Mississippi bishop announces local option for same-sex blessings

By Scott Lenoir
Posted Feb 4, 2013

Bishop Duncan Gray addresses the Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi on Feb. 2 in Jackson. Photo: Jim Carrington

[Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi] In his annual address to the 186th Annual Council in Jackson, Diocese of Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III announced a process that can used by parishes and missions which can lead to an authorization by the bishop to allow clergy to perform a liturgy of same-sex blessings until the next General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2015.

By canon, priests have the authority of all matters of worship in their own congregation, but due to the “sensitive nature of this decision, I am simply requiring serious and prayerful consultation with the lay leadership of the congregation,” said Gray to the delegates, alternates and clergy gathered at the opening service of council at the Jackson Convention Center Complex.

Citing the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music declaration that the blessing is not marriage, Gray reiterated that this liturgy for blessing is not a sacrament of marriage. “I will take the Standing Liturgical Commission at its word.  The State of Mississippi will not authorize such a rite and my own conscience would not accept it [if it were a marriage],” said Gray.

Gray further stated that “no priest, no vestry, no congregation will be asked to do anything that violates their conscience.”

In order for a congregation to receive an exception to the ban on the blessing of same-sex couples, a congregation must petition the bishop and certify in that request four areas of process that were undertaken by the clergy and lay leadership.

  1. Indicate the process of prayer and study that was undertaken;
  2. Describe how they see its use as beneficial to the mission of the church in their community;
  3. Describe the process for preparing a couple for this blessing and how the congregation would show its support for the couple; and
  4. Make a commitment to report back on their experience in time for input at General Convention in 2015.

At the completion of the process a congregation may do one of three things: nothing; differentiate themselves from the decision with a statement; or petition the bishop to lift the ban.

Gray said he has formed a small task force to work with him on questions and issues that may arise during a congregation’s processing of a petition.

In acknowledgement of the seriousness of his position change (Gray voted against the trial use of the liturgy for the blessing of same-sex relationships at General Convention while all Mississippi deputies voted for the authorization), Gray said: “I am well aware of the extraordinary diversity of emotion that this decision will evoke. This announcement will delight some of you. For others this will be experienced as horror and betrayal. I recognize both realities. . . For those who feel betrayed, I will accept your anger. I trust that I have earned your respect over 13 years and that we can find ways to talk and move forward.”

Gray also said that he chose to implement this change in policy “so that deep emotions that this action evokes can be borne by me, [the] one who has walked with you through so much over these last 13 years — and not by someone who must address it at the outset of his or her new ministry with you,” Gray said referring to his announced retirement in 2015 and the calling of a bishop coadjutor who will take Gray’s place.

Gray referred to St. Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass darkly as we attempt to ascertain God’s truth. “Each of us has distorted perceptions of truth, and we need one another — our unique gifts, our unique perspectives — to give us a fuller, but always imperfect, vision of God’s truth and God’s purposes.

“We’ve still got work to do together. And for all that we’ve fought over and for all that we’ve disagreed about, I cannot imagine a people with whom I would rather do God’s work.”

— The Rev. Scott Lenoir is the editor of The Mississippi Episcopalian.


Comments (13)

  1. walter combs says:

    Although I may personally agree with his decision. I imagine the conservatives that have remained loyal to TEC are feeling a complete betrayal by his acitons. In his address to the diocesan council back in 2004 he said, “I do not intend to change the policies of my Episcopal predecessors in matters of sexual morality. I will not authorize in this diocese the blessing of same gender unions, nor ordain unmarried non-celibate heterosexual or homosexual persons”. I believe so far the conservative faction in Miss. has remained loyal to TEC based largely on assurances that this would not happen. I shudder to think that another exodus awaits this church that is so quickly shrinking. I also want to say that until 2003 my parish was growing. Since then we have dwindled to the point that both we and the parish in the next town over are talking about closing our doors. Pretty depressing!

  2. Richard C. Johnson says:

    I was raised in the Diocese of West Texas under the guidance of Bishop Everett Jones who, no doubt, is weeping in heaven over the disgusting rhetoric and leadership of a now very divided and heartbroken members (former member in this case) of the Episcopal Church. The church has split from Biblical teachings in supporting/condoning same sex relationships (that are in no way a Christian Marriage which can ONLY be between a man and a woman). Your current presiding bishop (Katherine Jefferts Schori) is hell bent on destroying/dividing a once unified and beautiful means of worship. I am surprised at the support she has received and am sure that part of it has to do with the Episcopal clergy running scared of losing their long earned retirement benefits.

