The bishop of the Episcopal Church of Mississippi sent parishes across the state a letter last week allowing priests to marry -- without the need to petition for permission in advance -- same-sex couples or those who identify as part of the LGBT community.
The John Maury Allin Episcopal Diocesan House in Jackson confirmed the letter was sent to church parishes -- including congregations in South Mississippi -- on Friday.
Church members from parishes across the state had asked Bishop Brian Seage for resources to foster discussions about same-sex marriage at a January Diocesan Council meeting in Biloxi, Seage said in the letter.
Seage promised resources would be available by Easter, though he missed his own deadline by nearly three months.
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But rather than just give literature, Seage also recommended action -- the liturgies he offered to Mississippi's congregations in his letter "permit marriage in church for all couples legally entitled to marry," Seage said.
Prior to the release of the bishop's letter, parishes were required to submit to Seage a petition requesting approval to perform same-sex weddings.
Now, priests -- if they so choose -- are able to marry LGBT members who wish to have a church wedding.
According to the Episcopal Marriage Canon, a clergy member has the discretion to decline to solemnize or bless any marriage.
Seage said he acknowledges some clergy members are not willing to officiate at gay marriages.
"My only request is that you refer, to me, any same-sex couple seeking marriage so arrangements can be made to offer these services of the church," Seage told members in his letter.
"I am aware that any change brings anxiety, but I'm also aware of the grace-filled way our church has walked together and supported the differing viewpoints that exist," he wrote.
Seage said his decision to allow same-sex marriage without petition was "beyond" what was discussed in Biloxi five months ago, but it is a result of soul searching about what he believes is best for the church.
"I spoke openly and honestly at the diocesan 'walk-abouts' and other venues about my support for marriage equality and the LGBT community," he wrote. "I did not get to this point in my faith journey 'lightly or unadvisedly.' I arrived here after a lot of prayer and discernment, as well as engagement with the Holy Scripture, the traditions of the Church and human reason."
Seage said the Episcopal Church should welcome all people and encourage diversity under their church roofs. He has even started a social media campaign, #being1church, that "promotes unity among its membership while simultaneously reaching out, in the name of Christ, to the world at large.
"Our baptismal covenant calls each of us to welcome, respect, and value those who are different or hold different opinions from us while expecting the same in return."
Rob Hill, Mississippi state director for the Human Rights campaign, said Seage's letter is encouraging for the LGBT community in the state.
"As a former Methodist minister, I know far too well that LGBTQ people of faith are frequently forced to choose between who they are, who they love and what they believe," Hill said. "Bishop Seage's inspiring leadership on marriage equality continues to put the Episcopal Church of Mississippi at the forefront of creating fully-inclusive congregations across our state."
Hill said he hopes Seage's initiative will inspire other faith communities to affirm their LGBT members.
Support from Hancock family
Meghan Lind, 23, has been an Episcopal all her life.
The Kiln native is a lifelong member of Christ Episcopal Church in Bay St. Louis, and she said she has always been proud of Episcopalians' support for the LGBT community.
"I grew up with many gay couples that are very close with my family," she said. "I'm glad to see that Bishop Seage is continuing to encourage parishes to perform same-sex marriages, just as the previous (bishop) did."
Lind said she has worked in her church's nursery and attended youth-group sessions. She's also volunteered at the Mississippi Episcopal Church camp, Camp Bratton Green.
She said most Episcopalians she knows support the LGBT community.
"Three weeks ago, we celebrated the marriage of an older gay couple that has been attending church since before I was born," she said.
Her priest, the Rev. Ted Dawson, performed the marriage, she said.
She said Dawson conducted the ceremony at the couple's home and had to get permission from the vestry and Seage before performing the ceremony.
Lind's sister, Lindsey Richard, 29, said she also supports Seage's decision. Richard serves as her church's wedding coordinator, and she is the Mississippi Diocese president of Episcopal Church Women.
"This is an ever-changing society, and we are trying to keep up with the time," she said.
Richard said several LGBT couples attend church with her on Sundays, and Christ Episcopal has a very diverse congregation.