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SEWANEE: University of the South to allow same sex blessings in Chapel

SEWANEE: University of the South to allow same sex blessings in Chapel

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue
December 24, 2012

In a move that will raise eyebrows if not close check books among conservative Episcopalians, All Saints Chapel at the University of the South, a five-story Gothic church at the center of the college campus, will formally allow the blessing of same-sex couples, embracing the decision of General Convention last summer which approved controversial Rites for homosexuals and lesbians.

The controversy has placed Sewanee in a tricky position, said John McCardell Jr., Sewanee's vice chancellor and president. His friends say he is orthodox in faith and morals and that this decision undoubtedly places him in a personal theological quandary. He was a speaker last Winter at Mere Anglicanism, a gathering of world class orthodox Episcopalians and Anglicans who meet in Charleston, SC, to consider weighty matters of the faith, church and culture.

The college itself isn't part of any one diocese. Its religious governing authority is the chancellor, a post that rotates among the bishops of the 28 owning dioceses. In the midst of this announcement, McCardell is calling on alumnus to give $250 to $300 million dollars in a campaign to ensure the university's future, a future that might be jeopardized by this action that many consider outside the bounds of Biblical faith even though culturally acceptable.

"An absolute yes or an absolute no was just not possible," McCardell said. The college feared its chapel could become a sort of Las Vegas for blessings of gay unions -- an end-run for couples whose bishops won't permit the rite in their own diocese.

The compromise: Gay and lesbian couples who meet the other eligibility requirements for a Sewanee wedding will be able to have their union blessed in the college chapel, as long as their bishops are supportive.

McCardell described the decision, reached by the college chaplain, dean of the School of Theology, and the two bishops on the Board of Regents, which oversees university governance, as "the only sensible thing."

Weddings at Sewanee are relatively rare; McCardell said he doesn't expect a flood of requests to bless gay unions. (Tennessee, where Sewanee is located, doesn't permit gay marriage.) At least one member of the couple must be a student, graduate, member of the faculty or staff or a governing board, or a full-time resident of Sewanee. They must also be part of a church with a letter from their minister. Both members of the couple must write letters about why they wish to marry at the university.

A Sewanee insider and alumnus told VOL that McCardell believes that alumni voices "count" when warming them up to the idea of giving Sewanee a quarter of a billion dollars or more, but he never asked for alumni "voices" when he agreed to the latest step forward on Sewanee's gay transformation through All Saints' Chapel Same Sex Blessings enforcement. "Some of Sewanee's self-proclaimed "conservative" alumni still give money to the alma mater, but giving money to Sewanee CANCELS all claims of conservatism. Sewanee turns good people into liberals without their even agreeing or knowing," he said.

Furthermore, the former chancellor of the university and former Bishop of Atlanta, Neil Alexander announced that he would resign that post and become the new Dean of the Seminary even though he said he would be leaving his bishopric to take up a post in Liturgics at Emory University.

A source told VOL that Alexander's ability to give himself awards and earn TEC top dollars is unmatched. "He not only used his position as bishop trustee to get himself elected as a Regent, he then orchestrated his unopposed victory as Chancellor. As Chancellor, he named himself Dean of Sewanee Episcopal Seminary. Now he's put himself in a chaired Profe$$orship.

"Nobody in all of Sewanee's history has ever grabbed as much power, profit, and privilege as has Alexander, and he's not even an alumnus," the source told VOL. Another source said Alexander is in the throes of a divorce.

Replacing him as chancellor is the Bishop of Florida, Samuel Johnson Howard. This bishop has inhibited and deposed more orthodox priests in his diocese than any living bishop. Since 2003, more than 5,000 Episcopalians have left the Diocese and 22 clergy have been inhibited or deposed for "the abandonment of the communion of this church", including some retired distinguished clergy who were never informed of their inhibition until the letter landed in their mail boxes. The issue was the consecration of Gene Robinson an avowed homosexual.

Now the chapel is at the center of a conundrum at the college: Given the disagreements within the Episcopal Church over blessing same-sex relationships, should the university allow such blessings at All Saints'? If it does it might well seal its fate as an unsafe spiritual space for future generations.



All Saints' Chapel
St. Augustine's Chapel
Wedding Guidelines


At this point, the above may sound like a silly question. However, it is one you should consider.

