As I am writing, the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Salt Lake City, is finishing up its work for this ten-day gathering—which occurs every three years. If you are a watcher or reader of the news, you may well have heard of the Convention’s most news-attracting item of business—the passing—by overwhelming majorities—of two resolutions related to “marriage equality.”
The issue of full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the Episcopal Church has been a major topic of concern and consideration at General Conventions for a number of years. Twelve years ago, at the Convention of 2003, the decision had to do with whether or not it was acceptable to elect gays and lesbians in committed relationships to the office of Bishop in the church. Three years ago, in 2012, the issue had to do with approval of liturgies for the blessing of gay “unions” in the church. Also at the 2012 Convention, a Task Force was established and commissioned to study the history of the institution of marriage—a study which resulted in many of us seeing clearly for the first time that the history of marriage is problematic throughout—for example, marriage being seen as a business transaction with women being regarded as property to be used and abused at the whim of the men to whom they were wed. When we use the term “traditional marriage,” we need to question what it is that we’re talking about.
All this to say that the decision the Episcopal Church has come to—for clergy to be authorized to preside at the marriage of gay and lesbian couples—is not one that has been reached lightly, but through intense consideration of all viewpoints—through seemingly endless study, prayer, and listening—through “blood, sweat, and tears”—on the part of many church leaders, both lay and ordained, both gay and straight. This process has been similar in many ways to the decision made in 1976 to fully include women in the ordained ministry of the Church—a decision that most of us joyfully celebrate now.
The majority of Episcopalians have come to see the full inclusion of our LGBT brothers and sisters as an issue of justice. We believe that we are called to be followers of Jesus. We know that Jesus saw himself as following in the path of the prophets of the Old Testament whose primary message had to do with justice, freedom and peace for all. Jesus says it very clearly in the gospel of Luke (chapter 4), and then he goes about his ministry, continually focusing on spending his time with people that were rejected by society, breaking down barriers and pulling the outcast and marginalized back into community. His primary criticism was of those in the religious establishment and how they were abusing their power and privilege. He was especially critical with regard to greed—something many Christians, including Episcopalians, essentially disregard. Episcopalians take the Bible very seriously, and we also look at it within its own various contexts—only then can we begin to see how to interpret it within our own context. We don’t always like what we see. What we see often interferes with our personal agendas and our comfort. It certainly opens us up to unavoidable criticism.
We have also been influenced in our decision by the courage of thousands of Christians who have taken the risk of “coming out of the closet” over the past few decades, allowing us to see that “they” are “we,” and we are they—that, in most ways, we are all the same—that we have very similar needs and wants and hopes and dreams—that all who have been demonized and marginalized for so long are actually our brothers and sisters and children and best friends—are people who have influenced our lives in powerfully positive ways—are people that we love deeply and who have deeply loved us. We have come to know with greater certainty that none of us are truly well until each and every one of us are truly well—and that we could ill afford and did not want to continue to limit access to what we now see as basic human rights—to artificially limit the path to a life fully lived.
Another important decision made by the 78th General Convention was the election of our first African-American Bishop to the position of Presiding Bishop—which would be the equivalent of an Archbishop in other countries in which there is a significant Anglican presence. The Right Reverend Michael Curry is a wonderful man and a passionate preacher, and at this particular time his primary message is about the importance of our taking Jesus’ command to “follow me” as an absolute imperative. He is fully supportive of the Convention’s decisions on marriage equality, as is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky.
Our Baptismal Covenant asks this piercing question, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Thankfully we are called upon to answer that question often—every time we have a baptism—because it is one we might prefer to forget. It’s easy to be nice to people, and not so easy to make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions.