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Saturday, March 03, 2007

ENS: NJ Civil Unions Present Challenge for Episcopal Bishops

New Jersey civil-unions law presents challenge for state's Episcopal bishops
Enactment follows years of debate, lawsuits

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Saturday, March 03, 2007

[Episcopal News Service] After more than five years of debate, a bill offering same-gender couples the right to enter into "civil unions" in the state of New Jersey went into effect at midnight February 19. New Jersey is the third U.S. state to offer civil unions, after Connecticut and Vermont. Massachusetts permits same-gender marriage.

That was just about the same time that the Primates of the Anglican Communion said in a communiqué at the conclusion of their meeting near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that the Episcopal Church has until September 30 to "make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention ... unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion."

Meanwhile, civil partnerships have been legal in England since December 2005, and the Church of England addressed the law at that time. Some Canadian provinces began allowing gay marriage in 2003, and a countrywide law took effect in mid-2005. The Anglican Church of Canada's General Synod voted in 2004 to defer a decision of the church's stance until its June 2007 meeting.

In New Jersey, an experienced diocesan bishop and one with less than a month under his mitre have had to consider their stances on same-gender blessings, in light of the convergence of the two events.

The Rt. Rev. George Councell, who became bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey in 2003, and the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, who was consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Newark on January 27 this year, have both said that neither event will alter their dioceses' basic stance toward same-gender blessings.

Councell cited in his address to the diocesan convention's 223rd annual meeting March 2 two stories on the front page of the February 20 edition of the New York Times chronicling the enactment of the New Jersey law and the issuance of the communiqué. The juxtaposition of the two articles "speaks volumes about the moment in which we find ourselves in this Diocese, this Church and the Communion," he said.

New Jersey couples lined up the night of February 18-19 at some state and municipal offices waiting for the moment when they could apply for the license that would give them the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Just like their heterosexual counterparts, people with a civil-union license must wait 72 hours before having the license signed.

Many gay and lesbian couples had services in various locations beginning at midnight on February 22. Some couples who had received similar licenses in other states and countries staged New Jersey civil-union ceremonies of various kinds during the first 72 hours of the law's life because the waiting period was waived for them.

In the days leading up to the law's initiation, churches and ministers of many denominations received phone calls from gay and lesbian couples inquiring about their policies on same-gender blessings. The law says that if the two parties desire both a civil and a religious civil-union ceremony, the civic licensing officer issues a license in duplicate, marking one as "issued for civil marriage or civil union ceremony" and one as "issued for religious marriage or civil union ceremony."

One such religious service took place at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown in the Diocese of Newark on February 24 for Maureen Kilian and Cindy Meneghin, one of seven gay and lesbian couples who sued the State of New Jersey in 2003 for the right to be married. (The lead plaintiffs in the suit, Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow, are Episcopal priests.)

"Their life together, I have to tell you, is the most traditional life I have ever seen," the Rev. Phillip Dana Wilson, Redeemer's rector, said of Kilian and Meneghin during his sermon.

Newark bishop considers policy

Beckwith said February 23 that he will appoint a task force on same-gender blessings to look at issues of process and format. The task force's effort will be similar to the one convened in the Diocese of Vermont, where that state passed a civil-unions bill in the spring of 2000. The 46-page report, available here, outlines the history of the issue in the diocese and its current policy.

In his statement posted on the diocese's website, Beckwith said he has not "fully digested" both the Primates' communiqué and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's initial reflections on the document.

"Moreover, given that I am new to my role, I am not ready to make a public statement -- yet," Beckwith wrote. "I feel that I need to first meet my new colleagues in the House of Bishops -- and get a sense of the dynamics and desires of that group."

The Rev. Sandye Wilson, a diocesan spokesperson, said Beckwith also wants to discuss the issues with diocesan clergy in a previously scheduled gathering in late March.

"That said," Beckwith's statement continues, "I agree with those who say that proving full rights and privileges in the church for gay and lesbian people is a matter of justice."

