published Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Cooper: Priests get final word in blessings

Sometime today, area Episcopal priests will get the word from Diocese of East Tennessee Bishop George Young on how to proceed after Tuesday's General Convention approval of a churchwide ceremony to bless same-sex couples.

The policy, approved overwhelmingly by bishops, clergy and laity, creates "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant," which includes prayers and an exchange of vows and rings.

However, it leaves its usage up to individual diocesan bishops.

Young, according to the Rev. Jon Anderson, rector of Chattanooga's Christ Church, will determine the next step.

He could, among other things, give the blessings an immediate thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, make a decision after discussion with one or more diocesan bodies or wait until the diocesan convention early next year and involve more clergy and laity.

Anderson said this week's decision -- and whatever Young decides -- is not likely to have the same far-ranging impact

as in 2003, when Gene Robinson of New Hampshire was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican world.

"My sense is more people are settled because they've had to think about it," he said. "There will probably be some leave [individual churches]. Time will tell."

An Episcopal church study indicated membership declined about 6 percent -- as did contributions -- from 2003 to 2007 after Robinson's ordination.

Anderson, a Signal Mountain native and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate who previously served dioceses in California and New Mexico, said the Diocese of East Tennessee "is one of the best I've seen in stability."

In the years since Robinson's ordination, he said, the diocese has "held everybody together, knowing they won't agree" on same-sex matters.

In addition, Anderson said, "understandings have been evolving. Clearly, young people are comfortable with diversity of all sorts. Chattanooga is not the same place as when [I] grew up here."

However, he said he had no idea what Young might decide.

If the policy in the Diocese of East Tennessee is given the go-ahead, Anderson said, it will be up to individual priests whether or not they perform such ceremonies. If they choose not to, a conscience clause in the policy bars any penalties for such priests.

Christ Church, he said, has "a long history of being progressive and inclusive" and has openly gay couples and singles as members. But he said no one has approached him about performing such a ceremony before, or since, this week's decision.

Of the same-sex blessings, Anderson said he would be "willing to help, if they want that," and if Young gives his assent.

(The blessing liturgy does not go into effect until Dec. 2, the first Sunday in Advent. For now, the canons of the Episcopal church still define marriage as between a man and woman).

Such ceremonies, Anderson said, should "not be a political football" but "are not to be taken lightly." The church, he said, would likely "have a conversation" about the issue before any such blessings are scheduled.

"It isn't easy," he said.

However, for Anderson, it comes down to Christ's answer to the lawyer, who asked Christ -- cited in Matthew 22 -- what was the greatest commandment, he said. His answer was, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind."

And the second, Anderson said, was like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

"That said a lot then," Anderson said. "It says a lot now."

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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