Bethlehem blessings for
same sex couples

The Rt. Rev. Paul Marshall has released the following guidelines for clergy and congregations wishing to move ahead with pastoral provision for same sex couples. The same guidelines apply for all couples coming for blessing (counseling, baptism, etc) – same sex or opposite sex. Those married or in civil unions from other states may use Blessing of a Civil Marriage. Pennsylvania couples are to use the rites prepared by the Diocese of Washington (DC). (see links below)

November 16, 2009

To: Clergy of the Diocese of Bethlehem

From: Bishop Paul

Re: Pastoral Provision for Same-Sex Couples

In accordance with General Convention 2009 observation that that “the discernment of The Episcopal Church is that there are no theological barriers to blessing … same-sex relationships that are based on love, fidelity and lifelong commitment …” I offer the following interim measures, which you may bring to your parish or not, at your discretion.

As you know from our discussion at our Retreat, the General Convention, in addition to the words just quoted, empowered bishops to make “Generous Provision” regarding pastoral and liturgical ministry to same-sex couples. What follows are the pastoral provisions I feel able to make at this time, and I hope they may be seen as generous.

It hardly needs to be said that because this is a new thing, I will want to be kept well informed (and have provided for that in what follows), so that I can make adjustments as needed. This is not a burden on the couple, nor does it reflect on their integrity, but helps me do my job of being pastor to all the parishes.

I am not generally broadcasting this decision yet (although I suspect the word will be quickly out) because it is up to the clergy of a place to decide if they are interested, and then to take it up within the parish system.

1.General Provision

Clergy and Parishes wishing to move ahead with this pastoral provision in accordance with General Convention may do so, provided that I am notified of their decision, and that such notice indicates that at least a substantial number of the vestry are in agreement, or at the very least understand what is involved with the rector or priest-in-charge’s decision in making this change. (It is not usually appropriate for interim or supply clergy to lead such a change—talk to me.) Your notice to me should also indicate how (or whether) you are communicating this decision to the parish.

In preparing the vestry, I would strongly suggest that you all read and discuss pp. 1-98 of my book, cited below, or some other work that treats each of the theological topics involved in the rites.

For the present, authority to preside at rites of union is limited to parish clergy (exceptions may be applied for). We are doing a new thing, and I wish it to have a context for nurture and evaluation.

As with all unions, it is hoped that the church will be the site of the liturgy, and that when appropriate, the Holy Eucharist be celebrated.

Clergy of other denominations may be invited to participate, but an Episcopal priest should receive the vows and pronounce the nuptial blessing. For the time being, we will not have deacons presiding.

At least one of the contracting parties must be baptized. That is precisely the same barrier that applies to straight couples, and I feel no moral authority to suggest a different barrier for other couples.

Appropriate pastoral care and conversation must precede the liturgical celebration. I trust you, as I do with heterosexual couples, to apply pastoral judgment in setting up counseling. Divorced persons must receive permission in the usual way. There is a field of literature on counseling gay people, if you wish to learn of some of their special burdens, although I think that careful listening is probably your chief tool.

The service is to be recorded in the record books of the parish along with marriages.


For persons already legally joined in another state (whether by marriage or civil union) the BCP blessing of a Civil Marriage, including the prayers that begin on p. 428, should be used, with the language adjusted as necessary. The Nuptial Blessing is always used. The Holy Eucharist may be celebrated.

For persons not already so joined, use the Washington, D.C. liturgy set forth on pp. 135, ff. of my book, Same-Sex Unions: Stories and Rites (NY: Church Publishing, 2004). The Washington rite lays emphasis is on the making of a covenant, as does the BCP. (see links below, ed.)

Caveat: People whose unions are blessed need to understand that in Pennsylvania they are not married, and that your holding yourself out as doing a “marriage” without a license to perform it is a legal offense. So, all questions of theology aside, it is best to avoid the word in this Commonwealth and at this time.

Ordinarily, a bishop presides when one of the parties being joined is a priest or deacon.

A Reminder: no member of the clergy shall ever be compelled to perform a marriage or preside at a rite of union.

This diocese has come a very long way in a fairly short time. It is important that change be made gently and the people of all points of view experience themselves as listened to non-anxiously and that everybody continue to be valued.

Following are the documents from the Diocese of Washington (DC):

The Celebration and Blessing of a Covenant Relationship

Order of Service

What is your diocese doing for pastoral provision?

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