Delaware, Rhode Island bishops welcome same-sex marriage laws

May 9, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church bishops of Rhode Island and Delaware both were active supporters of the legislative processes that led to those two states becoming the 10th and 11th states to allow same-sex marriage, and now they are working with their dioceses to respond to the changes in state law.

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee signed that state’s law on May 2. The law becomes effective Aug. 1.

“As a new citizen of Rhode Island, I am thankful to the state for passing a bill that provides the churches who wish it, the opportunity to minister in this way to the families and people in their congregations,” Bishop Nicholas Knisely, who was ordained and consecrated in November, wrote in a May 3 letter to diocesan clergy.

During the legislative process, Knisely commended the advancement of the bill in January and again in April.

Knisely said he would all allow same-sex marriages to occur in congregations where both the clergy and vestry are in agreement. “The decision to offer it, or not, is yours to make together within your church,” he told clergy in his letter.

A diocesan task force has already developed guidelines for responding to same-sex couples and, Knisely noted, the only change would be to substitute references to “same-sex blessing” with “same-sex marriage.”

He said he believes the law “protects the religious freedom of people with vastly different theological understandings of marriage.”

He also noted that not all Episcopalians agree on the issue, “but in the Episcopal Church we find our unity in common prayer, not in common opinion.” The church has learned over the years that it is possible and important “to protect the consciences of those who disagree within our church as we live together in community,” Knisely said.

Five days after action in Rhode Island, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed that legislature’s bill into law, allowing same-sex couples to marry beginning July 1 and eventually converting all civil unions in that state into marriages.

Delaware Bishop Wayne Wright, who took a stand for same-sex blessings when he was a nominee for bishop in 1998 and who testified before the state’s General Assembly in support of the bill, told Episcopal News Service that he was “really happy that we’ve come to this point.”

The diocese and individual Episcopalians, he said, have been involved in the issues of marriage equality for some time and he predicted “we’ll respond in positive way” to change in the civil context in which the diocese operates.

“For us this has been a long process of dialogue and study and, in some cases, respectful disagreement,” he acknowledged. “I’m very proud of the diocese and the people in it — the way they’re engaged in this.”

Because of that process, “our unity here is in our love from Christ,” the bishop said, and within that unity is room for disagreement about issues like this.

That dialogue and study will continue, he said.

Wright will be talking to clergy and lay leaders of congregations “about how we can best respond and support them in their pastoral ministries.”

“I don’t have kind of a pro forma answer today about that because this is something we’ll be talking about,” he said, adding that he had talked earlier that day with a couple of priests “about how we are going to continue the dialogue.” The bishop said the new law will also be discussed at an upcoming clergy day.

Wright estimated slightly more than a third of the diocese’s 37 congregations have used the provisional rite for same-sex blessings approved in July 2012 by the church’s General Convention.

Diocesan parishes have “the freedom to respond but also freedom to disagree,” he said.

The first civil union in the state of Delaware took place Jan. 1, 2012 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wilmington.  “It was a really happy day when that happened,” Wright recalled.

On May 9, the Minnesota House of Representatives was set to advance a bill that would allow same-sex marriage in that state. That state’s governor has said he will sign the bill if it is passed by the state Senate in a vote scheduled for May 13.

Same-sex marriage also is allowed in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two same-sex marriage cases. One challenges Proposition 8, the California referendum that revoked same-sex marriage rights in that state. The other challenges the constitutionality of Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The court has not yet issued its opinion in either case.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.