How Sewanee made its policy on same-sex blessings

Libby Nelson of Inside Higher Ed has a story we missed when it appeared a few weeks. She writes:

In July, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex relationships, which went into use Dec. 2. The rite, which has much in common with a marriage ceremony, is intended to be used even in states where gay marriage is illegal. Bishops that do not approve of the new liturgy can forbid its use within their jurisdiction.

The new rite posed a particularly thorny question for Sewanee. The university, which includes an Episcopal seminary, is owned by 28 dioceses in the United States, and the bishops of those dioceses make up the university’s board of trustees. The bishops do not share a common stance on the issue, but several members of Sewanee’s Board of Trustees urged their fellow bishops in July to vote against the new liturgy. One, a bishop in South Carolina, has tried to secede from the Episcopal Church as a result.

The controversy placed Sewanee in a tricky position, said John McCardell Jr., Sewanee’s vice chancellor and president. The college itself isn’t part of any diocese, and its religious governing authority is the chancellor, a post that rotates among the bishops of the 28 owning dioceses.

“An absolute yes or an absolute no was just not possible,” McCardell said. The college feared its chapel could become a sort of Las Vegas for blessings of gay unions — an end-run for couples whose bishops wouldn’t permit the rite in their own diocese.

The compromise: Gay and lesbian couples who meet the other eligibility requirements for a Sewanee wedding will be able to have their union blessed in the college chapel, as long as their bishops are supportive.

This notion that Episcopalians are somehow their bishops’ subjects and can only have relationships blessed with their bishop’s approval, regardless of where the blessing takes place, is troubling to me. I sympathize with Sewanee’s situation and think most of the rules they came up with to decide who could be married in their chapel are sensible. But this idea that one’s geographical diocese limits the sorts of blessings one can receive is problematic, isn’t it?

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