Gay couples finding a blessing in church

Episcopalians: Not performed in over a decade, services celebrating same-sex unions return to a Bolton Hill parish.

October 24, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

From the opening hymn, "Lift High The Cross," to the fragrant incense during Holy Communion, the ceremony at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill was largely traditional.

Standing before the altar as the late afternoon sun cast rays of light across the nave, the couple exchanged vows and rings, promising to honor and comfort each other and forsake all others. When the ceremony ended, they strode up the aisle hand-in-hand, bathed in camera flashes and the applause of friends and family.

The only thing that wasn't traditional was the couple itself: they were men, dressed in tuxedos.

George Weltz and Douglas Hoffman, gay and partners for more than two years, had their union blessed at Memorial Church Saturday, the second ceremony of its kind performed there this month.

"It's just a great opportunity to get everyone together who has been important to you in your life and tell them how much they mean to you," said Hoffman, 45, a tax attorney with Constellation Energy Group.

Episcopalians here believe the blessings are the first in a church in the Diocese of Maryland since 1992, when a similar ceremony at Memorial sparked a bitter controversy and ultimately a moratorium by then-Bishop A. Theodore Eastman.

Over the past few months, the debate over same-sex blessings and the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire have roiled the entire Episcopal Church and its parent, the worldwide Anglican Communion.

But when Weltz and Hoffman began planning their ceremony 18 months ago, they had no idea that same-sex blessings would emerge as a global issue. They weren't out to make a political statement - they just wanted to enjoy a traditional rite of passage and express their commitment before the Lord.

"With my strong beliefs, I couldn't imagine not sharing my vows in the eyes of God," said Weltz, 35, who shares a house with Hoffman in Northeast Baltimore and also works for Constellation. "If it was even a remote possibility, how could we not?"

If they didn't start out as crusaders, they seemed to warm to the role of quiet spokesmen in an interview early this week. Hoffman said he thought the Episcopal Church would lead the way in acceptance of homosexuality, just as it had with another controversial step, the ordination of women.

"I'm very proud of the Episcopal Church," Hoffman said. "It is kind of incumbent on us to be a little bit at the forefront. In time, it won't seem so bad."

The Diocese of Maryland had no comment on Memorial's ceremonies this week. Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, who never reaffirmed his predecessor's moratorium on same-sex blessings, referred a reporter to the diocese's written policy, which neither condones nor condemns the practice.

"Your bishops have stated emphatically that we cannot give permission for anyone to bless a same-sex union," it reads. "It simply is not within our authority to do so because the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are far from consensus on this issue.

"If a clergy person feels he/she can in good conscience ask God's blessing on a committed, life-long relationship, the decision to do so or to refuse to do so rests with that individual clergy person."

A divisive issue

The issue of homosexuality in the Episcopal Church boiled over in August when its national convention, in a split vote, confirmed the choice of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop elected in American Christendom.

The church also acknowledged that some priests have been quietly blessing same-sex unions across the country but did not forbid the practice.

Traditionalists in the 75 million-member Anglican Communion - the Episcopal Church is its U.S. branch - were furious. Citing the condemnation of homosexuality in scripture, they demanded the Episcopal Church be expelled.

In an emergency meeting last week in London, the world's Anglican archbishops stopped short of breaking with the Episcopalians. But they warned of a split if Robinson, who has been living with a gay partner for more than a decade, is consecrated next month.

At the heart of the dispute is the place of homosexuals and the nature of marriage in the church. Traditionalists believe homosexuality is a sin and marriage strictly for unions between man and woman. They refer to scripture in the Old and New Testaments, including a passage from Romans in which the Apostle Paul says homosexual acts are "against nature."

"Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death," the passage reads.

Weltz and Hoffman say that marriage is about a life-long commitment between two people - regardless of their sex. And advocates of same-sex blessings say scripture must be read in light of the times. In the Biblical age, they argue, people had no concept of sexual orientation or monogamous gay relationships.

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