Michael Knaapen

A Covenant: Marriage Equality in the Episcopal Church

Filed By Michael Knaapen | June 23, 2014 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Christian denominations, Christianity, Episcopal Church, gay marriage, marriage equality, Presbyterian Church, same-sex marriage

episcopal-church.gifLast week, Reuters reported that a transgender priest would be preaching at Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal Church, and noted that "the Episcopal Church voted in 2012 to allow the ordination of transgender people and also approved same-sex marriage blessings." This site reported in the wake of the Presbyterian vote allowing marriages for same-sex couples last week that "the only other major Christian church to support same-sex marriage is the United Church of Christ."

So who's right? Does the Episcopal Church allow same-sex couples to marry?

The short answer is yes, but let's unpack the details.

In 2012, the church adopted at its triennial General Convention a blessing for same-sex couples. It was issued in a supplement to the Book of Common Prayer, the doctrinal and ritual text of the church. "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" is a complete, comprehensive liturgy which may be performed during regular Sunday services and may include the Eucharist.

The document includes a brief preamble explaining the union of same-sex couples as a holy covenant with God. It reads in part:

"Our covenantal life with God is expressed in relationships of commitment and faithfulness, including those of same-sex couples. It is the Church's joy to celebrate these relationships as signs of God's love, to pray for God's grace to support couples in their life together, and to join with these couples in our shared witness to the gospel in the world."

The ceremony uses the term "union," but in dioceses where marriage equality is also the law of the land, the word "marriage" may be substituted. In this way, couples from non-equality states may travel to places where it is legal and have both a lawful and religious wedding, even if not all rights will transfer back to the home state.

RainbowCatholic.jpgSome critics discount the achievements of the Episcopal Church. They argue that the blessing is provisional, and they point out that bishops and priests have the authority not to marry same-sex couples if they don't want to. Furthermore, it could be said that an alternative service is an ecclesiastical manifestation of a separate-but-equal doctrine.

Fortunately, none of these criticisms hold up under scrutiny. The "provisional" nature of the same-sex blessing rests in the structure of the church: The blessing was adopted at the triennial General Convention with the expectation that it would be reviewed at the next conference. It is provisional only in the sense that it will be revisited at the 2015 General Convention, where it will either be voted in permanently or eliminated and the traditional rite extended universally to all couples.

There is no scenario in which the church will recant its support for same-sex couples to be married. The ceremony is provisional; the affirmation of same-sex couples is not.

As for the power granted to bishops and priests to decline to marry same-sex couples, the case has been misrepresented and overstated. First, the right of clergy to decline to marry two people is nothing to write home about. Bishops and priests can decline to marry anyone they want to for just about any reason in almost every religion. As deplorable as it is to cede any ground to "conscientious objectors" of marriage equality, it's important to remember that these are religious institutions where such objections are appropriate, as opposed to public institutions where such objections are not just inappropriate but criminal.

In this case, critics are especially misinformed because, as Deacon Stan Baker points out, "[Priests or bishops who are not willing to marry same-gender couples] are supposed to refer couples to a priest or church that is." Deacon Baker was a plaintiff in Vermont's civil unions case, is a leader of St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington, and acts as a delegate to the General Convention. So discounting the Episcopalians on the grounds that bishops and priests can decline to marry a same-gender couple, too, is unfair.

The spirit in which the blessing was adopted was not one of segregation but of practicality. Merely permitting same-sex couples to be blessed in the church under the traditional marriage rite would deny loving couples in non-marriage equality states the opportunity to take that same step.

A new blessing -- which many argue is more beautiful than the traditional one and which they hope will remain an option for both opposite- and same-sex couples -- allowed for both a religious-only blessing as well as a legally binding wedding in the church house. In this way, the civil and religious institutions are in accord. One could definitely debate the merits of this approach, but the intent is clearly in favor of affirming LGBT families.

Still, there persists a lingering sense that the presence of two separate rituals smacks of segregation. Asked whether the supplemental ritual is inferior to the book ritual, Baker says it "amounts to the same thing." He notes that the blessing for same-gender couples was approved and delegates were instructed to monitor the quantitative and qualitative experiences of the liturgy over the next three years, and that results have been positive. In fact, as mentioned above, many believe the new ritual is better than the old one. Baker and many others hope to see the new ritual preserved and both it and the Prayer Book marriage service made available for all couples.

Washington National CathederalYesterday I had the opportunity to attend services at the Washington National Cathedral, where Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, presided. Fr. Cameron Partridge, a transgender cleric from Massachusetts, gave the sermon. The words "queer" and "transgender" were said many times during the service -- during Fr. Cameron's moving story about understanding trans-ness as a part of God's revelation; in hospitable comments by Dean Gary Hall and Bp. Robinson, who talked about the church "coming out" in important ways; and throughout many of the deeply moving prayers for God's gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender children.

In welcoming LGBT clerics, passing a marriage rite, and naming LGBT people among the children of God in worship, the Episcopal Church fulfills its baptismal covenant "to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

The Episcopal Church is marrying same-sex couples. If that doesn't get you a place on the list of Christian denominations that embrace marriage equality, I don't know what does.

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