Editors’ note: Episcopal Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston issued the following letter to the diocese Aug. 20 shortly before the United State Supreme Court issued an order delaying the beginning of same-sex marriages in the state less than a day before couple could begin seeking marriage licenses.
Dear Diocesan Family,
Recent court decisions in Virginia and around the nation are shining a spotlight once again on issues relating to same-sex marriage. These are matters that generate passions that range from joy to anger. At this important time for our Diocese and our commonwealth, we have an opportunity to reflect on how we can constructively and compassionately deal with issues that continue to challenge our society and our Church.
As Christians, we are called on to bear witness to our faith in the public square. The strength of Anglicanism is that we can do so with conviction and passion, while recognizing that we are not of one mind. Indeed, it is that very diversity that makes our Church a powerful force for reconciliation in the world.
On the issue of same-sex marriage, some of our members, both clergy and lay, feel called to demonstrate their support in the public square – indeed literally on the courthouse steps. Others feel called to make a distinction between the blessing of same-sex unions and holy matrimony. Still others respond with a defense of traditional marriage. Honoring these differences in no way diminishes the power of our witness; it strengthens it.
I support our clergy who want to bear witness to their sense of justice and equality in marrying gay persons when and if that becomes legally possible in Virginia. But I also would note that, as is the case with heterosexual marriage, clergy who might officiate at same-gender marriages outside the pastoral relationships of our communities of faith do so as agents of the commonwealth, and not in the context of the liturgical life and witness of our Church.
Meanwhile, as the debate over same-sex marriage (distinct from the blessing of unions) continues in the councils of our Church, I emphasize that, as is again the case with heterosexual marriage, no priest of this Diocese will be required to officiate at marriage rites that their conscience cannot allow. Clergy who hold such restrictions of conscience also have my support in their convictions.
I pray that our actions relating to these important issues will continue to be guided by our love for one another, and by our willingness to honor the voices of those who call us in justice to move in new directions, as well as the voices of those who call us in faith to hold on to the best of our tradition.
It is at times like these when we can demonstrate to the world what it truly means to love our neighbors. Witnessing for justice, living into our diversity in faith … we are called to do both.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston