A NON-BLESSING DISRUPTS MICHIGAN
by Kim Byham
A Detroit priest touched off a storm of angry reaction across the Diocese of Michigan last fall when he announced that he would help two women pledge their love to each.
The service, at Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit, took place in late October. The date was not made public because prior disclosure of the event had led to controversy.
A month earlier, the Rector, the Rev. Ervin Brown, described what had happened to that point in a sermon:
"On May 8, two women came to see me, expressing a desire for their church to celebrate and affirm the relationship they have shared the last 10 years. They had been to Bishop Wood, who knew I believed that the church should encourage and support monogamous, committed, life-long relationships for all people.
"The Bishop was clear that what these two women were asking could be neither a marriage nor a blessing. But the Bishop did say that it would be appropriate if congregations, acknowledging the church's inability to bless same-sex unions, would pray for and promise support to same-sex couples who have committed themselves in fidelity to one another.
"I agreed to officiate at such a liturgical affirmation for these two women. I have counseled with them on a number of occasions where I became even more convinced of their sincerity and fidelity to each other.
"On August 24, the two women and I met with about 30 parishioners to carry out the Bishop's guideline that such liturgical action arise out of the corporate life of a parish. Many opinions were expressed that evening, largely in a spirit of love and concern.
"Since then, someone invited to the meeting has felt called upon to share it with those in our diocese who have reason to strongly oppose such pastoral and liturgical action. Because it became so widely known beyond our parish, the date of the service was changed to avoid disruption. Also, the original service paraphrased from the Wedding Service was redone so it has more integrity for what it is meant to be: a pastoral and liturgical affirmation of the covenant of fidelity between two people.
"I personally would like to be able to pronounce the church's blessing on such relationships, and I will continue to work within the proper channels to one day make it possible. I wouldn't be involved in this if I felt it was unbiblical or immoral. I believe that affirming such faithful relationships is both the most moral and truest biblical stance I can take.
"That's how I see it and that's why I'm supportive of this liturgical affirmation. I don't ask that you agree with me, only that you listen to me and respect me for convictions honestly and faithfully arrived at. And I promise the same to you."
The story actually began in 1990 when the Bishop of Michigan, the Rt. Rev. R. Stewart Wood, Jr., told his priests not to bless any lesgay couples while the diocese studied human sexuality. That study is not yet completed.
The ceremony at Christ Church, however, did not violate Wood's order because it was not an Episcopal blessing. That meant Brown helped the two women make pledges of love and fidelity to one another, but he did not speak formal words of blessing. And he made it clear during the service that it was not a marriage. However, there was a blessing of the couple, given by the Rev. Jon Lacey, a Disciples of Christ minister.
Bishop Wood said that he supported Brown's plan. "A congregation seeking to respond pastorally to its own people certainly need some freedom to do so," Wood said. "And there will be no confusion between this and a so-called marriage or a blessing. We are not trying to create some regular pattern or new service," Wood said. "This was an individual response to individuals."
The service was designed by the couple with help from Brown. They pledged "life-long fidelity, forgiveness, compassion," and exchanged gold bands. Their brothers "stood up" for them. A reception followed and the couple left for a long-awaited "honeymoon."
However, not everyone took the bishop's statements at face value. "To call this anything other than a blessing ... is playing a semantic game that underrates the intelligence of the average Episcopalian," said the Rev. Eugene Geromel of Swartz Creek.
Geromel mailed hundreds of letters complaining about the service. Geromel also led a protest on October 17 at his and one other parish, inviting heterosexual married couples to renew their vows. October 17 was the date originally planned for the service at Christ Church.
Others, however, applaud Brown's decision. "His action is theologically sound and deeply courageous," said the Rev. Rodney Reinhart, associate pastor of Emanual Episcopal Church in Detroit and chaplain of Integrity/Detroit. Reinhart was openly gay and living in a committed relationship when he was ordained a priest in 1986.
Two dozen Episcopal priests from across the diocese declared their support for Brown and Wood in an October 8 letter.
"They are making a courageous and compassionate contribution to our understanding of this church's ministry with homosexual persons," said the 350-word letter authored by the Rev. John Laycock, Rector of St. Columba's, Detroit. Other signers included the Rev. Canon Dexter Cheney, diocesan administrator; the Rev. Joseph Harmon of St. Matthew and St. Joseph, Detroit; the Rev. Harvey Guthrie of St. Andrew's, Ann Arbor; the Rev. Robert Neily of St. Michael's, Grosse Pointe Woods; the Rev. David Brower of Grace, Southgate, and the Rev. Harry Cook of St. Andrew's, Clawson.
"I think it's time we said loudly and clearly that there are no second-class citizens in the church," said the Rev. Almus Thorp, Rector of Christ Church, Cranbrook, who also signed the letter. Thorp said he hopes someday Episcopal priests will feel free to bless such unions without fear of backlash.
On October 4, parishioner Fred Motney, began a petition drive at Christ Church. During the Sunday service, Motney took his protest to the pulpit. "What he is proposing to do is hurting the church. He is taking advantage of the love we feel for him. I don't have anything against homosexuals. I'm just saying, don't do it in Christ Church." Motney complained that Brown had told the parishioners what he was going to do, rather than ask permission. In fact, Brown had consulted with the vestry about the ceremony and only one of fifteen members had objected.
Brown said if he thought a majority of parishioners opposed him, he'd resign, "not out of anger" but out of integrity. That's not likely. Motney said that only 30 of more than 800 members had signed his petition. He thought many more would sign except they didn't was to cross the popular Brown. "No matter what he says, he's sanctifying a homosexual marriage, period," Motney said.
Also on October 4, two protesters outside, neither of them parishioners, carried signs denouncing homosexuality. "Homosexuals are not welcome in heaven," said Michael Quinkert, a member of Redford Lutheran Church. "Read it in the scriptures."
The Rev. Matthew Jones, a retired priest, said the ceremony "goes against all the churches in the city. God didn't make us like that," he said. I've got a wife and we've been together for almost 50 years. Now that's how it's supposed to be."
*Interview with the Couple*
"The service is my opportunity to thank God for her because she's an incredible blessing in my life," one of the women said in an interview with "The Detroit News" prior to the ceremony. "I'll go to any length to thank Him."
The couple, ages 31 and 29, asked for anonymity to protect family and friends from being brought into the debate over same-sex unions.
"We never intended for this to become such a public issue," the 31-year-said. "There's a need for society to debate the issue and resolve it. But it's hard to be the sounding board for everyone when you're talking about what, for us, is so sacred."
They met ten years earlier as college students. One grew up a Baptist and the other a Catholic, but they had stopped any religious practice, because of the churches' homophobia.
"But I missed going to church because it had been a big part of my life," the 31-year-old said.
They eventually joined an Episcopalian parish because of a welcoming atmosphere. Then, in April, 1992, they visited the Bishop who suggested they visit Christ Church. "Erv Brown told us he was interested in what we wanted to do but that we were not to come in here just for the service and never darken the doorstep of the church again," the 29-year-old said. "He has a policy that if a couple is going to get married, they have to be active in the church. So we attended services all summer. And he made us go through his counseling sessions for engaged couples. He helped us think a lot of things through."
"I thought, here's a person who is willing to take a lot of grief for us," the 31-year-old said. "We just don't see that a lot, especially in a church. That's one of the last bastions of legitimized discrimination against gays. It took guts to say what he did."