Guidelines have been established for same-gender blessing ceremonies to be performed in Oklahoma Episcopal churches, a state leader with the denomination said.
The Rt. Rev. Ed Konieczny, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, said three parishes already have expressed interest in starting the process so they can conduct such ceremonies, although he does not believe “there are large numbers of people out there waiting for this.” He declined to name the interested parishes, as they have yet to request formal approval.
“I don't expect that this is going to be a floodgate of things. We will make it available and people will take advantage of it according to who they are,” he said.
Konieczny said the guidelines were developed with help from a committee of lay leaders and clergy, then fine-tuned after several public meetings at Episcopal parishes across the state.
“I think they worked very hard,” Konieczny said of the committee. “They did a really good job, I think, in finding a balance in what the resolution our General Convention of the Episcopal Church calls us to in the context of where we find ourselves in Oklahoma.”
The Rev. Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Cimarron Alliance, an advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Oklahoma, hailed the diocese's establishment of the new policy. Hamilton also is associate pastor at Church of the Open Arms in Oklahoma City, under the United Church of Christ.
“I'm grateful to see that after a very long period of discernment, the Episcopal Church has said ‘We need to recognize all people of God and celebrate love between two people who love each other,'” Hamilton said.
“It is especially important in Oklahoma when we have such intolerance voiced from the state Capitol, for a mainline denomination to stand up against that intolerance and say ‘No. We believe that love is a gift from God and that it is a love to be celebrated in the Church.'”
The diocese's new policy for same-gender blessings comes after an almost yearlong process of evaluation and recommendation for guidelines.
Konieczny said the policy has been posted on the diocesan website so that anyone can learn the details.
The bishop formed the committee last fall after the Episcopal Church USA's General Convention approved a resolution July 2012 allowing clergy to use a same-gender liturgical blessing called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.” The measure stated that the blessing could be used beginning Dec. 2, 2012. It also included an amendment recommended by Konieczny that gives bishops oversight on the same-sex blessing in their dioceses and protects clergy from being forced to perform such rites. Konieczny spent much of September traveling across the state to discuss the matter with Episcopalians.
The same-sex rites have no legal standing similar to marriage in places like Oklahoma, where voters passed a constitutional amendment effectively prohibiting same-sex marriage.
A key component of the new policy is that Oklahoma Episcopal parishes must have a congregational meeting Konieczny called a consultation to discuss the possibility of offering same-gender blessing ceremonies. The bishop said this consultation process is not because congregations get to determine which couples have the blessings performed and which do not. He said the consultation process is an effort to make sure the congregation has discussed the matter together, a way to prevent the fracturing of parishes and give parishioners a voice on the topic.
Konieczny said parishes must submit a written report about their consultation gathering and he will determine from each report whether or not to give the go-ahead for same-sex blessings at the respective parishes.
He said same-gender couples also will have to go through a petition process, which he said is a type of application that heterosexual couples already must submit to before a marriage is conducted in the Episcopal Church. The same-gender blessings are not legally binding because such unions are prohibited by state law.
Meanwhile, Hamilton said the new policy is another way that the Episcopal Church can serve its congregants.
“It's very interesting because there is a high percentage of LGBT people who go to church regularly so I am not at all surprised that when the denomination said this is a reality, local parishes said ‘You know, we really want to do this for the people we serve.'”
Konieczny said the Oklahoma lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has responded favorably to the idea of the same-gender blessings.
“I've received a multitude of correspondence — cards, emails and letters — from the LGBT in Oklahoma with words of thanks and encouragement that we're moving forward with this,” he said.