The rite stuff: What the Episcopal Church’s position on gay marriage can teach us about the middle ground

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Christ Episcopal Church, home to one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the state, is Charlottesville’s oldest church. Photo: Christian Hommel Christ Episcopal Church, home to one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the state, is Charlottesville’s oldest church. Photo: Christian Hommel

Ten years ago last month, a sharecropper’s son from Kentucky was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Because Gene Robinson is gay, his elevation to one of the highest positions of authority within the Episcopal Church rocked and splintered the church to an extent that no other issue in its history ever had—not slavery, not the ordination of women, not the rewriting of ancient liturgy.

Virginia, always an Episcopal stronghold and home to the church’s largest domestic diocese—Haiti is the largest overall—wasn’t spared the effects of the turmoil. Whole congregations seceded from the hierarchy of the church, touching off lawsuits over property ownership that are still being fought today and challenging a notion basic to the denomination’s very existence: That beliefs within the church can differ without disrupting the tradition of common worship.

The theological divide is evident here. Traditional congregations that sprang up in the wake of earlier battles over liturgy and practice have seen some new members join from the ranks of disaffected Episcopalians. But of the 14 Episcopal parishes in Charlottesville and Albemarle, an area with a history deeply enmeshed with the history of the church, not one broke away. As the rest of the country grapples over the right of gays to marry, and the larger religious community that gave rise to the Episcopal Church continues to fight and split, what can the city’s patchwork of Episcopal parishes tell us about a big-tent approach to compromise?

Schism and solidarity

More than 4 percent of Charlottesville and Albemarle residents attend one of 14 Episcopal churches here, making it one of the most parish-to-population dense regions in the Diocese of Virginia.

To the other 96 percent, the Episcopal Church’s history and hierarchy can be confusing. The church is part of the Anglican Communion, an international association of churches with the Church of England at its heart and a symbolic leader in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a “first among equals” in a group of head bishops from 38 provinces. They are Protestant denominations, as they stem from a church that broke from Rome in the 16th century, but they recognize a tradition that is heavily catholic in the broad sense of the word—that is, tied to the early Christian church and the apostolic tradition. Liturgies and internal organization vary, but each wing agrees on the essentials.

At least, that’s the idea. But the concept of unity without unanimity hasn’t always worked. From its birth as a separate offshoot during the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church has been proudly democratic, with a heavy emphasis on the role of laypeople in church governance. And in the last 100 years, Episcopal doctrine has drifted left, following the cultural tide of a country in which liberals—as a recent New York Times article on the legacy of liberal Protestantism asserted—have established “ecumenicalism, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance as the dominant American creed.”

In the process, it has tugged on the ropes that tie it to the traditional catholic elements of Anglicanism, and the tension has sometimes reached breaking points. In the 1970s, many more traditional Episcopal clergy and congregations broke away over changes to the church’s Book of Common Prayer and the ordination of women. The disaffected stepped out of the Episcopal hierarchy, creating new Anglican associations in the U.S. that still looked to Canterbury for leadership. Gene Robinson’s ordination a decade ago sparked a similar schism, and this time, the theological divide rattled the entire Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church has officially come down on the side of gay inclusion, both in welcoming gay clergy and in allowing churches to bless same-sex unions, putting it sharply at odds with more traditional Anglicans around the world and further splitting the ranks here in the U.S.

Whether the Episcopal Church as a whole will remain within the Communion is still up in the air. But for most Episcopalians, what’s happening in Canterbury matters less than what’s happening at home.

Trinity Episcopal Church, begun as an African American mission church in 1919, is now an “intentional multicultural” Episcopal congregation. Photo: Christian Hommel

“Trust God with the details”

Christ Episcopal Church was Charlottesville’s first church. Not just its first Episcopal church, Rector Paul Walker explained one recent morning over coffee, but the first church in the city, begun in 1820 by builders on loan from Thomas Jefferson.

The congregation’s current home, completed in the early 1900s and built in a soaring English Gothic style on the same plot, holds one of the larger Episcopal congregations in the state. Some 1,600 people count themselves as members, and 69 were confirmed there last year.

It also has a role in one of the more painful chapters in Charlottesville’s history. In the era of massive resistance, when Senator Harry F. Byrd threw the full weight of the law into preventing desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the city schools chose closure over integration, Christ Church claimed neutrality but opened its doors to house an all-white “emergency school.”

