Reflection on St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church’s first ceremony for a same-sex couple.
by Neil Ellis Orts
In many ways, the most remarkable thing about the day was how ordinary it all seemed. On March 17, people gathered at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on West Alabama much as they do on any other Sunday morning. The only difference was that there were noticeably more of them, and some were dressed a little more formally than usual. Ushers had been trained to respond to protesters, but none showed up.
There were some media cameras present, but they were discreetly in the balcony, easily forgotten or ignored by everyone but the choir. The service began. We sang, we prayed. The Reverend Lisa Hunt, rector of the parish, preached, referencing the day’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 43, where God is leading Israel out of exile. She spoke of this new thing that God was doing, and admitted that as joyful as that is, it’s also scary and a threat to those of us who may prefer the exile we know over the home we barely remember.
And she said, “If ever there was an institution afraid of doing a new thing, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ.”
How good it is to hear this recognized from the pulpit.
And then, as natural as a baptism, two gay men, Jeff Meadows and Gary Patterson, together for nearly fifteen years, stood up in front of the congregation. The congregation was asked to “honor this couple and respect the covenant they make.” We prayed over them. Then Jeff and Gary exchanged promises of love and fidelity, and, to slip into cliché, sealed it with a kiss.
“The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” is a rite that was approved last summer at the Episcopal Church’s 77th General Convention. St. Stephen’s is the first congregation in Houston that has been allowed to use it. Like all Episcopal rites, it is carefully crafted with lovely language. Within this liturgy, however, is a careful avoidance of the words “marriage” and “wedding.” There is no reference to “spouses.” If we, as gay and lesbian folk, are ending an exile, we are not quite home—or at least we are not yet calling things by the same name as our heterosexual peers.
Also, it’s worth remembering that other congregations in other denominations, sometimes against denominational policy, have held similar types of ceremonies. There is something to be said for that kind of trailblazing and courage. I think we must honor those local faith communities who, in very real ways, helped make this officially sanctioned new rite possible.
But I do not bring up these things to take away from what happened at St. Stephen’s last month. There is certainly something to be said for a mainline denomination that has begun to allow same-sex couples to say “I love you” to each other, literally in front of God and everyone, and fully within denominational rules. It is progress worth celebrating. It is a sign that, more and more, the arguments aren’t between the LGBT community and the Church, but between people who respect, honor, and welcome diversity and people who don’t.
On a more personal note, I’ve been attending St. Stephen’s for just over a year. Over a decade ago, I was living in Austin and belonged to a congregation with a few visible gay couples. Since then, I’ve been attending churches where I was welcome, but where a gay presence was fairly invisible. After attending St. Stephen’s for a while, with its many visible same-sex couples, some with children, I realized there was a spot in my soul that had been rubbed raw. Worshiping again among a mixture of gay and straight families was a salve to a wound I didn’t even realize I had.
Seeing Jeff and Gary exchange their promises at a Sunday morning service was likewise a balm, another part of a healing process that so many of us LGBT people of faith need.
And the most remarkable thing was that it looked so ordinary.
It was so extraordinarily ordinary, it could bring you to tears.
These thoughts reflect the views of Neil Ellis Orts, and not necessarily those of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Neil is a regular contributor to OutSmart and blogs about his faith at crumbsatthefeast.blogspot.com.