  3. Elizabeth E. Hanson says:

    Although we are all welcome sinners in the church I do not find the church a
    place that should condone this immoral institution. All through-out scripture
    the Word states that homosexuality is an abomination. I will leave that up
    to you for your common sense. We should not change for the world, but be
    a light in the dark world. Listen to God and act as Noah did. We should build
    the boat and be ready for the big flood. In other words let us not conform to
    this world, but rather transform the world. I will be in prayer because I have
    many liberal friends who stand up for individual rights. I am totally not in
    agreement with adding illness to an already sick world.

  4. Burl Salmon says:

    As a former communicant in the Diocese of Mississippi and an Episcopal clergyman, I am proud of Bishop Gray’s courage, one, in light of what is doubtless to be a troubling decision for some, but more importantly for his courage, two, in responding to the work of the Spirit in finally recognizing Her presence in the sacredness of the union of two persons. Given the Diocese of Mississippi’s work in civil rights in my home state, this decision continues a bravery and witness to the Gospel that characterized our church in the 1960s, but which has been slow to come in discussions of human sexuality. What troubles me is that some view Bishop Gray’s decision as a political one, bowing to some sort of public or societal pressure, rather than one guided by a deeply rooted understanding of scripture. Instead of darkening the light of Christ in an already dim world, Bishop Gray’s actions take that light out from under the bushel and unashamedly allow it to shine, brightening that dimness with a grace and a hope reflective of the Gospel, indeed true to scripture, not in opposition to it. Blessings to Bishop Gray and to the people of the Diocese of Mississippi; may they both grow in strength as they witness the working of the Holy Spirit.

    1. Sally Neville says:

      One word, “Amen” !!

  5. Ronald J. Caldwell says:

    I applaud Bishop Gray for his reasonable, careful, and open approach to a very delicate issue in the deep south (I live in Alabama). He is not forcing anybody to do anything, merely giving parishes the right to deal with the issue of the blessing of same-gender unions as they wish. Parishes and missions are often extended families. Families need to talk, discuss the issues before them. This will not go away. It is here to stay. It will have to be dealt with sooner or later. I imagine most local churches will turn down the blessing. If they do so after honest, open and fair debate, then so be it! But let’s face it as a family. We have all lost family arguments but we didn’t leave the family.

    We deep southerners are too often behind the curve on matters of human rights. Here in Alabama we had to have a Yankee come to us in the civil rights years to show us how Christians should behave. He gave his life for us. We now revere Blessed Jonathan Daniels.

    What Bishop Gray is saying is let’s not hide from the hard issues of human life any more. I say bravo.

    The exact opposite to Bishop Gray’s approach is the case of South Carolina. There, for years the conservative leadership of the diocese relentlessly attacked the Episcopal Church and blocked out the local defenders of the church. Only one side was allowed to make its case. After years of this, local parishes and missions were suddenly put on the spot to choose between the conservative leadership and the national church. The majority chose the former. No wonder. It was a revolution from the top down.

    Gray is calling for addressing a serious social issue starting with the people in the pews. I would choose Gray’s way any day. Otherwise, we get the disaster of South Carolina.

    1. walter combs says:

      The fact remains, Bishop Gray is doing what he told the conservatives of his diocese that he would not do. I believe they are feeling betrayed. I wonder what effect this might have on those parishes in DSC still discerning if there is a place within TEC for them? You say no one is being forced to do anything. Not now, but if I were a conservative I would wonder just how long that will last.

      Unfortunately, Mr. Caldwell, my experience of the intolerance towards the conservatives of my parish has caused me deep sadness. I observed them mocked, belittled, and accused of bigotry. Seems to me we are very inclusive church, unless you happen to be a conservative.

    2. Emma Young says:

      I attended a South Carolina private girls college my freshman year (1972…indeed, another troubling time, remember forced bussing?) only to be teased for being from Mississippi…dumb, pregnant and barefoot was the talk of all women MISSISSIPPI. I smiled for a few months, then reminded them that I was taught in a Public school that South Carolina was the 1st state to secede from the Union. Is history just repeating itself once again? Bishop Gray cares!! His undying belief: thoughtful prayer to the GOOD LORD above (isn’t this what love is?), followed by ACTION w/ feelings; his sole interest is in the great diocese of Mississippi struggling to remain united in Christ’s welcoming grace. We have survived nearly 200 years…with Duncan Gray as our leader, we will march forward. As Brother Faulkner said: ..”we will not merely endure, …we will survive.”. Pray for PEACE.

