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Two Chattanooga men will likely become the first same-sex couple in the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee to receive a sanctioned blessing of their relationship.
This spring, Jerry Draper, 52, and Adam Bryan, 34, will receive what is officially called the Witness and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant at Grace Episcopal Church. The rite is not recognized by Tennessee law, so it has no legal bearing.
"It makes us feel like everyone else," Bryan says. "It's the same acknowledgment as heterosexual couples. It makes us more of a sealed couple."
Last July, the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted a resolution approving a public blessing of same-sex couples. In December, the Rt. Rev. Rev. George T. Young III, bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee, sent a letter to members, approving the use of the blessing rite after February's diocesan convention.
A spokeswoman for the diocese would not confirm whether the local blessing is the first, citing privacy. But the Rev. Susan J. Butler, rector at Grace, thinks it is.
"I believe so," she says.
Draper and Bryan, who met at Grace Episcopal more than eight years ago and have lived together for most of the time since, toyed with the idea of having an unofficial ceremony recognizing their union for several years but ultimately dismissed it.
"We wanted to do it in the church," Bryan says. "For us, [the religious aspect] is just as important."
Butler adds another layer.
"For me," she says, "it really is a justice issue."
Once the couple expressed their desire to have a blessing, Butler and the church's governing vestry had to approve. After that, Butler and Grace's ruling wardens had to send a signed letter to the bishop for his acknowledgment.
Young's return letter salutes Grace for being "a faithful, inclusive and forward-thinking parish, and a bright light in the Diocese of East Tennessee. ... [and the letter] comes with my prayer and blessing for their use of the liturgy to bless their relationship."
In his letter, however, he acknowledged that all 1.9 million Episcopalians may not agree on the issue.
"Clearly," he wrote, "we in this diocese, in all of the Episcopal Church, in our committees, states, and beyond, are not of one mind on the issues of homosexuality and same-sex relationships. It is important to note that The Episcopal Church has clearly stated that homosexuality is not a sin, and I strongly stand with that position."
Others from local Christian denominations are not ready to make such a change.
"The Scriptures say Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever," says David Schonhoff, minister at Central Church of Christ in Chattanooga. "His teachings are meant not to be changed. Christianity is meant to be a constant, where cultures might change back and forth.
"To move in a direction following the culture, just because that's what the people desire," he says, "is a mistake and is move away from the New Testament."
Although the Episcopal Church has the largest local presence among denominations approving same-sex blessings, other churches have offered such ceremonies for several years.
David Brown, senior minister at Pilgrim Congregational Church, says his church offers "holy union" ceremonies to gay couples. And he says the practice probably extended before his five-year tenure at the United Church of Christ congregation.
"They're, frankly, the same kind of vows we'll use with heterosexual couples," he says. "We have every hope that more and more across the country there will be an acceptance of so-called gay marriage. It's not just a matter or religious tolerance but a matter of civil rights."
Ministers in the Presbyterian USA denomination are able to perform same-sex blessings, but Judd Shaw, general presbyter of the Presbytery of East Tennessee, says he doesn't know whether any had performed such ceremonies and there are no records to indicate it.
"I'm sure there are some who would," he says.
The Rev. Pamela Rumancik, interim minister at Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, says she has performed same-sex ceremonies but none since coming to Chattanooga last fall. However, she says her predecessor, the Rev. Jeff Briere, conducted four ceremonies during his tenure as minister from 2003 to 2012.
"I doubt there were any earlier than that [by local U-U ministers] here in Chattanooga," Rumancik says.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also permits same-sex blessings, but the Rev. Janice Mynchenberg, interim pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church, says none have been performed there or at the denomination's other two congregations, Ascension Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran.
"We're supportive," she says of her present church, "but no one has requested it."
Butler says conversations about same-sex blessings at Grace started years ago. The issue then was given "deliberate and fairly extensive dialogue" before the denomination's General Convention last summer. Finally, she says, parish forums and various ways for people to ask questions and offer comments were available before Young sanctioned the option of blessings.
In spite of that, she says, there is "a small amount of concern [in the parish] about how doing this might change things, the things we so love about Grace. There is some fear about conflict [over the issue]. I don't think that there will be any -- no open conflict. It's not going to make a felt difference to the congregation."
Bryan and Draper say almost everyone in the church has been extremely supportive, and note that the vestry vote for approval of the blessings was unanimous, 12-0.
The couple say they are aware they are breaking new ground but maintain that the church is continuing a history that includes the early embracing of 12-step addiction groups, refugee resettlement and interfaith activities.
"We like the fact we can do it at Grace, on behalf of Grace," Draper says. "For all those [same-sex] couples who have been hurt and damaged, this is a place that can be welcoming."
"Grace has a history of ... being socially progressive," Bryan says.