He said the issue goes deeper. "I believe that homosexuality is a unique gift -- among a host of other unique gifts -- be it ability, ethnicity, race, or class," he said. "I pray that the diversity of sexual orientation should not be a problem for the church, but a gift to the church. Gay and lesbian people -- clergy and lay, have certainly been a gift to the Diocese of Newark. And I believe that relationships marked by fidelity, faith, and commitment need to be held up and celebrated."

New Jersey bishop outlines stance

Councell told the Convention March 2 that as the Episcopal Church makes its response to the communiqué, "we are called to minister in New Jersey."

"New Jersey is not Tanzania, nor Nigeria; neither is it any of the 29 countries on the African continent where homosexuality is a criminal offense," he said. "We minister in a radically different context. In our churches are many gay and lesbian people who are living in faithful, committed unions who are asking for our acceptance, our support and our prayers. We have said that the Episcopal Church welcomes them and welcomes all. Gay and lesbian Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ and our partners in mission and ministry, in work and worship, in fellowship and service. As someone recently said, ‘They are We.'"

In his address, Councell cited General Convention resolutions (Resolution 2000-D039 and Resolution 2003- C051) which have supported gay and lesbian couples whose relationships are characterized by "fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and the holy love that enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God."

He told the Convention that his support of the New Jersey law "is consistent with the Episcopal Church's long-standing commitment to support equal protection (Resolution 1994-C019) under the law for homosexual

Councell will not authorize any public liturgies for the blessing of same-gender unions because there is not a consensus "about the biblical and theological rationale for such unions" in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. He wrote that he supports study that could lead to the development of such rites, adding that "I do not believe that any one bishop or diocese should authorize that which has not been authorized by the governing body from which they derive their authority."

Councell invited clergy to "offer loving, wise and prayerful pastoral care and counseling togays and lesbians living in life-long, monogamous and faithful partnerships."

"I encourage clergy and congregations to offer their pastoral support to such couples, which may include prayers of celebration and thanksgiving for the grace and holiness of their unions," he said.

However, Councell will not allow clergy to sign New Jersey civil-union licenses because of the lack of authorization from General Convention.

"Clergy cannot act as independent agents of the state alone," Councell said. "We are sacramental ministers and representatives of the Church, which is deeply conflicted on this issue. We can be pastors and partners in prayer while other officials (judges, mayors, clerks, et al) meet the state requirements."

New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner has said in a formal opinion that religious rites performed by clergy are exempt from the state's law against discrimination so, unlike municipal officials, they cannot be compelled to perform civil unions. Rabner said that mayors and other non-clergy who regularly perform marriages cannot turn down gay couples who ask to have civil unions performed.

Councell acknowledged that some Primates may take offense at his approach to the state law.

"With all due respect, and, as a matter of conscience, I will not banish prayers for gay and lesbian couples. I will not punish clergy and churches who offer such prayers. And I will not retreat from extending as full an embrace and as genuine a welcome to gay and lesbian people into the Episcopal Church as we can," he wrote.

Councell added that he knows "that welcome and embrace are not all that they could be."

"Yet I remain hopeful that we can uphold the dignity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters while we continue to address these matters and maintain our bonds with one another within this diocese, within the Episcopal Church and within the Anglican Communion," he concluded.

In his earlier interview with ENS, Councell also rooted his response in Paragraph 143 of the Windsor Report that quotes from a May 2003 statement in which they note "the duty of pastoral care that is laid upon all Christians to respond with love and understanding to people of all sexual orientations" and that "it is necessary to maintain a breadth of private response to situations of individual pastoral care."

When the law went into effect, New Jersey became the third state offering civil unions to gay couples and one of a handful allowing gay couples some version of marital rights. Connecticut and Vermont also allow civil unions, while Massachusetts is the only state that recognizes same-gender marriages. California's domestic partnership laws carry the same weight as civil unions, and Maine and Hawaii offer limited benefits to same-gender couples.

"We must recognize that many gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey are in committed relationships and deserve the same benefits and rights as every other family in this state," Gov. Jon S. Corzine said in signing the legislation.

The Legislature passed the civil-unions bill on December 14 in response to a state Supreme Court order that gay couples be granted the same rights as married couples. The court in October gave lawmakers six months to act but left it to them to decide whether to call the unions "marriage" or something else.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

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