As The Episcopal Church continues to read with some anxiety about the decline in church attendance and religious affiliation among millennials, we are preparing for a decisive General Convention. None of the proposals dealing with our structure, our governance, or the location of our headquarters will have a significant impact on the relationship between our church and the millennial generation. One set of proposals could have a huge impact. Those proposals concern changing the Canon on Marriage to allow same-sex and opposite-sex couples equal access and recognition. These decisions matter to many people of all generations, but these are resolutions in which millennials have a particularly big stake.
Unsurprisingly for Episcopalians at Convention, the number of the proposals and their sources make the nature of the decision complex. Different proposals come from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage (called for by the last Convention), the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (the official group that works between Conventions on liturgical changes for the Church), and several local dioceses. The volume of possibilities is a bit dangerous for Episcopalians because we think of ourselves as a people of the via media, the middle way. It could be tempting for the Convention to try to find a “happy medium” in all that is proposed about marriage. A compromise “middle way” would be a mistake in the case of marriage equality.
Doing less than amending our canons to allow same-sex couples to marry would communicate that we think that same-sex marriage is “less than” equal. In the words of the Diocese of California:
To require that same-sex couples being married in the Episcopal Church, in civil jurisdictions where that marriage is legal, use a liturgy other than the one long in use in The Episcopal Church – and currently reserved exclusively to opposite-sex couples – dishonors these couples who seek the church’s blessing on their marriages, declaring that such marriages are not Holy Matrimony. Diocese of California’s Explanation for Resolution 3 “Liturgical Marriage Equality.”
Marriage equality matters to Episcopalians of all generations, but it particularly matters to millennials inside and outside the church. Alongside the much-discussed report that detailed the declining religious affiliation of millennials, the Pew Forum also recently released a study on changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage. They found that more than any other generation millennials overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage. Young adults don’t need more time for discernment. They’ve seen the blessing of married life for same-sex couples. They’re already on board.
I have had the privilege of working with young adults in leadership across The Episcopal Church. From that experience, I can say that many of our best young leaders are LGBT identified. Young adults leaders who identify as heterosexual also tend to strongly identify as allies of the LGBT community. Many of these leaders left their family tradition to join The Episcopal Church because of our stance. I have been amazed at how frequently The Episcopal Church’s stance on LGBT equality has been given as a reason why millennials have joined our denomination or stayed active in church. If we want to reach more millennials, we should iron out the complications in our current theology and practice to be even more clear about our support for the LGBT community.
In ministry with young adults, I have been at pains to explain the current position of our denomination on marriage equality. While the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church in the USA have approved marriage equality, we’re not there yet canonically. I find myself saying something like: “Yes, we support civil marriage equality broadly as a denomination, but because we are liturgically conservative tradition, and it takes a long time to amend our Prayer Book, we have a separate provisional rite for blessing unions.” That’s a mouthful, and our stance is an obfuscation. Our current liturgical position says, “we’re really not sure whether same-sex love is equal.”
In seminary I heard The Rev. David Norgard, then president of Integrity (the largest LGBT organization in The Episcopal Church), detail the history of the equality movement in the church. He recalled a time when the House of Bishops put off acting on LGBT equality by deciding to “study” sexual orientation for a number of years. He found the bishops’ decision to study homosexuality for such a long time odd. He joked, “I learned it in a summer.” The room filled with knowing laughter.
Our road toward equality has been marked by half measures and deferments in The Episcopal Church. We should not defer again. To put off the decision for marriage equality may help relationships with the few remaining conservative parishes and dioceses, but such a decision could also harm our relationships with younger generations. Do we care about young adults enough to be bold for marriage equality?
You want to change the Church’s relationship to millennials? You won’t make a big splash by changing our structures. The Episcopal Church should send a clear signal that we stand with young adults in their hopes for equality. Say it clearly. Say it directly. Don’t go halfway there. The US Supreme Court this summer will likely decide that marriage equality is the law of the land. If our Church decides for less than marriage equality, at best we will send mixed signals. I earnestly hope that our bishops and deputies vote this summer to say, “We stand with young adults for marriage equality.”