Easton bishop strips priest of functions

June 10, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

The Episcopal bishop of Easton has told an elderly Maryland priest he may no longer preach or perform the sacraments because he blessed the union of two homosexual men in an Eastern Shore ceremony that had all the trappings of a wedding.

The deposed priest, the Rev. John K. Mount, said yesterday that he took part in the May 28 ceremony -- specifically praying for God's strength and comfort for the two gay men -- largely out of compassion because both are dying of AIDS.

He did not perform a "marriage" as such, the priest said, although the two men considered their vows of faithfulness to each other to be the equivalent of a marriage.

But Bishop Martin G. Townsend insisted that Father Mount's participation was a violation of church law and misled the two men and their guests. "You may neither preach, lead worship, nor perform sacramental ministry in this diocese," Bishop Townsend informed Father Mount, an 85-year-old canon -- or honorary officer -- of Trinity Cathedral in Easton.

Father Mount said the bishop's decision came after several "heated" discussions about the controversial ceremony.

Bishop Townsend wrote to the priest in what was described as a formal notification of the lifting of his license to preach.

"As you reported to me, John, you presided over and pronounced a priestly blessing on what you described as a marriage between two gay men. While such a relationship might be loving and faithful, it cannot be considered a marriage and you have no authority to bless it as such," the bishop wrote.

Furthermore, the bishop said, "since the honorific 'Canon' was granted to you by the Chapter of a cathedral where you may no longer practice your priesthood, I am recommending to the Chapter of Trinity Cathedral that that honorary title be withdrawn."

The revocation of Father Mount's ecclesiastical right to exercise his priesthood in the Easton Diocese became effective Monday.

Out of respect for Bishop Townsend, whom Father Mount said he considers a friend, he will not disobey him, the priest said.

However, he strongly disagrees with the bishop's interpretation of church law and of what happened at the outdoor ceremony in front of 70 guests at a waterfront home near Trappe. Both the bishop and Father Mount declined to disclose the names of the couple.

"I am a priest of the church of God, not the Diocese of Easton, not even of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.," said Father Mount, a widower, in a telephone interview from his Easton home yesterday.

"I have my orders from God," the priest said, "not from Bishop Townsend." Father Mount has been a seminary teacher as well as a parish priest assigned to churches in Maryland.

Bishop-in-charge Charles L. Longest of the Maryland Diocese, who is Father Mount's canonical superior, told the priest yesterday that he would take no further action in the case, but reminded him that he was bound by a 1992 diocesan "moratorium" on the blessing of same-sex unions.

That prohibition by Maryland Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, who has since retired, followed 17 weeks of intense controversy over a ceremony in a Bolton Hill church that many Episcopalians insisted was a "lesbian wedding."

Bishop Eastman ordered the clergy -- including Father Mount -- not to bless any more homosexual unions.

The ceremony that touched off months of heated theological discussions was performed by the Rev. William W. Rich on July 4, 1992, at Baltimore's Memorial Episcopal Church.

Father Rich, who was a chaplain at Goucher College, said the ceremony he devised at the request of the women involved was not a wedding, but "the blessing of two people committed to each other."

A local lay group, Concerned Episcopalians, accused Bishop Eastman of "evasiveness" about details of the service, saying, "In all respects, to any reasonable person, it looked and sounded like a wedding."

Bishop Townsend and Father Mount agree that the May 28 ceremony near Trappe also looked and sounded like a wedding, and this is the crux of their dispute.

"By acting as you did, unilaterally and out of communion with both the bishop where you are canonically resident [in Baltimore] and the bishop where you performed this rite [on the Eastern Shore], you misled the two men whose union you blessed," Bishop Townsend told Father Mount.

The priest strongly disagrees. "I feel the church has been waffling for years on this question," the priest said. "Somebody has to break the ice. Some day, I think people will say, 'Father Mount was on the cutting edge on this.' "

Describing the ceremony -- which came after "elaborate preparations by a good many gay men" -- as having the outward appearance of "a full-scale, formal wedding," Father Mount said he nevertheless made it clear to all the guests that he was not officiating at an Episcopal wedding "in the church's point of view" but was "simply asking God to bless two men who made vows to each other."

Bishop Townsend, as did Bishop Eastman three years ago, noted that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer sets forth no rite for a blessing of a same-sex union. Had the priests in either case simply blessed the homes of the two homosexual couples in accordance with an established rite, there would have been no violation of church law, both bishops said.

In his notification to Father Mount, Bishop Townsend wrote, "Through procedures currently under way in the House of Bishops and by discussions and decisions of General Convention, the matters of ordaining non-celibate gays and of blessing homosexual unions is under serious study."

If and when the Episcopal Church ever determines that such ordinations and blessings are appropriate, Bishop Townsend said, "then the Diocese of Easton will develop a policy as our response to such a determination. That policy will be developed by people and groups who have leadership responsibility and teaching authority in the diocese."

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