There’s been healing since then—a public apology, racial reconciliation. But the issue contributed to a perception of Christ Church as a more conservative congregation, which was reinforced during the tumultuous years following the ordination of Gene Robinson and the appointment of the gay-friendly Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Christ Church’s clergy publicly opposed the consecration of gay bishops, and, according to news reports at the time, discussed leaving the Episcopal Church altogether to join a dissenting Anglican diocese.

But that didn’t happen. A few years later, in 2008, the Reverend Paul Walker became rector.

Walker never planned to be a priest. In 1986, fresh out of UVA, newly married, his LSATs out of the way, he was set to enroll in the University of Richmond’s law school. But his wife, Christie, convinced him to broaden their horizons first.

“She said, ‘We need to do something outside of this bubble,’” Walker said. They ended up in Haiti for six months, living with a Haitian Episcopal priest. She taught English; he picked up building work. It changed the course of their lives.

One Sunday toward the end of their stay, Walker was taking communion when he felt what he described simply as a powerful calling. He told his wife he wanted to be ordained.

“She thought I was crazy,” he laughed. But there was no going back. Instead of law school in Richmond, it was the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. His first appointment after graduation in 1995 brought him back to his college town, to an associate rector position at Christ Church. A few years later, after he had joined the clergy at a Birmingham, Alabama cathedral, he was asked to return to the Charlottesville church to help establish a college ministry to bring students into the fold.

The Reverend Paul Walker has served as Rector at Christ Church since 2008. Photo: Christian Hommel
The Reverend Paul Walker has served as Rector at Christ Church since 2008. Photo: Christian Hommel

That was in 2004, and since he arrived, his time at Christ Church has been marked by expansion in more than one sense of the word. There are now four services every Sunday, from a small, early, quiet worship following traditional rites to a huge evening service catering to the hundreds of students who attend the church during the school year, which is followed by a home-cooked meal. Some of those new young arrivals have helped grow the church’s outreach projects, including an active music ministry that oversees The Garage, the tiny independent open-air concert space around the corner on First Street.

“I didn’t like church growing up, and I still don’t like the formality of religion,” Walker said. “I’m an anti-establishment person.” He recognizes the irony in feeling that way even as he leads the most “establishment” Episcopal church in the city. But it helps guide him to the heart of what really matters, he said. Structure and form serve a purpose for him and his church, but he doesn’t want anyone to have to dig deep to find the real message. “The substance is this radical acceptance of the self as we are, rather than as we should be,” he said. “A lot of Christianity becomes moralism, which is, ‘God loves you, but let me tell you how you need to change.’ We just don’t do that.”

That’s part of why he doesn’t talk about the issue of gay inclusion—not from the pulpit, and not to the press. When you walk through the church doors, it shouldn’t matter, he said.

And whatever his own beliefs, he doesn’t want others to classify him and his church one way or the other, because “we’re neither fish nor fowl on the issue.” He knows that there are members of his congregation who are opposed to gay marriage, and plenty who have no problem with it.

“It’s a different issue when it becomes about what happens within the church,” he said.

He’d rather focus on what’s happening in his parish than on the big theological questions. That’s the philosophy of Christ Church as a whole, he said. “If we had a mission statement, it’s preach the gospel,” he said, “and then to love people no matter who they are, no matter what their orientation is, no matter where they come from, and trust God with the details.”

“I want the big tent to be truly that”

In a denomination that puts so much emphasis on hierarchy, the idea that a local parish can think independently may seem like a contradiction. But that’s the Episcopal Church, said Bishop Shannon Johnston, head of the Diocese of Virginia.

“We love it that way,” he said. “We are very proud of that diversity.”

And if it’s more pronounced in Virginia, there are good reasons, he said. From the time of Jamestown, parishes here were technically part of the Church of England, but independently organized and self-supporting. It was rare for the Anglican leadership across the Atlantic to send bishops to the colony. As a result, the vestries—elected bodies made up of laypeople—were largely responsible for running their parishes.

“That became part of our DNA—strong vestries, and a very strong lay leadership,” said Johnston, much more so than in other parts of the country. The shadow side of that, he said, is that it’s produced a diocese full of parishes that are more likely to think locally instead of as parts of a whole.

“It makes a lot of sense when you think about it historically,” he said, but it makes his job as a leader who calls the theological shots tricky. “How to grow out of that tradition is a very sensitive matter, because no one would want to argue that we want to weaken the control of the laity. That’s something we are envied for.”

