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Episcopal role OK’d in gays’ weddings

Bishop approves priests’ officiating in Eastern Mass.

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / November 30, 2009

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Five years after same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, the local Episcopal bishop yesterday gave permission for priests in Eastern Massachusetts to officiate at same-sex weddings.

The decision by Bishop M. Thomas Shaw III was immediately welcomed by advocates of gay rights in the Episcopal Church, who have chafed at local rules that allowed priests to bless same-sex couples, but not sign the documents that would solemnize their marriages.

The decision is likely to exacerbate tensions in the Episcopal Church and the global denomination to which it belongs, the Anglican Communion, which has faced significant division in the wake of the election of an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

“The time has come,’’ Shaw said in a telephone interview. “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, a longtime supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, had previously cited the Episcopal Church’s canons and prayer book in barring local priests from officiating at same-sex marriages, even after such unions became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

But this month, clergy and laypeople at a diocesan convention endorsed a resolution expressing hope that Shaw would allow clergy to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples. They cited legislation approved at the Episcopal Church’s general convention last summer declaring 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.’’

Shaw said his diocese includes “a significant number of gay and lesbian clergy who are in partnerships,’’ and that “many of our parishes have significant numbers of gay and lesbian people.’’

The decision affects only Episcopalians in Eastern Massachusetts. A separate Episcopal diocese in Western Massachusetts has been more conservative on sexuality issues.

In a letter released yesterday to all Episcopal parishes, Shaw said that any Episcopal priest is free to decline to officiate at same-sex weddings.

“We know that not all are of one mind and that some in good faith will disagree with this decision,’’ Shaw wrote. “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.’’

The Rev. Anne C. Fowler, an Episcopal priest who headed the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, praised the decision yesterday.

In 2004, Fowler was one of a handful of local priests who broke church rules by officiating at a same-sex marriage. Her act of what she calls “ecclesiastical disobedience’’ earned her a warning in her file and since then, she said, she has followed the rules.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,’’ said Fowler, who is the rector of St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain. “Now when we say we’re an inclusive church, we truly, fully, sacramentally are.’’

The Rev. Jeffrey Mello, an openly gay priest who serves as the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Brookline, said that when he announced Shaw’s decision in church yesterday, some parishioners cried, and many applauded.

The church’s rules had prevented any other Episcopal priest from presiding at his wedding. Fowler blessed Mello and his husband after a justice of the peace signed the paperwork in 2004.

“Do I wish this could have happened earlier? Sure,’’ Mello said. “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.’’

Shaw said Episcopal priests should not use the wedding liturgy in the Episcopal Church’s prayer book to bless same-sex marriages because the language refers to the “joining together of this man and this woman.’’ Instead, he said, clergy should look to new Episcopal liturgies for same-sex marriages that are widely available on the Internet.

Episcopal dioceses in other states where same-sex marriage is legal are moving in a similar direction. The Episcopal dioceses of Iowa and Vermont, where same-sex marriage is also legal, have allowed clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings.

The Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese now joins a handful of other local religious denominations in which clergy may officiate at same-sex weddings, including the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism.

Many local religious denominations, including the Catholic Church, strongly oppose same-sex marriage and bar clergy from participating in such ceremonies.

There are relatively few vocal critics of same-sex marriage left in the local Episcopal Church because many conservatives have left the denomination to form or join alternative Anglican congregations. Significant portions of parishes in Attleboro, Franklin, Hamilton/Wenham, Marlborough, and West Newbury have now left the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, a development that Shaw calls “a tragedy.’’

Spokesmen for national conservative Anglican groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment yesterday.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.