Episcopals bless same-sex couples, welcome transgender priests

by Tom Muzyka

I’m not a practicing Christian, although I’m sure I appear on the Census as such. I’ve not felt the effects of being a gay man wanting to actively participate in the Christian community. I’ve avoided the tensions so publicized between the LGBT communities and many Christian churches. I can’t claim to know how difficult that situation is, although I sympathize with LGBT Christians who don’t want to choose between faith and orientation.

But I was happy to hear that the Episcopal Church of America soon will be blessing same-sex unions. Here is a major church that welcomes our community and seeks to end the conflict that has been building around this issue. The decision came this past July at the church’s General Convention, where Episcopal leaders decide on matters of policy every three years.

What’s even more amazing is that Columbus, falling within the Diocese of Southern Ohio, already has been blessing gay and lesbian couples for two years.

The Right Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal, bishop of this diocese, made the announcement far in advance of the rest of the church and was influential in the national decision coming to pass. He’s a highly respected member of the house of bishops, having most recently come from Princeton University, and he also has worked in New York City and Oxford, England. The bishop has been a supporter of same-sex unions for some time, having written several books on the subject, and it was in no small part through his efforts that the national Episcopal Church made its historic decision this past July.

As I mentioned, I’m not Christian, so I needed to clarify what a “blessing” for same sex couples means. Since this is a religious rather than legal matter, I wanted to make sure I understood the details. In the Episcopal Church, any couple seeking marriage or a union must attend at least six sessions with a priest prior to the blessing to ensure that they’re prepared for this big step. Think proactive couples counseling.

Once this is done, the ceremony, or liturgy, can commence. The liturgy asks God to smile upon the relationship, just as a marriage ceremony does, but it’s customized in language for same-sex couples. This amendment was requested by many people in the church, in order to have an officially recognized liturgy that emphasizes the commitment of same-sex couples.

So what does this mean for Columbus, specifically? We have a local parish, St. James Episcopal Church in Clintonville, which has followed Bishop Breidenthal’s example and has blessed unions for more than a year. Eric Reasoner, senior warden of the church, recognizes that the blessing is “a huge step” and said there was “a lot less fallout than I thought there would be” when St. James made its decision.

Yes, there have been bumps along the way, but he said the change has been a welcome one overall. Already, the church has witnessed two liturgies from its congregants. There are about a dozen LGBT regular members of the church, which has about 65 to 70 members.

But the progressive environment isn’t a sudden change. The LGBT parishioners have been long-time members of the church because of its tolerance, rather than hopping on the bandwagon in light of new developments. Several members first came to St. James after leaving the Catholic church.

Of course, there will always be people who want to stay put – or move backward – rather than press forward. Reasoner said St. James lost a few parishioners after it began blessing gay and lesbian couples. Nationally, four dioceses (including Pittsburgh) broke away from the Episcopal Church after an openly gay bishop was ordained in 2003. The diocese in South Carolina wants to leave because of the decision to bless gay couples.

Ultimately, the decision on blessings rests with the priest of each church, and individual churches can still deny blessings if they choose. “But overall,” Reasoner said, “the nation as a whole has become more accepting,” which is a major factor in the Christian community’s policies.

In addition to officially sanctioning gay relationships, the Episcopal Church has taken even bigger steps forward, said Ross Murray, director of religion, faith and values for GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Church leaders also adopted a non-discrimination policy at their July convention that opens the door to ordination of transgender priests. Episcopals became the first mainline denomination to do so.

“To me, that’s even more significant,” Murray said. “The Episcopal Church is really far ahead in terms of LGBT inclusion.”

The exclusion that LGBT people have felt historically from religions and the denominations within them are fading away, Murray said. The evolution toward more inclusive beliefs and policies often takes place publicly.

“Peace begins with loving one another,” Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Episcopal Church of America’s presiding bishop, said in a sermon at the end of the convention that made a strong statement of inclusion.

It’s a message that’s starting to gain believers in the LGBT community, Murray said. “For a long time we’ve made people choose between being a Christian and being gay,” he said. “That is a false dichotomy. People can retain their religious identity and still identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”

That’s good news for LGBT Christians and those of us who aren’t religious. If the Episcopal Church is an indication of the wider attitude toward the queer community, we are making progress socially and religiously, even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way.

For every one Fred Phelps there are ten Christians willing to practice what they preach and love their neighbors. They may not be in the headlines as much as we’d like, but their presence is still felt and respected.

To learn more about St. James Episcopal Church, you can go to their website at www.stjamescolumbus.org. For more information on the Diocese of Southern Ohio, visit www.diosohio.org.