Michael Hopkins and John Clinton Bradley have been in a committed relationship for more than 10 years, longer than many marriages. Even so, they were not inclined to rush to Massachusetts when it recently began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
Far more meaningful, the two Episcopalians thought, would be to have their relationship deemed spiritually vital and significant by their church. "Our relationship with God is very important," Bradley said, "so for me, having the church recognize our relationship and bless it is much more important than the recognition the state might give."
Now, after years of waiting, what the two Greenbelt residents had hoped for is about to happen.
In an afternoon ceremony Saturday at St. George's Episcopal Church in Prince George's County, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, will publicly bless their relationship, establishing a new level of formal acceptance in the diocese for long-term gay relationships.
"It's going to be a full house," said Hopkins, an ordained Episcopal priest who is rector of St. George's, in Glenn Dale. He expects about 200 people, including members of his congregation and relatives of the two men, to attend. "This is not just about us," he added. "It's about this community."
The bishop's participation was made possible by steps taken by the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church at its general convention last summer. Delegates approved the election of their first openly gay bishop. They also voted to allow bishops the option of blessing same-sex relationships within their dioceses and developing rites for such ceremonies.
Those controversial decisions ripped apart the denomination, with conservatives who oppose any church approval of homosexual relationships coalescing into a powerful faction that is demanding to be led by bishops with views similar to their own.
The convention's actions also strained the denomination's ties with 75 million other fellow Anglicans around the world, many of whom agree with the conservatives. In a bid to avoid schism within the Anglican Communion, the international network of Anglican churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury has appointed the high-level Lambeth Commission to find ways to reconcile the two sides and report back to him by the end of September.
Cynthia Brust, spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, an organization of conservative Episcopal churches, said it is dismayed by Chane's decision. "The arrogance of revisionist [Episcopal] bishops knows no bounds," she said.
Because the Lambeth Commission "has asked for restraint during the period of [its] work, we see this as showing complete disregard for that request, which shows a deplorable lack of respect," Brust added. "We have a deep concern that they are putting the homosexual agenda before any hope of unity, and we find that absolutely appalling."
Church officials said only one other Episcopal bishop, J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, has publicly blessed a same-sex relationship since last summer's convention. "We can't affect what Bishop Bruno has done," Brust said. "But we certainly call upon Bishop Chane to reconsider and refrain from taking this action."
Chane spokesman James Naughton denies that the bishop, whose diocese covers the District and the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles and St. Mary's, is out to make a political point, saying that he decided to preside at the ceremony out of friendship and admiration for his priest. A strong supporter of gay rights within the church, Chane plans to use a newly written blessing liturgy at the ceremony.
In the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which covers all of Northern Virginia, Bishop Peter James Lee has neither opted to authorize a rite for blessing same-sex relationships nor agreed to preside at one. Like Chane, Lee voted to approve the gay bishop last summer.
Though Washington diocesan officials stress that the blessing ceremony is not a sacrament like marriage, it still carries spiritual significance for Bradley. "This event is a recognition of the graces God has bestowed on our relationship," he said, "and [of how] our lives are channels of grace, both to the community and the wider world."
Hopkins makes this distinction: "It is not a sacrament, but it is sacramental." The church, he added, is still "very much working out what the relationship between this and traditional marriage is."
Hopkins and Bradley met in Washington, where both had come to pursue careers.
Bradley, 44, who works for an Arlington firm designing online courses in project management, grew up Southern Baptist in Florida. After college, he joined a charismatic congregation but it proved unable to help him as he began to deal with his sexual orientation. Initially, he turned to a local Episcopal priest offering reparative therapy, a program of healing prayer aimed at helping people repress homosexual feelings and act as heterosexuals.
"It obviously did not change my sexual orientation," Bradley said sardonically. "As heterosexuality was eluding me, I went into a cycle of depression and almost killed myself. After that I decided that I would be the person that God created me to be."
Hopkins, 43, grew up in Upstate New York and was not raised in a church, though his parents were nominal Methodists. In college, he became active in the Episcopal church and by graduation felt a calling to enter seminary.
During his first year at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., Hopkins decided to openly declare his sexual orientation. He came to Washington to take graduate courses at Catholic University and was ordained in 1990 by then-Episcopal Bishop of Washington Ronald H. Haines.
Hopkins and Bradley met in 1992 through Integrity, an organization of Episcopal gay men and lesbians of which Hopkins was president from 1998 to 2003. A year later, they decided to live together.
"I insisted that we go and spend time with the bishop and let him know of that decision" because, as a priest, "I take my connection with my bishop seriously," Hopkins said.
Although some diocesan priests had been quietly blessing same-sex relationships for years, Hopkins said he "was reluctant" to have one for himself "until my bishop could approve, if not preside."
Hopkins became rector of St. George's a few months after his 1990 ordination.
At the time, its congregation was "a few shy of 50 people," he recalled.
Today, the parish has a brand-new building that includes a 200-seat sanctuary. The congregation of 200 is about one-third gay, Hopkins said.
"It's a wonderful mix of folks," said Hopkins, who attributed the parish's growth to the fact that "it got focused on its niche and decided to advertise itself as a place where all are welcome, and that reputation gradually spread."
The rector said he has presided at dozens of marriages of heterosexuals. None of his congregation's heterosexual couples, he added, have expressed fears that their marriages are undermined by his relationship with Bradley, who edits the parish newsletter and Web site and oversees the acolytes who assist at services.
The night before the blessing ceremony, the parish is hosting a rehearsal dinner in the church hall. "I think everybody is very excited . . . and eager to be supportive in any way we can," said the parish's senior warden, Martha Horn.
Bradley, whose mother and two sisters will be on hand to watch the two men consecrate their relationship, along with Hopkins's parents and three siblings, said he regards the blessing ceremony as a manifestation of God's continuing conversation with the church.
"God didn't stop talking to the church when the Bible was finished," he said.
Just as women have emerged from the second-class status depicted in the Bible, he added, "the Spirit is teaching us that now about sexuality -- that gay and lesbian people are fully children of God and should have access to all the rites of the church."
Hopkins says he understands how his traditionalist peers feel about blessing ceremonies because "as someone who's fairly traditionalist myself, as far as church things, I get how hard it is when things change."
But, he added, "what we're doing is a fairly conservative and traditional thing. We're asking to live in accountability to the church in our relationship."
If this is still hard for other Episcopalians to accept, he said, then "I just ask them to find a place in their hearts for us to live together in the church with our differences. . . .
"There are more fundamental things that hold us together than this thing which divides us."