COLUMBIA, SC — The leader of Midlands and Upstate Episcopalians told clergy Thursday he will permit congregations to perform blessings of same-sex couples, a decision reached after two years of intense theological discussions with pastors and parishioners.
The Rt. Rev. W. Andrew Waldo, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, said no clergy would be required to perform the rite. He said he will support all 61 of his congregations whether they choose to carry out the blessing ritual or not.
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The decision, which came in the form of a pastoral and theological reflection, is expected to once again roil a state where Lowcountry Episcopalians already have exited the U.S. church in great numbers. Waldo, who often describes himself as a “radical centrist,” believes that by staking out a middle ground, he can keep his diocese from splintering.
“We would prefer to be together rather than apart,” Waldo said in an interview Wednesday, even though opinions on the issue run from conservative to liberal.
The bishop said Wednesday he does not expect a flood of inquiries about performing the rite. He will require congregations and clergy to study the issue before seeking his permission.
Same-sex couples, like heterosexual couples, would undergo counseling, and at least one must be a baptized member of an Episcopal congregation. An Episcopalian whose congregation chooses not to perform the rite could approach a priest at a congregation that does.
In making the case for the blessing of same-sex relationships, Waldo said he “went head-on” with biblical scriptures that depict homosexuality as a sin against nature; studied the half-century debate within the U.S. church and the Anglican Communion over same-sex relationships; and examined the modern secular movement toward marriage equality and recognition of same-sex marriage.
“Recognizing that there is deep disagreement about this, I will argue that there is a firm biblical basis from which to shape a common life in which lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships can receive the blessing of the church,” Waldo said in his signed, 26-page reflection.
‘Letting the rope go slack’
Waldo said he has been moved by stories of faithful gay and lesbian parishioners who have felt marginalized by the church.
Over the course of many decades, the Episcopal church “has made a discernment that this is a community that needs to be heard, a community of Christian brothers and sisters who need to be heard and responded to,” Waldo said, “not just because they want to but because there are, in my view and in the view of many others, biblical and theological reasons to listen to those cries.”
In the reflection, Waldo elaborates: “In my judgment, and in the eyes of many Episcopalians, the fruits of righteousness can be as manifestly evident in the lives of partnered Christian gay and lesbian couples as they can in the lives of married heterosexual couples.”
Waldo said he expects his decision will ignite a flood of reaction and he is prepared for the vitriol that may ensure.
But he said he also wants to “let the rope go slack” in the metaphorical tug of war that has splintered the church.
He said he asks of his parishioners the kind of sacrifice that Jesus described in John 15:12-14, the passage known as the Great Commandment, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“Some will say that you have to have a principle for justice; some will say you have to have a principle for scripture alone,” he said. “I think John 15:12-14 calls us to something radically in the center.”
Waldo emphasized that this is strictly an ecclesiastical decision. South Carolina has not legalized same-sex marriages or civil unions, although 17 states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage.
“In the end, there is no legal force to what we do,” Waldo said. “It is a way for a gay or lesbian couple to live within the deepest Christian values for relationships between two people who are going to give their life to each other.”
Intersection of faith and the world
Waldo met with about 100 upper diocese clergy at All Saints Episcopal Church in Clinton Thursday to discuss the reflection and an accompanying curriculum designed by the bishop’s Task Force on Unity and Faithfulness, an 11-member group of clergy and parishioners.
The Rev. Sally Johnston, rector of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields on Clemson Avenue in Columbia,said she will study the bishop’s reflection with her congregation and use the curriculum to discern whether St. Martin’s will be a place where same-sex couples may participate in the blessing ritual.
“I can’t say what St. Martin’s will do until we have our conversations,” Johnston said Thursday.
“This is not sudden; it’s part of our journey as faithful Christians to wrestle with questions about the intersection of the world and our faith,” she said.
Waldo said he thought clergy “appreciated the humility and limitedness of the approach that we have taken. We have opened the door to dialogue. Our deepest prayer is that it would lead to reconciliation throughout the church.”
Waldo and the task force have been in discussions on the issue since September 2012, several months after the General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church approved the provisional rite, called “I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing.” At the time, Waldo voted no on the resolution, suggesting it required a deeper theological rationale.
The debate over the same-sex blessing prompted another South Carolina bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence of Charleston, to walk out with his delegation, a step that eventually led to his high-profile break from the U.S. Episcopal Church. A majority of Lowcountry congregations departed with him.
Lowcountry Episcopalians who did not abandon the U.S. church have reorganized as the Episcopal Church in South Carolina under Bishop Charles vonRosenberg. That group also has begun conversations about the same-sex rite.
Clergy and congregations seeking permission to bless same-sex couples must engage in a congregational study using the task force curriculum.
The clergy must submit an application, which would be reviewed and approved by the bishop.
Waldo said he has no idea how many of his clergy and congregations will step forward to participate in the blessing. The larger aim for him is to be remain in dialogue.
“In the end, I think that the people and clergy in this diocese remain committed to be together,” he said. “I know some will think I went too far and others will think I didn’t go far enough.”
Quoting an ancient theologian, Waldo said, “If this is not of God it will fail, and if it is of God, who am I to fight God?”