Marriage committee hears first testimony

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General Convention got its first look at what direction deputies and bishops may wish to take on the issue of marriage equality during a hearing June 24 by the Special Legislative Committee on Marriage.

The committee, made up of deputies and bishops, heard testimony on four resolutions assigned to it, but most of the comments related to two of them – C007 and C009, identical resolutions proposed by the Diocese of Rochester and the Diocese of Los Angeles, respectively. They called for the 78th General Convention to “take any and all steps necessary to make the Rite of Holy Matrimony available to same-sex couples throughout The Episcopal Church immediately.”

Almost all of those testifying spoke in favor of the resolutions, calling equal access to marriage for all couples important for a variety of reasons.

Alan Murray, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of California, said marriage equality was an opportunity for evangelism. He noted that his insistence on being married in the church instead of a courthouse led his non-churched husband to embrace the Episcopal Church. “This is how marriage can evangelize those outside the church,” he said.

The Rev. Matthew Young, a deputy from the Diocese of Lexington, said in his baptism he received “words of welcome.” He urged the committee to make those words true for everyone seeking marriage within the church.

The Very Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, in the Diocese of Western New York, said the church’s current policy, that makes marriage open only to opposite-sex couples, is simply discrimination. “How long will we allow books like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is discriminatory?” he asked.

Meg Johnson, a lay person from the Diocese of Minnesota, said that when General Convention adopted the generous pastoral response that permitted bishops to authorize same-sex blessings, her enthusiasm attracted the attention of a waitress at the restaurant where she was eating. The woman was so surprised she brought a friend over to hear the news in person. Calling this a matter of evangelism, Johnson said the church needs to go beyond blessings. “I want full-on marriage.”

The Rev. Jordan Ware, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Fort Worth, noted that same-sex couples cannot use the same rite of marriage that she and her husband used, and said this creates “a disparity in the Episcopal Church that affects all of us, not just some of us.” She said being asked to sign a declaration before her wedding, stating that marriage was between a man and a woman, “felt like a lie.”

The lone dissenting voice came from the Very Rev. Alston Johnson, a deputy from the Diocese of Western Louisiana, who asked for further consideration on the subject. “I ask the church to provide less haste, and opportunities for deeper engagement, for those of us seeking greater clarity,” he said.

The committee also heard testimony on two other resolutions: A037, which calls for a continuation of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, which was formed in 2012; and D026, which would declare that the terms “man and woman” and “husband and wife” in Prayer Book services are applicable to two persons of the same gender.

During discussion after the testimony, committee member the Rev. Philip Dinwiddie, a deputy from the Diocese of Michigan, said that while he supports more study on the topic, he thinks the church is at a new point in its understanding of same-sex marriage. “I think people are claiming revelation,” through an appeal to the Holy Spirit, he said. He said this mirrors what has happened in civil rights movements of the past century, when people, no matter what they had been taught, changed their minds. “People go into their hearts and say ‘this is just wrong,’” Dinwiddie said.

The committee will hear testimony on June 25 on five resolutions that propose canonical changes to permit same-sex marriage and use of a variety of liturgical rites for marriage services.

Melodie Woerman is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.