Dear Friends in Christ,
Since the decision by our Church to offer a provisional rite for a Blessing of Same Sex couples this last July at our General Convention, I have been praying to God and listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I have also been listening to the voices of clergy and lay leaders around the Diocese of Georgia. The Holy Spirit also speaks through each of them. All this has been a healthy, holy experience for me. You have assured me of your prayers and you have convinced me that whatever divides us pales in comparison to that which unites us: our calling together as disciples of Jesus to proclaim and live out his Gospel of love, mercy, and redemption.
I want to first remind us all of some recent history. Earlier this year, anticipating General Convention, I wrote the Diocese explaining the challenges before us, as I understood them. I stated clearly that during the search process for the 10th Bishop of Georgia, I articulated my support for the Church establishing a Blessing Rite for same sex couples. That support remains and has not wavered. I stated after my consecration, however, that no Blessing Rite would be used in the Diocese of Georgia until the Church took formal action to authorize such a rite. My interpretation of past General Convention actions, prior to 2012, led me to conclude that such specific authorization had never truly occurred.
I also pointed out that my understanding of Holy Matrimony is that it can only be between a man and woman, regardless of what secular governments understand it to be. Secular understandings of marriage should not shape how the Church understands Holy Matrimony. Of course, we know that the culture does shape our thoughts, at least to some extent. It is nearly impossible to hermetically seal the Church off from cultural influences. Nevertheless, I must make decisions as free of cultural influences as possible and rather focus all discernment through the lens of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and his grace bestowed in the New Covenant. Thus, in my judgment, any Blessing Rite that is authorized in the Diocese of Georgia had to be plainly distinguished from Holy Matrimony in order to receive my approval.
The Rite approved by General Convention in July of this year failed, in my judgment, to plainly distinguish between Holy Matrimony and a Blessing. The enabling resolution for the Rite that was passed, however, provided Diocesan Bishops with the ability to “adapt” the Rite for use in their respective dioceses. I had hoped the language would have authorized something more expansive than “adaption,” but that did not happen. So, we must work within the structures of what the Church has decided. None of this is perfect. We all look “through a glass darkly,” as St Paul reminds us. I am unconcerned by what is politically, socially, or culturally expedient, or what will be the majority opinion. I am concerned with doing what is right in the eyes of God.
I have discerned that we in the Diocese of Georgia will offer a Rite of Blessing for our homosexual sisters and brothers using the adapted rite found in Appendix 1. This will be the only Rite authorized in the Diocese of Georgia. In Appendix 2, you will find criteria for how the Rite may be offered in the Diocese of Georgia. These criteria are not suggestions. They are expected provisions and guidelines required of clergy and lay leaders who discern within their congregation that they should offer the Rite.
It should go without saying, but I will say it here because uniformed people often create needless alarm. No congregation or priest is required to offer such a rite. The criteria in Appendix 2 requires formal discernment between the parochial priest in charge and the vestry before it may be offered in the congregation and that discernment must be first initiated by the parochial priest. That means I will not allow non-parochial priests (or any deacon) to preside at such a Blessing Rite disconnected from a pastoral cure in a congregation. They may, however, assist the Rector, Vicar, or Priest-in-Charge of the Congregation at the Rite.
Doubtless some may conclude from the requirements in Appendix 2 that I am requiring an unfairly high threshold of mutual consent that is not required of other rites of the Church. I certainly understand how some may reach such a conclusion and I am not unsympathetic to the claim. For some my decision will go too far. For others my decision will not go far enough. I understand. Nevertheless, as your Bishop I must lead us through this in the best way I can given the constraints present and the diversity of positions we respectively hold in the Diocese of Georgia.
My fervent hope, as we go forward together, is that we not stoop down to the secular political practice of creating winners and losers. Lord, we have enough of that. My hope and expectation is that we will continue as we have in this Diocese to love and respect one another even when we cannot always agree. I ask each of us to reach out to someone who we know disagrees with us on this, declare to them our unity in Christ, and our promise of love and support in the common bonds of the Gospel of Jesus. This will not negate whatever differences we have, but it will be a clear witness that we do not give only lip service to the unity of our faith, but that we practice amongst ourselves the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ.
–(The Rt. Rev.) Scott A. Benhase is Bishop of Georgia