A wedding is, at the least, a legal occasion, in that all weddings must conform to the laws of the state in which they are performed. It might also be a social occasion when family and friends gather together and, borrowing from a rich array of customs and traditions, join in celebrating the union of man and woman. All that is actually necessary for the legal and social requirements for a wedding to be fulfilled is an appropriate place for the ceremony (such as a house or garden) and a properly licensed official (such as a judge). If neither party in the marriage is a committed Christian, this kind of arrangement would be entirely proper; there would be no need for a church, and indeed a church would be inappropriate.

If either of the persons being married is a committed Christian, though, a third dimension is added to the legal and social aspects. By choosing to be married inside the church, a faith statement is made to family and friends which in effect says, "As a couple, we are choosing to make a marriage covenant before God and in the presence of God's people. In a service of worship we want to stand before God's altar and commit ourselves to each other for the rest of our lives. We intend to live our married life in the community of the faithful (the Church). We are inviting God's life and love to be at the center of our marriage. In order to make an appropriate beginning, we have come to this place to ask a priest, in the name of God, to bless our commitment and to ask the congregation gathered to pray for us."

As you can see, a Christian wedding is far more than a legal and/or social event; it is above all a service of worship. Indeed, it is a sacrament-an event whereby the grace and love of God are given and made known through the words and actions of the couple.

As such, it is both a joyful and a solemn occasion whereby one declares before God and the company there gathered one's intention to share a whole life with another person and to ask God's blessing upon that union. The promises of marriage cannot be maintained by human love alone, so the vital element in a Christian marriage is the invocation of the blessing of God, whose grace and love alone can sustain a Christian marriage.


All Saints' Chapel is available for marriage ceremonies when one of the persons to be married is: a) a student currently enrolled full time in the University, or b) a current member of the staff or faculty, or one of the University's governing boards, or c) a year-round resident of the Sewanee community, who has lived in Sewanee for at least one full year, or d) the direct offspring (i.e. son or daughter) of one of the above, or e) a graduate with a degree from either the College, the School of Theology, or the School of Letters.

In addition, there are these criteria: 1) At least one of you must be presently tied to a worshipping community and provide the Chaplain's office with: a) a letter from your pastor/minister/priest attesting to this relationship, and b) separate letters (from both the bride and groom) describing your reasons for wanting to be married in All Saints' Chapel or St. Augustine's Chapel.


2) One of you (the bride or groom) must be a baptized Christian. 3) The canons (laws) of the Episcopal Church require a minimum of thirty days' notice to the clergy preceding the wedding date. However, it is far better to contact the clergy well in advance in order to guarantee that no conflicts in scheduling develop. 4) In the event that either one of you has been previously married and has had that union annulled or dissolved by a civil court, the officiating priest must request from his or her own bishop permission to solemnize the marriage. (Please note that All Saints' Chapel is not a "wedding chapel" per se. It is important to us and to the ministry that we seek to carry out here that persons married in All Saints' be first grounded in the church at the local parish level. To this end, the Chapel staff reserves the right to decline consent on any request made if the rationale behind being married here is contrary to our understanding of the sacrament of marriage.)


All wedding services held in All Saints' Chapel must conform to the worship tradition of the Episcopal Church as found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. All services are to be conducted by an Episcopal priest. Ministers from other traditions may be invited to participate in the service, but cannot be responsible for conducting the Episcopal rite.


The question of who officiates at your wedding is an important one. Hopefully, the choice of presider is an invitation that the couple extends to someone they know and trust, someone with whom they feel comfortable in his or her role as representative of the Church. Though it is appropriate to ask the availability of one of the University Chaplains, they are not always able to preside. It is the responsibility of the couple (not the Chapel staff personnel) to find an Episcopal priest willing to solemnize the wedding. Once this person has been selected, he or she must write a letter to the Chaplain of the University requesting permission to preside in this place. It is not necessary for that priest to write to the Bishop of the Diocese of Tennessee or the Chancellor of the University for permission to officiate.

While the Chapel staff is willing to provide the names of one or two local clergy, it is not their job to secure these services for you. This is your responsibility. Should one of these local clergy be selected to solemnize the marriage rite, a gift, typically $200 to $400, to his or her discretionary fund is appropriate and appreciated. If you select a non-local priest, please consider a similar gift


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