  6. Terri Bey says:

    As a member of the Episcopal Church in Lexington, KY, this whole issue is saddening. I believe God is love, and people love who they love. There is plenty of evidence that gays/lesbians are born the way they are. Why would someone choose to have a characteristic that people condemn? People are still cherry picking from Leviticus , “A man who lays down with another man….etc.” That law was there because back then, they believed that the man produced the baby, and the woman was just a baby incubator, therefore, they made that law (and the law against masturbation) to prevent “spilling the seed.” I learned this from my own Rector.

    Besides, Leviticus has plenty of rules that we people don’t do: If you eat Shellfish, it’s a violation. If you get a tattoo, it’s a violation. Adulterers are supposed to be killed. We don’t do that. I just don’t pick and choose what I will obey.

    I am not surprised the Bishop in Mississippi is in a dilemma. This is the same state that finally ratified the Amendment of the Constitution that got rid of Slavery in 1995.

  7. walter combs says:

    What continues to be ignored is the fact that conservatives are increasingly wondering how much longer there will be a place for them in TEC. Mr. Caldwell mentioned ‘no one is being forced to do anything’. I remember all too well some previous “conscience clauses” and how long those promises lasted. Bishop Gray promised he would not do what he just did. Do you see why conservatives might not trust his promise now?

    1. Ronald J. Caldwell says:

      Mr. Combs I just do not see how conservatives can see this move of Bishop Gray as a threat or a danger. No parish or mission is being required to address the issue of same gender unions. I imagine most local churches will simply ignore the subject. I am certain they would here in Alabama. But there may be some parishes that wish to consider whether to allow the blessing (not marriage) of same gender unions. Under Gray’s plan they will be permitted to consider it but must go through a rigorous process before they can petition for a lift of the ban. I think this is the right approach to dealing with contentious social issues. It is better for the extended family to grapple with issues as a community. It is reasonable, common sensical, and democratic approach to how the Episcopal Church deals with the changing social mores of modern American society. Anyway, I just do not see how this harms anyone.

  8. Dawson Nash says:

    A friend of mine who grew up in Mississippi forwarded this article to me. I don’t perceive Bishop Gray as betraying promises he made almost 9 years ago, but rather as someone who has thought about things with an open mind. I grew up in Baltimore, MD, where I spent grades 1 – 12 at a small Episcopal boys’ school, St. Paul’s. We went to chapel every day, and the school itself, while conservative in nature, instilled in its students the golden rule, integrity, and honor. It was a school that valued mental, physical, and spiritual growth. I attended a small, conservative college in Virginia that lived by similar values. I don’t know if I believe that Jesus is the son of God or if there really is a God, but I do believe in Love, that there is good and evil in the world, and that most people have a conscience that guides them to do their best and to do good. I continue to attend church in Washington, DC, at the Church of the Epiphany, because I believe there is a nurturing spirit in our Church. For those that feel homosexuality is a sin and that scripture says it is so, I urge them to do more study, for one’s sexuality is a gift from God, or whatever you perceive God to be. It took me a fairly long time to come to grips with that, but fortunately I did and as a result of accepting who I am, I have found strength, courage, and an ability to achieve great success without harboring fear or guilt. It also led me to a monogamous relationship that has lasted 20 years and hopefully, will last many more to come. To various commentators above, I suggest not worrying about trusting Bishop Gray, but taking his cue and learning more about why he chose to do what he did. I suspect it is not out of political means, but out of study, soul searching, and coming to a deeper understanding of all members of God’s great community. As I read the comments, I wonder why those who label themselves as Conservatives are fearful of change. Were you dismayed when the 1928 prayer book and the 1940 hymnal were replaced? Does singing out, praying with voice, passing the peace or holding hands during the Lord’s prayer make you feel uneasy? Our current liturgy is more life affirming and the hymnal more diverse and inclusive. All of this is positive if one is open-minded and willing to embrace new ways of expressing one’s relationship with God and with the community. The mission of the Church is to grow. The way we learn and the way we work all change over time. The way we worship and the way we see the world and all those in it change too.

  9. Michael Kirchner says:

    As someone who is gay, I can assure the doubters out there, that I was born this way. Better stated, that this is how God created me. I no more “chose” my sexuality than any heterosexual chooses theirs. Mine is not a “lifestyle” – it is a LIFE. I applaud the Bishop as his decision is an example of living the “reason” pillar of TEC.

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