GLENN DALE - A church pastor and a Web page designer yesterday got as close to marriage as two same-sex Episcopalians can in Maryland.
During a service led by the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, the 12-year relationship between the Rev. Michael Warren Hopkins and John Clinton Bradley was blessed and their relationship recognized by the church.
"We've always wanted to be able to have a public celebration of our relationship," Hopkins said before the ceremony. "Our time has come."
The service was held in front of more than 100 people inside the sanctuary of St. George's Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale, Prince George's County, where Hopkins is the rector. The couple resides in Greenbelt. Hopkins, 43, and Bradley, 44, are the first gay couple in the Washington diocese and one of the few gay Episcopalian couples in the country to have a blessing service performed by a bishop. Rites, newly written specifically for the diocese to bless same-sex unions, were used for the first time.
"We celebrate not only the yeses that Michael and John share today, but all the yeses that have cleared the way for them to share their love today," said the Rev. Susan Russell, from the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, who preached at the service.
Hopkins wore a gray suit and white clerical collar, while Bradley wore a blue suit and tie. Both men wore leis of white flowers. They were flanked by three couples - one gay, one lesbian, and one heterosexual - who served as sponsors.
During the hourlong service filled with hymns and Scripture readings, Hopkins and Bradley took turns reciting a covenant to one another, much like exchanging vows during a wedding. After Chane blessed their rings and finished reading a portion of the covenant, he finished by saying, "The peace of Christ be always with you."
Following that, a tearful Hopkins and Bradley kissed and hugged at the end of service.
Hopkins said the service was not on par with a wedding because it meets no legal standard but said that he hopes gay and lesbian couples eventually can be married in Maryland.
Chane became the second Episcopalian bishop, after J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, to preside over a blessing service for a same-sex relationship. The services have been performed for years by church rectors, including Hopkins, but were not officially recognized by the church until last year.
The 2.3 million-member Episcopalian church voted during its general convention last summer to allow individual dioceses to decide whether to bless same-sex unions. Convention delegates also elected the first openly gay bishop to lead the church.
Both votes have deeply divided the church, and a commission has been appointed to mediate between the two sides. The tension was evident at yesterday's service.
Eight protesters stood silently across the street from the church wearing black T-shirts and holding crosses draped with black scarfs. And Russell, who preached at yesterday's service, acknowledged the trouble in her remarks.
"Yes, there is some controversy around our actions at St. George's today," said Russell, who is president of Integrity, an Episcopalian gay and lesbian organization. "But there is much love and much joy here, too."
Others have been critical of Chane for performing this service while the commission is reviewing the Episcopalian church's official position on same-sex unions.
"For these two bishops to go forward like this is not restraint, it is unmitigated arrogance," said Cynthia Brust of the American Anglican Council, a group opposed to same-sex unions.
After yesterday's service, Chane said: "To me, this is not something unusual to do. To be able to bless a covenant relationship is as normal as walking in and out of church on Sunday."
Most Episcopalian dioceses have not yet taken a stand on whether to bless gay and lesbian relationships, said Jim Naughton, a spokesman for Chane. And there is no specific rite for these services to be used by the church, just individual rituals drawn up by each diocese choosing to bless same-sex unions.
"The bishop decided that he is willing to do these things personally for clergy folks in our diocese. He is not looking for a lot of opportunity or trying to make a statement," Naughton said.
Hopkins is considered a standout clergy member of the Washington Diocese, Naughton said. St. George's has about 200 members - nearly four times as many as it had when Hopkins became rector in 1990.
After the blessing service concluded, a communion service was held.
by Reginald Fields, Baltimore Sun Staff, June 13, 2004
The Associated Press contributed to the article.