The diocese was, in part, honoring the independent streak in the Virginia churches when in early 2011, it put forward plans to allow individual parishes to seek permission to offer same-sex blessings.

Johnston said he’s personally in favor of honoring gay unions, but felt it needed to be introduced in a way that allowed churches to preserve their autonomy.

“I want the big tent to be truly that,” he said—and he believes it’s working. “I’ve gotten a lot of support and appreciation from traditional and progressive churches who understand that I’ve got their back, and that I support them in their conscience and I understand that this is an issue that’s changing quickly in the national church, in our country’s civil life.”

Not every parish has appreciated the sea change. Eleven Virginia churches voted to break from the diocese after the church’s governing body of bishops refused to back down from its decision to ordain Robinson. Many joined other Anglican associations, some based in Africa, which has emerged as a conservative stronghold within the greater Communion. The schism lead to protracted battles over who owned parish buildings and other property. Last month, the last of those suits—involving a particularly bitter split in The Falls Church Episcopal parish in Northern Virginia—was essentially settled in favor of the diocese when the Virginia Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the breakaway church.

But like many of the majority who have remained within the Episcopal hierarchy, Johnston emphasizes what binds the church, not what divides it.

“We feel the responsibility to model what we understand is best about Anglicanism, and that is the ability to hold in tension differing points of view,” he said. And as it happens, the greater Charlottesville area is a particularly representative microcosm. “I’m proud of how broad a range is represented here, and how rich the different practices.”

  • cradletocradleva

    This is a fascinating, well-done article. I am left with a few questions I wish the author had asked, though: It is nice that Christ Church isn’t, I guess, “mean” or overtly unwelcoming to LGBT people. But how many gay people actually feel comfortable to attend church there or become members? When a gay UVA student visits, does he or she feel welcome? On issues like these, one can never truly sit on the sidelines and play neutral–neutral often disguises the real choice a church is making–> to not be welcoming and affirming to our LGBT brothers and sisters.

    • Mginia-friend

      I agree. This is a great article – and it makes me wish other denominations would read this and learn a few lessons from the Episcopalians on this issue. As someone who is church and part of the lgbt community – I wonder the same thing about how many gay people feel truly settled and comfortable there. I’ve been in a variety of churches of different denominations – openly welcoming, very much not welcoming and others who are like Christ Church – they stay neutral. I’ve been back to ones that are neutral, and felt relatively safe there – I know I won’t be questioned, heckled, or treated with open malice but I stay guarded and filter everything I say almost as much as I do in the churches I know are just not plain friendly. The flip side – I’ve been in welcoming congregations, my gay-dar goes off repeatedly, so I know I can drop the “I’m not straight” filter but they haven’t been welcoming in general to visitors and I haven’t gone back. I suspect, like with me, if I don’t feel fully safe, comfortable, welcomed, and as an equal, they do what I do – dust off my feet and move on.

    • Jonathan Kuperberg

      One can respect and be compassionate to everybody without approving of their behavior or seeking to claim it is equal in God’s eyes to the sacrament of marriage, whatever man-made laws about *civil* marriage or the bulk of society may think.

  • Edward N Virginia

    An important bit of history has probably been forgotten:

    Several of us formed and sustained a Dignity-Integrity Charlottesville chapter for about 5 years in the 1990s. Dignity is an international association of and for LGBT Roman Catholics and allies, and Integrity is an international association of LGBT Episcopalians and allies. We formed the local chapter as a joint effort, alternating (as best we could) monthly worship and healing services between Roman Catholic priests and Episcopal priests, and often met for worship and potluck meal at Trinity Episcopal Church.

    The Catholic priests came from Richmond and Northern Virginia areas, as I recall, and the Episcopal priests were almost always local from the Charlottesville area. It was a daring thing – at that time – for these priests to do (and perhaps particularly for the Catholic priests). And, it was a new thing – at that time – that we had women (Episcopal) priests who regularly celebrated the Eucharist. To welcome us – who were trans-gressing so many different boundaries – was a daring offer of hospitality from Trinity Church. Thank you.

    We we embodying the fabulous diversity of God’s grace, as we transgressed so many social convention: Priests celebrating with the gays? Women priests? Healing prayer with the gays (not to cure their ‘gay’, but to bless the physical, emotional, moral and spiritual ‘wholeness’ of gay people! ). And, to welcome those with AIDS!

