By Peter J. Smith

BOSTON, December 1, 2009 ( – Episcopal priests in the eastern part of Massachusetts, the birthplace of same-sex “marriage” in the United States, now have permission to “solemnize” the marriages of “all eligible couples,” including those entering same-sex unions, according to a new pastoral directive from the local Episcopal bishop.

Bishop M. Thomas Shaw III, consecrated the 15th bishop of Massachusetts in 1995, releaseda letter to all priests and parishes in the diocese on Sunday, informing them of the decision. Shaw, who is also a member of the religious order Society of St. John the Evangelist, defended his decision, citing a July resolution from the Episcopal Church's General Convention that recommended: “bishops, particularly in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage is legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.”

“Christian marriage is a sacramental rite that has evolved in the church,” wrote Shaw, adding that marriage “must be open to all as a means of grace and sustenance to our Christian hope.”

In this vein, Shaw indicated that both heterosexual and homosexual “marriages” are “characterized, just as our church expects, by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, and the holy love which enables spouses to see in one another the image of God.”

Shaw made no mention in his letter of “procreation” as an essential component of Christian marriage, geared toward the rearing and education of children. Instead Shaw emphasized marriage as primarily an institution of mutual fidelity and commitment without its traditional reference as a good ordered to the begetting and raising children.

“It's time for us to offer to gay and lesbian people the same sacrament of fidelity that we offer to the heterosexual world,” Shaw explained to the Boston Globe on Sunday.

Shaw informed diocesan priests that while the canons of the Episcopal Church allow them to solemnize weddings – in Massachusetts this includes witnessing the declaration of consent, declaring the marriage to the congregation, and signing the marriage certificate – no priests were required to perform same-sex services and could freely decline them.

The bishop also stated that the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer still remains gender-specific and priests were prohibited from using its texts for “marrying” same-sex couples. Instead, Shaw recommended priests “seek out liturgical resources being developed and collected around the church.”

Bishop Shaw's decision affects only the eastern part of Massachusetts. The diocese of Western Massachusetts, based in Springfield, is under the separate jurisdiction of Bishop Gordon Paul Scruton, who has so far honored the request from Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, not to further aggravate the seriously fractured nature of the Anglican Communion.

In contrast to Shaw, Bishop Scruton told members of his diocese after the 76th General Convention in July that, “Since our church's Constitution and Prayer Book stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman, and since the Anglican Communion has requested us to exercise restraint in moving forward with Blessings, we will continue our practice of not allowing Blessings in this diocese.”


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