A historic Episcopal parish that counts President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee among its past congregants will soon begin performing same-gender blessings.
Rector Pierce Klemmt of Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia revealed in an October 26 e-mail that Bishop Shannon Johnston has granted the parish’s request to begin using the blessing rite for same-sex couples.
“With great joy I share that Bishop Johnston has approved our request to perform same-gender blessings,” Klemmt wrote in the e-mail to parishioners. “In his letter to us, the bishop said: ‘The support from such an iconic place as Christ Church will be very helpful indeed for the witness of our Diocese in this matter of pastoral care for all of our people…I look forward to working with you for LGBT inclusion in every way that I can.’ More information will be forthcoming as we prepare to perform same-gender blessings.”
Telephone calls to parish staff confirming the arrangement had not yet been returned by the time of this posting.
The Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes marriage as between one man and one woman. The blessings, despite using a modification of the church’s marriage rite, will not be called marriage as they are in the neighboring Diocese of Washington. The “provisional” rite was approved by the denomination’s governing General Convention in July, with the option of local dioceses opting out, depending on the local Bishop’s decision.
Christ Church has a storied past: the Georgian-style church was designed in the mid-18th century by James Wren, architect of the historic Falls Church in nearby Falls Church, Virginia. Both buildings were part of Truro parish, of which Washington was a vestryman (Washington’s family had a pew box at Christ Church). Lee was a member of Christ Church from an early age, and a silver plaque on the chancel rail marks the spot where he was confirmed.
Famed Virginia Bishop William Meade, who later went on to help found Virginia Theological Seminary, served as rector of the parish from 1811 to 1813. Meade later became presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the Confederate States.
According to statistics provided by the Episcopal Church, Christ Church has lost over one quarter of its Sunday attendance in the past 10 years, from over 800 attendees in 2001 down to less than 600 in 2011, the most recent reporting year.
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, long regarded as a moderate-conservative jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church, has quickly moved to accommodate theologically liberal practices in recent years. Bishop Johnston’s granting of permission for same-sex rites follows the diocese’s first ordination of an openly lesbian clergywoman earlier this year. On June 2, Assistant Bishop Edwin F. “Ted” Gulick Jr. ordained Jo Belser of Alexandria, VA to the transitional diaconate in a service at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Burke, VA. As a layperson, Belser served as an official with Integrity Virginia, the diocese’s unofficial homosexual and transgender caucus.
In related news, the Diocese of Virginia announced October 23 that it has relocated its Northern Virginia Office from Goodwin House, Alexandria to the historic Falls Church campus. The Northern Virginia Office serves as a primary office for Gulick.
UPDATE: Staff at Christ Church have confirmed that the new policy has gone into effect immediately. A page of the Christ Church web site has been created with materials relevant to the process. According to a spokeswoman for the parish, there are not currently any same-gender couples seeking a blessing of their union at the parish.