    In that time there were few treatments for HIV/AIDS, and few places of support particularly among faith communities. We purposefully included healing prayer and unction for this purpose. Among our founders were Roman Catholic men directly affected by AIDS, as someone with AIDS or as a friend or partner of someone with AIDS, who were not welcomed vocally and warmly into the life of their local congregations.

    Oh yes, another transgression: we had people attending at various times who were Baptist, Pentecostal, and from other Christian traditions, for whom the Mass and the Eucharist was a fantastic thing – whether celebrated by a Catholic, or an Episcopalian, priest – very different from what they knew. Some said it was among the few times that they had felt loved by God since the community of worship so lovingly welcomed them. For many to have a priest lay on hands with healing prayer was a first time of complete welcome ‘just as I am’ … gay, lesbian, with AIDS, with mental illness, surviving abuse, etc. So we transgressed ecumenical and evangelical boundaries as well as the boundaries of sexuality, gender, and theology.

    A strange thing often happened: people who had never participated in the Mass or the Eucharist – perhaps who had been taught that it was a ‘vain ritual’ or ‘from corrupt Babylon’ – and people who had been rejected by their Catholic, or Episcopal, or Orthodox or other congregations – found an unexpected welcome into joyful worship, a gracious moment of healing, and a happy potluck meal afterwards. If for but a couple hours a month they could experience that God ‘so loved’ them.

    Thank you daring priests who celebrated. Thank you Trinity Church for that welcome.

  • Ambrose1963

    Moderation works great for these straight priests and some among the straight majority in the pews. But for families like mine, it means experiences like watching straight couples go up for anniversary blessings on a regular basis, and having my daughters ask, “Dad, why don’t you and Clark do that?” The truthful answer–We’re not allowed to, because our union is held by many in the church to be inferior or sinful, and our family less real–is not something i can easily explain to them.

    • Jonathan Kuperberg

      I don’t see you as a person to be “less real” or deny your commitment to a stable relationship, nor would I suggest you do anything less than the best for the girls in your care.

      But I do not class a household headed by two men and children as a “family”, irrespective of what civil law states. I believe the family is ordained of God (as opposed to socially constructed) to be a husband-wife couple with or without children, married in either legally or ceremonially or both (not cohabiting) or a single parent and their child where the singleness resorts from spouse’s death or a scripturally appropriate divorce.

      So the truth at least from my perspective is “Your household could be- probably is- filled with love, happiness and respect. But it’s not morally speaking a family.”

      Your union is not “inferior”, nor is it a sin for two men who feel love for one another to share their life. It is only sexual conduct of which those Christians disapprove. (“those” as in the vast majority opposed to same-sex acts who are loving, kind Christians but simply hold faithful to a moral teaching consistent with that held by a vast if not quite universal swathe of the Church for 2000 years. Not the “God Hates Fags”, “gays all want to recruit your children” or Uganda “kill bill” types on the fringe.

      • Ambrose1963

        Mr. Kuperburg, I don’t really give a fig whether you recognize my family as one, or not. Your position has plenty of precedent, but nothing to do with the gospel or the love and faith of Jesus. But I expect better of the church.

        • RedSux

          Ambrose is Mr. Kuperberg not entitled to a belief system? Am I entitled to marry my adult daughter because I want to and call anyone who doesn’t like it a names? You were born with the same right to marry as I was the problem is you are not attracted to the opposite sex therefore you default by definition. You are entitled to your lifestyle preference it is just not marriage, sorry.

          • Bill

            Your beliefs will die with you, sir. Your children will regard homosexuals’ marriage rights as equal to those of straight people, because that’s logical and the new generation has not been brainwashed to deny this simple constitutional logic by seeing only religious definitions which are archaic and far from sensible. That’s just the way it is.

          • RedSux

            I’m curious what time tested source you derive your logic from. I’ll stick with the archaic stuff. I’m comfortable in my belief system regardless of what happens with gay marriage. May I remind you that your King, Obama, claims to believe in the same Jesus Christ as his savior that I do…is he archaic? Oh I know he just had a change of mind regarding gay marriage but that was purely to solidify votes. You better support a tough stance on Iran or the future may hold a little different view of homosexuality then your predicting. It should be interesting to see how popular gay marriage is 20 years from know when the radical push wears off. After all hetero-marriage has become uncool in Hollywood and other liberal circuits. Oh by the way homosexuality will NEVER lose its social stigma simply because it is unnatural. I do not mean this in a mean way, just a fact…I got that fact from the same crystal ball you derived your logic from. It has been fun take care.

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