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Standing Commission agrees to ask convention for trial use of same-gender blessing rite

Liturgy and Music will call for church to reflect on marriage

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church would spend three years using a rite for same-gender blessings and studying its application under a resolution that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has agreed to propose to the 2012 meeting of General Convention.

During that same time period the church also would reflect on its understanding of marriage in light of changes in both societal norms and civil law if convention agrees to a related resolution the commission will propose, according to the Rev. Ruth Meyers, SCLM chair.

The SCLM's decisions are the outcome of 18 months of work in response to General Convention's mandate (via Resolution C056) that it work with the House of Bishops to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships, and report to the 77th General Convention in 2012 in Indianapolis.

The commission will present convention with 176 pages of material, including a rite of blessing, a theological essay on the issues involved in blessing same-gender relationships, a pastoral resource to guide clergy and trained lay people who would prepare same-gender couples to receive a blessing (the church requires heterosexual couples to engage in pre-marital counseling as well) and a discussion guide for helping congregations and other groups to discuss the rite and other materials.

The resolution that would authorize a three-year trial use of the liturgy also will ask for the continuation of the "generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church," called for in C056, Meyers said, including allowing for adaptation of the rite for local use. And, the resolution would have the commission report to the 2015 meeting of convention on how all the materials are used.

Meyers said Oct. 15 that she and the commission want to invite the church to "receive the [blessing] material prayerfully as a resource that we hope will be useful for the church but [also] as work along the way and not as a final, finished product and a definitive statement."

"We have had a wide consultative process and so have got input from a number of people, and it still needs to be received by the wider church," she told Episcopal News Service during a telephone interview from the commission's meeting in Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. "This is new territory for the Episcopal Church and so as we use material we expect we will learn more that will influence the content of the material that will help us refine the liturgy even further."

The commission decided to call for a three-year study of marriage as a result of feedback it received during the months it spent developing the C056 resources, according to Meyers.

"Throughout the triennium as we did our work on this people asked us questions about how this related to the understanding of marriage that the church has had up until this point and whether this liturgy itself was intended to be a marriage," she said. "The resolution called for us to develop a liturgy of blessing and that is what we have done, but we realized there is great need for the church to reflect more generally – in light of changing societal and cultural realities, and a whole range of changes in civil law – on how we understand marriage."

The commission's C056 work will become part of a report it must submit to convention detailing both its work on all matters referred to it during the triennium and any resolutions it proposes for convention to consider. Such reports of all the church's committees, commissions, agencies and boards are assembled into what is known as the Blue Book and the collection is released some months before each meeting of convention.

Meyers said the commission plans to ask the General Convention office to release the C056-related materials prior to the anticipated publication of the Blue Book so that it can be discussed at the March 2012 meeting of the House of Bishops and at the General Convention deputy training sessions during pre-convention provincial meetings.

Since the commission began discussing how to proceed to C056's mandate, the SCLM has conducted the "open process" called for in the resolution, Meyers said. Four task groups that included people from outside the commission worked on the topics of liturgy, theology, pastoral concerns and legal and canonical concerns. The liturgical task group received what Meyers said were hundreds of blessing rites, some dating to the 1970s. After the group developed a set of principles for reviewing the rites, they read each one and borrowed from some of them, she said.

The SCLM completed a first draft of all the materials in June and then invited 133 Episcopalians to review them. Using an online process, the
reviewers made "extensive comments totaling in the thousands," Meyers said. The task groups then made major revisions based on those
comments.

The rite and the theological essay were discussed during the House of Bishops meeting in September, according to Meyers. SCLM members,
including the three bishops who serve on the commission (Tom Ely of the Diocese of Vermont, Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal
Churches in Europe and John McKee Sloan of the Diocese of Alabama), have reported to the House of Bishops on a regular basis.

In October 2010, the commission met for five hours with representatives of the church's Province I to hear about their experience with same-gender blessings.

Nearly 200 members of the House of Deputies met March 18-19 in Atlanta for a historic churchwide consultation on same-gender blessings
sponsored by the commission. The SCLM had invited one lay and one clergy deputy from each of the church's 109 dioceses and three
regional areas to hear about and reflect on its work to date on the mandate given to it in General Convention 2009.

House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson said that the Atlanta consultation was historic both for its topic and because a large group of deputies have never before gathered together outside of General Convention for church business and to discuss a topic due to be taken up at the next meeting of convention.

Resolution C056 also asked the SCLM to invite theological reflection and dialogue about its work from around the Anglican Communion. Episcopal Church bishops were asked to discuss the church's work on C056 with the bishops of any companion diocese relationships they may have and with the members of their so-called "indaba groups" from the 2008 Lambeth Conference of bishops.

In addition, the theological and liturgical principles for evaluating rites for blessing same-gender relationships (summaries available here) that the SCLM developed for its C056 work were turned into a survey to which Anglican Communion bishops were asked to respond, either electronically or on paper or during conversation with commission members or other bishops.

In August, Meyers and Ely spent a half day in Canterbury, England, presenting the commission's work to that point to the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. The communiqué from the IALC meeting noted that the two SCLM members "hear[d] from IALC members in response to that province's [the Episcopal Church's] exploratory theological rationale and liturgical principles for the development of rites for the blessing of committed same-gender relationships."

Much of the SCLM's work on C056 has been funded in a unique way. In July 2010, Church Divinity School of the Pacific was awarded a $404,000 grant by the Arcus Foundation to support the work. Through a contract with the Episcopal Church, the grant made it possible for the
Berkeley, California-based school to help facilitate the commission's work. Meyers is the CDSP Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics and the Rev. Louis Weil, Hodges-Haynes Professor Emeritus, is a SCLM member.

In July 2011, CDSP received an additional $90,000 from the Arcus Foundation and a $75,000 grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation to support the completion of the C056 work.

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-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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