blessing of same-sex relationships. My guess is that Virginia will be on that list soon.
Should Christian denominations follow the lead of new state laws allowing same-sex marriage by creating liturgical rites for these unions?