It's been a long time coming. The Episcopal Church's decision to bless same-sex unions and ordain transgender priests was in the works for as many as 40 years, local leaders of the church told KQED's Stephanie Martin.
Martin spoke to two of the people who have pushed for change within the church. Jay Johnson is director of academic research at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Johnson chaired a task for that wrote part of the resolution on blessings of same-sex unions.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: What does the same-sex union resolution do exactly?
JAY JOHNSON: This is not a marriage liturgy. The original resolution that came out of the last general convention in 2009 called very specifically for a ritual, a liturgy of blessing same-gender unions. So this was an attempt to say we want to offer a generous pastoral response to same-gender couples, lesbian and gay couples, and that we still need to do more work on our own theology of Christian marriage before we can make the step in that direction. I know that there are lots of same-gender couples who are eager to be involved in a liturgy that can be called marriage in the Episcopal Church. That is, I would say, certainly going to be coming online in a few years, but it’s not right now.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: When does this resolution take effect?
JAY JOHNSON: We’re going to be testing this liturgy for the blessing of same gender unions over the next three years leading up to the next general convention in 2015 when further actions will be decided upon then. So now that both houses of convention have approved it, both House of Bishops and House of Deputies, it can be used late this fall.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: Haven't there been blessings like this in Episcopal congregations in the past?
JAY JOHNSON: There have been blessing ceremonies, liturgies and rituals in congregations and in some dioceses in the Episcopal Church for a good number of years. What is significant about this is that it’s the national church as a whole that has approved the use of it. It’s the first major Protestant denomination that has officially recognized liturgical rights to do this for same-gender couples.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: Doesn't the United Church of Christ have something similar?
JAY JOHNSON: Right. And one of the differences is that the United Church of Christ does not have a standardized national liturgy. The way they govern themselves is slightly different. The decisions made at the general National Synod for the United Church of Christ is not necessarily followed by all the congregations in the UCC. There is something similar in the Episcopal Church, but the Episcopal Church, of course, has an officially recognized national liturgy, it has a Book of Common Prayer.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: There was the transgender vote as well, so it’s been a big week.
JAY JOHNSON: Yes, it’s been a week. And I think it’s important for the listener to understand that there’s been a lot of work in the Epsicopal Church over the last 30 and 40 years on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. So what we’re seeing now is not brand new, but it is a significant step forward.
Martin also spoke to Marc Andrus, bishop of the Diocese of California.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: How will this change what you and other priests can do?
MARC ANDRUS: People have been blessing same-sex relationships probably for 20 years in the diocese of California. The only change I made when I became bishop was that I insisted that those blessings be as far as the couple wanted them to be, completely public, in other words they were not to be hid from the couple or the rest of the church but celebrated to the extent that the couples wanted that to happen. And I urged all couples, straight and gay and lesbian, to go, when it was legal for that brief window, to go to the court house and have a civil marriage, and then come to the church for a blessing. So this actually gives us resources for things we have been doing.
STEPHANIE MARTIN. How do you think folks will react?
MARC ANDRUS: I think in the diocese of California there will be general rejoicing.
STEPHANIE MARTIN. Do you think there will be fallout from this in the broader Episcopal Communion, especially outside of this area?
MARC ANDRUS: I do not. This is not a new position. It’s a trajectory that this church as been on for quite a while, starting most obviously with the actions in 2003 when we confirmed Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire, a man in an open same-sex relationship, now married. I think our church has been honest about what we’re doing. We’ve been clear about our reasons, we have been clear that they are human rights. We also passed a resolution on transgender people.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: In California is that going to open doors for people who may were discouraged in the past?
MARC ANDRUS: The first person I ordained in the diocese of California six years ago was a transgender person. There are some 12 to 20 transgendered ordained people in the Episcopal Church currently. So it’s not as if it hasn’t been done. But this is one way you could say that the Episcopal Church is standing with a not-understood, vulnerable, thus fragile population. They are spiritually strong, they are mentally strong, they are emotionally strong. and maybe you could say a lot of them are physically strong. But because they a very very small population and are not well understood. They can become like gays and lesbians, victims of hate crimes. This is one way that we can help prevent that, by being clear about our solidarity, about our respect for, our recognition of, transgender people.
STEPHANIE MARTIN: How historic is this?
MARC ANDRUS: For such a major exponent of the Christian world, like the Episcopal Church to make such a stand is going to be recognized both within the Anglican Communion and beyond it. What we hope is that both governments and other authoritative bodies and other churches to reconsider their positions, if they have positions that are intolerant and unjust. It’s a very joyous time at the convention.