[Episcopal News Service, Concord, New Hampshire] Ministering in the “middle of this cauldron of multicultural activity” that is Harvard Square, the Rev. Joseph Robinson, rector of Christ Church Cambridge in the Diocese of Massachusetts says he wants to be able to welcome everyone, including same-gender couples who want their relationships blessed.

“And what they’re asking of me is that it’s the same for everyone, that it’s done with intention, truthfulness and that it begins with the words ‘dearly beloved,'” Robinson told the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music Oct. 19 during a hearing here. “It needs to sound like something that’s recognizable.”

“Whatever we do, whatever we offer our people, let it be eloquent, let it be truthful, let it be prayer and let it be common because those are the things which are the strengths of our church,” Robinson added.

Robinson comments came as SCLM met for five hours with representatives of Province I to hear about their experience with same-gender blessings.

In all, the commission devoted a day and a half of its Oct. 18-20 meeting to work on General Convention Resolution C056 which authorized it to work in conjunction with the House of Bishops to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships. The commission is to report to the 77th General Convention in 2012 in Indianapolis.

“It will be up to the General Convention [to decide] what to do with those resources,” the Rev. Ruth Meyers, SCLM chair and Hodges-Haynes professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, told the commission Oct. 19 before the hearing began.

C056 said 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.” The SCLM hearing was meant to hear how a group of Episcopalians, most of whom live in civil jurisdictions that recognize same-gender unions in some way, provide that pastoral response.

Same-gender couples can marry in Connecticut (Province I), Iowa (Province VI), Massachusetts (Province I), New Hampshire (Province I), Vermont (Province I) and Washington, D.C. (Province II). Meyers told ENS that the commission wanted to hear from Province I Episcopalians because they have been leaders in the church’s pastoral response to the needs of same-gender couples. Included in that response is a collection of pastoral resources the province published in October 2008.

An increasing number of other Episcopal Church dioceses, both where the civil jurisdiction gives same-gender unions some level of legal recognition and where they do not, allow clergy to bless those unions.

During the hearing, many of the more than 30 Episcopalians — some of whom have been involved in blessing same-gender unions, sometimes for decades — told the SCLM that they want to see the church treat such unions equally and with the same openness that it treats heterosexual marriage.

“I want to bring this out of the shadows so that we don’t continue some kind of ecclesiastical version of don’t ask, don’t tell,” Diocese of Maine Bishop Stephen Lane said, telling the commission that his acceptance of same-gender blessings comes from his understanding of the Baptismal Covenant.

“I think it is heretical and immoral to have different standards for different groups of baptized people,” he said, adding that he fears the church will “lose its nerve” and settle for something that is “separate but equal.”

The Rev. Rob Hirschfeld, rector of Grace Church Amherst, Massachusetts, told the commission about blessing the union of two military women who were teaching at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Diocese of Western Massachusetts Bishop Gordon Scruton does not allow priests to bless such unions and so, Hirschfeld said, “it was don’t ask, don’t tell for them and it was don’t ask, don’t tell for me.”

The 30-minute diocesan presentations involved lay people, deacons, priests, bishops, and same-gender couples who have had their unions blessed by the church. The delegations were encouraged to bring service leaflets from the blessing of same-gender unions and other materials that clergy have used to work with couples and congregations to prepare for such blessings.

As Vince Edwards of the Diocese of Connecticut told the commission about the experience of having his relationship with Rodney Ayers blessed, he said he wanted to remind the members about what he saw as the bottom line of the decisions they faced.

“All the words we write, all the things we print, all the meetings we have, it is actually all about love,” he said.

Stories of waiting for the Episcopal Church to act figured prominently in the testimony.

The Rev. Meredyth Ward, priest-in-charge of Church of the Epiphany in Wilbraham in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, told the commission that in 2004 she was part of the diocese’s first official study of same-gender blessings. After nearly two years, she said, none of the group’s position papers or proposed rites were able to be published.

“I love my bishop dearly; he is a good man, but he is waiting for the wider church to act before he will and he will not give us permission to do anything that you all and General Convention does not authorize,” she said of Scruton. “We’re here to plead with you to act because we are waiting and we are, quite frankly, tired of asking permission for something that we know to be morally right.”

The last witness, Chris Rivers, a professor of French at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts, told a common story of having his same-gender relationship sanctioned in three different civil jurisdictions to preserve his and his partner’s legal rights.

“We’ve been married three times now. I’m waiting for the fourth because the one that I really want is the Episcopal Church,” he said. “I want the Book of Common Prayer … I want those words and I want it in this church and I want it now.”

SCLM has a year to go before it has to decide on the substance of its report that will be included in the so-called Blue Book collection of reports to 2012 General Convention. Meyers said that the commission currently envisions that the material that it will present to convention will include one or more essays “that provide theological foundations for this work,” one or more rites, pastoral resources to assist clergy and others who prepare couples for blessings, teaching resources for congregations wanting to discern whether they will offer blessings and “some sort of guidance” for bishops and clergy for addressing the legal issues in the various civil contexts in which the church operates.

“We may also be looking at proposed canon changes, given the various civil contexts,” she added, explaining that the current canons say (in Title I.18.1) that the clergy will follow the laws of the church and the laws of the state when officiating at a marriage. Thus, those two sets of laws “are now in conflict” in places that allow civil marriage of same-gender couples, she noted. Meyers said that the SCLM is consulting with the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons about possible canon changes that might be proposed.

Between now and the October 2011 meeting when SCLM finalizes its Blue Book report, the commission plans what it is calling a “church-wide consultation” in Atlanta March 18-19 that will include one lay and one clergy deputy from each diocese. Meyers said the commission will present its work to date and ask for feedback from the participants.

The commission will continue to report on its progress to the House of Bishops and consult with the bishops, Meyers said. She and others associated with the SCLM’s work on C056 met with the bishops in Phoenix on Sept. 18.

To assist in it its work, SCLM has established three task groups to focus on, respectively, liturgical resources, pastoral counseling and teaching resources, and theological resources. The commission also has established a blog and e-mail inbox (sclm@episcopalchurch.org) for comments and reflections. Also, the pastoral counseling and teaching resources task force is inviting Episcopalians to share their approaches, models, resources and any other reflection via a survey here.

C056 also called on the commission and the House of Bishops to invite theological reflection from throughout the Anglican Communion. The commission is discussing a meeting in an Episcopal Church diocese outside of the United States at which Anglicans from elsewhere in the communion would be invited to learn about its work. Some members of the SCLM also will report on its work during the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation Aug. 1-6, 2011 in Canterbury, England.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and editor of Episcopal News Monthly and Episcopal News Quarterly.

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