Episcopal Church in New York Prepares for Same-Sex Marriage Law

Some of the Episcopal Church bishops in New York will require its gay clergy to avail themselves to the state’s Marriage Equality Act that legalizes same-sex marriage when it goes into effect on July 24.

Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island announced in a pastoral letter that clergy living in same-gender relationships in the Diocese of Long Island must either marry within nine months of the new law being implemented or live separately.

“For the gay and lesbian clergy of this Diocese who are living in domestic partnerships or civil unions, I hereby grant a grace period of nine months from the effective date of the New York State Law permitting same-gender marriages for those relationships to be regularized either by the exchange of vows in marriage or the living apart of said couples,” said Provenzano in the letter.

"I deem it to be honest and fair, and I do so direct and require, now that it is legal, that only married couples may live together, either in rectories or elsewhere as a clergy couple living in the midst of our faith community," wrote the bishop.

The Rev. Canon Mally Lloyd, Diocese of Massachusetts canon to the ordinary, however, thinks that a time-period-based recommendation is not a good idea.

Lloyd contended that “in general the bishops' practice during this time of transition and change has been to treat situations with pastoral care whenever possible because the fact that marriage is now legal for gay and lesbian people is a quantum shift in identity and possibility for many of them, and to put a timeline on a couple's readiness for the sacramental rite of marriage when that has never been available to them before seems arbitrary and unpastoral,” according to the Episcopal News Service.

But Provenzano told ENS in a telephone interview that same day that, "If we left it completely open-ended, it might not be acted on" and that inaction would create a "disparity."

"At least as it applies to the Diocese of Long Island, I don't think it's going to feel to anyone that I am being unpastoral or punitive in any way or creating a hardship for them by saying nine months," he said. "I suspect that most of our partnered gay and lesbian clergy have been living in committed relationships for a fairly long period of time and that the concept of being married is exactly what they've been waiting for to happen, so the church moving in this direction with them is welcomed."

New York legalized gay marriage on June 24, becoming the sixth and most populous state in the nation to recognize same-sex marriage. The population of New York alone is greater than the other five states that recognize gay marriage combined. On July 24 when the new law takes effect, one in every nine Americans will live in a state or district where such unions are legal.

Bishop Mark Sisk of Manhattan-based Diocese of New York wrote in an letter earlier to clergy about their options for marrying same-sex couples under the law. Sisk said it is his expectation that all the clergy living in committed relationship will seek legal recognition of their partnership with the state of New York.

“This is an especially high priority for clergy vowed to ‘pattern (our) live(s) in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that (we) may be (a) wholesome example(s) to all people,” wrote Sisk.

Bishop Prince Singh of the Diocese of Rochester and Bishop William Franklin of the Diocese of Western New York have said they are either preparing or obtaining prepared guidelines and policy statements on the issue, in consultation with various leaders and groups.

The new law also necessitated changes in benefits to same-sex couples. The Church Pension Group said in a statement that to follow the requirements of the New York law and provide "parity of benefits for legally-married same-gender spouses," the CPF Board of Trustees at its meeting on June 16, 2011, “voted to amend the rules governing retirement benefits for spouses of eligible.”

The changed rules include the Medicare Supplement Benefit provided for eligible same-sex clergy spouses. However, since the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does not recognize same-sex marriages, there may be tax implications associated with this benefit. Also, eligible children of clergy of same-sex marriages will also be treated the same under the new rules.

A letter explaining the change was recently sent to all participants in the Church Pension Fund Clergy Pension Plan.

Same-sex marriage is recognized in six states: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and soon New York. It is also recognized by the District of Columbia.

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