A blessing from the Episcopal Church

May C Brown and Alice Delaney stood before a church full of friends, family and fellow parishioners at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in January as their three-decades-old union was blessed.

Dozens of such blessings have taken place without much fanfare in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta since last fall.

The blessing, which lasts about the same length as a traditional wedding ceremony, occurred during a recent regular Sunday service at Holy Comforter. The ceremony was not a marriage nor did it give Brown and Delaney any legal standing.

“Inasmuch as Alice and May C have exchanged vows of love and fidelity in the presence of God and the Church, I now pronounce that they are bound to one another in a holy covenant, as long as they both shall live. Amen.”

“The support of the community just really kind of enfolded us and said to us that things have really changed,” said Brown, 70, owner of a small landscape company and director of the Greenhouse and Gardening Supported Employment Program at the church.

The Rev. Michael Tanner, pastor of Holy Comforter, mentioned he was open to doing a blessing.

“We thought about it over the next two days and decided we really wanted to do it,” said Delaney, a retired head of two small nonprofits.

At the Episcopal Church’s 77th General Convention in July 2012, delegates from 110 dioceses in several countries approved a provisional rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. At the time, it was agreed that “as a body, we would be willing to try this given the 40 years of conversation about human sexuality,” Bishop Robert Wright said.

“This was no willy-nilly trend,” Wright said. Each bishop was given discretion whether or not to allow that provision to be used in their respective dioceses, and each pastor was given the option whether to perform the blessing ceremony.

The Atlanta diocese does not keep an official record of the number of blessings performed, but Wright said he would be surprised if more than 40 had been performed in 2013 and 2014.

Wright said he received little, if any, pushback.

Other Christian denominations may view the matter differently.

Every denomination is dealing with this issue, said the Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, a Christian ethicist and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.

“Same-sex blessings are, you might say, the furthest edge of what some churches are willing to do,” he said. “And not very many have gotten there yet, especially in the South. There are much smaller steps toward inclusion in other denominations. In some churches, if you’re openly gay, you may not be welcome there or you may not be able to serve in a leadership position.”

Gay marriage is not legal in Georgia, although support is growing.

A recent poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 48 percent of the Georgians favored same-sex marriage with 43 percent opposing. The survey found 16 percent of respondents said their views had changed in recent years as it’s becoming more culturally acceptable.

The poll indicated that much of the support has come from those between the ages of 18 and 39.

“If those two people want to come together in a monogamous, lifelong commitment, where Christ is the head of the union, then I think that what we want to do is to be able to support this as a Christian church,” Wright said.

“What we’re trying to do is to invite people to Jesus Christ as they are, even if they love differently.”

Brown and Delaney — who live in Stone Mountain — have been together for 33 years. In fact, they met at church.

Brown is a lifelong Episcopalian. Delaney, 67, is a former Methodist.

After participating in a discussion session that the diocese held for the LGBT community and supporters, they decided to have a blessing ceremony.

Holy Comforter is a very affirming church, both said, and they have long felt at home. That hasn’t always been the case.

In previous years, Brown said she has heard negative jokes and comments in other church settings.

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, said in a statement that while all are welcome in United Methodist Church congregations, “We have to learn how to live with different opinions on the question of whether same-gender marriages are compatible with our theological understanding of human sexuality. Although the church law currently in place causes pain for many people in our connection, our denominational polity states that only general conference has the right to change church law.”

The Roman Catholic Church also does not perform same-sex marriages or blessing ceremonies.

“The sacrament of marriage is between a man and a woman in the Catholic Church,” said Pat Chivers, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

“It’s an interesting conversation in many churches,” said Mercer’s Gushee.

This was Tanner’s first gay blessing ceremony, and it was also the culmination of a personal journey.

“I feel great about it,” he said. “I’m going on 66. I’m a white male product of the Deep South with a very conservative, Protestant background. I didn’t come to this easily.”

In the past several years, though, Tanner got to know many in the gay community. “I said, ‘Boy, these people sure look like Christians to me,’” he said. He was convinced after getting to know Delaney and Brown “that God was at work in their lives.”

In the end, though, Delaney and Brown want more.

The couple plan to get married — legally — in another state.

“We are thinking about that for sure,” Brown said.