By Lauren Weiner
On July 12, 2018, after four days of deliberation, clergy members of the Episcopal Church voted to adopt a new resolution on same-sex marriage.
Resolution B012 was drafted and adopted at the 79th Episcopal General Convention as a compromise on what was already dubbed the ‘Compromise Resolution’ on same-sex marriage. Its passing lifted regional restrictions on same-sex marriage, letting individual clergy and their congregations decide whether to perform same-sex ceremonies.
Same-sex marriage has been federally legal since June of 2015, when the United States Supreme Court made its historic 5-4 ruling, declaring it a fundamental right. For the United States’ mainline Christian Churches, however, the struggle for marriage equality continues. This summer, I aided To the Contrary in the production of a documentary, premiering in October 2018, that will illuminate this struggle; its successes, failures, and what’s next for America’s mainline Churches and their LGBTQ members. If you can’t wait until October, here’s a preview.
More than three years after Obergefell v. Hodges, the Episcopal Church is among the closest mainline denominations to achieving full marriage equality. Its progress has not been easily won. After a multiple-decade spanning effort, the Episcopal Church first made same-sex ceremonies possible in 2015, when they authorized the “trial-use” of new, same-gender-inclusive marriage liturgies. Three years later, the Church is still struggling to achieve full marriage equality.
Until B012 passed at the 2018 General Convention, same-sex couples could not get married in some regions of the country, even if their own congregations and priests were supportive. Bishops, who head regionally designated diocese, could prohibit use of the gender-neutral liturgies in their diocese. This forced same-sex couples in eight of the U.S.’s ninety-nine diocese to travel to other diocese to be married. In Dallas, TX, the restriction earned the nickname, “The I-30 Rule,” since congregants had to travel to the diocese of Fort Worth via Interstate Highway 30, where same-sex marriage was authorized.
The nickname shouldn’t reduce the burden of the restrictions to just a long drive. Susan Russell, an Episcopalian priest and LGBTQ activist, described the restrictions as granting “second-class status” to LGBTQ practitioners, who were often forced to be married outside of their home congregations, by unfamiliar priests, sometimes at the expense of their friends and families being able to attend. “We don’t have second-class baptism,” Russell told To the Contrary.“We shouldn’t have second-class marriage.”
Resolution B012, this year’s compromise, does away with the regional restrictions. If a couple’s home congregation and clergy wish to allow the marriage in their church, but the bishop has not authorized it in their diocese, the bishop will be required to delegate authority over the ceremony to another bishop. In other words, same-sex couples in welcoming congregations can get married in their own churches, by their own priests, while dissenting bishops can maintain their religious consciences from the sidelines. The new resolution will not, however, update the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which maintains that marriage is between a man and a woman. While the prayer book’s language doesn’t prevent anyone from marrying, it is a painful exclusion for LGBTQ Episcopalians who may still wonder if there is a place for them in their religious community.
If this all sounds very technical, it is. Episcopalian LGBTQ activists say they’ve been pushing for marriage equality for over thirty years, and every bit of progress has been made by moving ahead one step at a time, and by making compromises as meticulous as this one. There shouldn’t be exceptions and stipulations to marriage equality in the Church, and these stipulations have little connection to the love and commitment that guides marriage, but if certain concessions mean everyone gains the right to marry, those concessions are well worth it.
With all of the Episcopal Church’s compromises, it remains among those denominations at the forefront of marriage equality. When Karen Oliveto was elected the first openly gay bishop in the United Methodist Church (UMC) in 2016, her ordination was quickly put under judicial review. Her appointment has since been deemed legal, but the Church remains, as she put it, “conflicted.” The UMC supports same-sex couples’ legal right to marry, she says, but will not perform same-sex ceremonies itself. They support the military’s abolition of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, but maintain a similar policy in the Church.
Attempts to change Church policy to allow same-sex marriage have threatened to divide the Church, leading the bishops to convene the Commission on a Way Forward, which will present its One Church Plan at the 2019 General Conference. The One Church Plan proposes to let individual clergy decide whether to perform same-sex weddings, while keeping the UMC together. It has been endorsed by 60% of the bishops who will vote on it in 2019. But while Church officials await their next chance to change the rules, many pastors have already begun to break them, performing same-sex weddings against Church policy. This includes the several pastors who assisted with Bishop Oliveto’s wedding.
Oliveto seems less disappointed by the fact that there is dissent within the Church than by the dissent having become so paramount. In fact, she expressed appreciation for her conservative colleagues. They can reach people for Jesus that she can’t. But she wonders how the question of an individual’s personal sexual practices has come to seriously threaten the unity of the Church.
Jennifer Leath, a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) says Christians may have “put the cart before the horse” when it comes to authorizing same-sex marriage. Leath, who teaches religion and social justice at the Iliff School of Theology, says the AME’s rejection of same-sex marriage comes from a fundamentalist reading of the Bible; the same reading that was used to authorize slavery, and which kept women from the pulpit. Before trying to reach a consensus on changing Church policy, she says, the Church needs to re-frame its understanding of scripture. And before trying to authorize same-sex marriage, the Church needs to grapple with its larger understanding of gender and sexuality.
Many of our pro-LGBTQ interviewees have found a more welcoming understanding of scripture. Karen Oliveto offered one of the most commonly used passages at weddings, invoked as a model of committing oneself to another person, and noted that it was in fact said between two women. The Episcopal Church, under the guidance of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, has focused its efforts on the Way of Love. Susan Russell believes an institution whose primary goal is to promote love shouldn’t be doing anything to hinder it.
As each denomination’s moral and legislative battle trudges on, in many ways, clinging to the fundamentalist reading Jennifer Leath warns against, one might wonder why LGBTQ congregants stay and fight. Why not take their hard won legal right to marry, and run from the religious institutions that can’t seem to welcome them? But for many of the LGBTQ clergy we spoke to, and many of the congregants they hope to marry, the Church is home, and a blessing over their marriage is at least as important as a certificate.