As disappointing news has come out about proposed same gender blessings in the Church of England, I have been thinking about a fight I picked with my bishop in 2015. For a priest this isn’t always the wisest thing to do, but I was fresh in my first rector job and feeling bold. That spring both the US Supreme Court and the Episcopal Church were considering major changes around marriage equality. Justice Kennedy would eventually pen the landmark ruling making marriage available to LGBTQ+ couples. But the year before, I had moved to Missouri, where my husband and my marriage was not recognized. As a priest, and as a human being, I had a lot on the line.
I picked a fight with my bishop because I was worried that he, like many bishops, was too inwardly focused on the church. He was among the bishops quibbling about proposed changes to the marriage canon around internal church technicalities. These bishops said they affirmed LGBTQ+ people, but they wanted to start with a change to the prayer book. Prayer book reform takes at least six to nine years in our denomination. (Today, eight years later, the prayer book conversation still hasn’t fully begun). If these bishops had their way, we would spend most of a decade with the separate and unequal services for same gender couples. I wrote about the problem here that Spring, and followed up later in the summer urging bishops not to make a “middle way” in this case.
I sat in his office and told my bishop that I believed he was wrong. The danger: he would vote on the marriage canon not long after the Supreme Court announced their ruling. There was a real possibility that the New York Times would have the headline: “Marriage for All” one day and “Episcopal Church votes against Marriage Equality” the next. I asked my bishop what signal would that send to young adults and queer folks in his community? What would it say to his clergy? When our churches were receiving so many new people looking for an inclusive faith community, what message would we send to the wider society?
To his credit, my bishop heard me out. He later said, “Mike I read your post. While I still have questions about church order, I thought about what I would say to my kids if I stood in the way of marriage. I don’t think they would understand. I think we have to look beyond our church politics. There is too much at stake.” Later that summer, my bishop joined the overwhelming majority of bishops who voted to give our church marriage equality. The news stories written about the church that summer talked about our embrace of the new law of the land.
Since that summer, I have signed marriage licenses for a dozen or so same-gender couples. My own marriage has been recognized in my state, which allowed us to adopt our child. Most importantly, while LGBTQ+ youth suicide remains alarmingly common, I have had young people tell me that finding an inclusive church saved their lives. This week watching what is happening in England, I am grateful to be in a church which is mostly past these internal fights. Marriage equality took risky work. When bishops were proposing half measures, clergy and lay leaders pushed back. There are still some technical changes we need to complete in the Episcopal Church, but most of our members don’t fuss about technicality. They see a church where their son can marry his same-gender spouse and their daughter can marry her husband in the parish where they were baptized. Couples say the same vows, sign the same marriage license, receive the same blessing.
I have friends in the Church of England who are in a tough spot. Their bishops have proposed a half measure, largely focused on keeping peace inside the church. The wider society sees the bishops’ proposal, meant to be a step forward for the church, as an insult. Failing to endorse same-gender marriage is yet more evidence the bishops are out of touch.
I pray there are English bishops right now listening to the queer leaders, lay and ordained, who are picking fights. I hope those bishops are also thinking about how this decision will seem to their own kids, especially those young adults who have left the church because it “isn’t relevant to their lives.” The stakes on LGBTQ+ marriage are much bigger than church politics. Will Christians be consumed with our own inner fights and technicalities, or will we be bold for God’s love? Does the church serve itself, or serve the world in Christ’s name?