I have tremendous respect for Rev. Susan Russell and the many folks at Integrity who have fought tirelessly for decades to bring about full equality for all the baptized in the Episcopal Church. And, as anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows, I owe more than a hat tip to Bishop Gene Robinson for his role in my spiritual development from the time he was running Sign of the Dove Retreat Center when I was a confirmand at Christ Church in Exeter to his brave and brilliant witness as the bishop of the diocese in my native New Hampshire.
These are the people who have been on the front lines of this struggle for LGBT equality. They know how hard it is to overcome prejudice and fear, and they have stuck it out in the face of some ugly opposition.
All of us who have had to take a stand for our rights to be treated as full members of the Body of Christ, whether it be in the context of our churches or in the secular arenas of government, have seen the hard-heartedness of those who wish to hold back the LGBT community, and make us second-class citizens. It is extraordinarily difficult, at times, to maintain your center when you come face-to-face with homophobia and hatred. I know my voice has trembled as I have learned to speak my truth living in an area of the country that has not always shown "my kind" love and acceptance.
But I am heartened when I see the chipping away at hard-line stands against LGBT people in those places where I least expect to see it. Such was the case this summer when our General Convention approved a rite of blessing for same-sex couples paving the way for churches in those dioceses that allow for civil marriages to offer the seal of approval in the church communtiy as well. This was a big deal for my brothers and sisters living in the more enlightened areas of the country. For those of us dwelling in one of the 35 states where marriage equality is prohibited by law, this was another sad reminder of our circumstances. Still, the option is there for bishops to adopt the rite approved to fit their context.
Amazingly, some have done it. The bishop of Southeast Florida gave the green light to the priests in his diocese to offer a blessing to those couples who were married elsewhere (since Florida bans marriage equality...or "the substantial equivalent thereof" in both the state constitution and four places in the state statutes.) The bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, which begins at Apalachicola and runs along the southern part of Alabama, also gave his approval to use the blessing rite with many caveats (e.g. a lesbian or gay couple must receive his OK in addition to that of a priest and a church vestry). Not perfect, but better than a flat out, "No!"
Now the bishop of the diocese of Georgia has finally weighed in. Oddly, Bishop Scott Benhase has felt the need to modify what had been adopted because he contends that the language accepted at General Convention was too much like a marriage. For him, a marriage within the context of the church is for "one man and one woman." The one and only rite acceptable in Georgia is what is called Appendix 1 and is basically like a Prayers of the People and not actual vows spoken by the couple. It is an odd choice and takes away from what I believe the church should be blessing: namely, a covenant between two people.
But then, we are talking about the diocese of Georgia... which includes all the very red state areas of southern Georgia. And sadly, Blakely, GA, is not Berkeley, CA.
Sigh. Welcome to my world!
The upside, for me, is that at least they have approved something in Georgia that acknowledges the existence of LGBT couples in their congregations. This is a step ahead of the diocese of Florida, the place I find myself, with its headquarters in the equally conservative Jacksonville. Never mind that the western part of this diocese includes the much more liberal Tallahassee or the southern end that has the far more progressive Gainesville. In the diocese of Florida, we do not discuss "the love that dares not speak its name." We gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians are the invisible ones who are welcome to be members of a church, contribute to the lay ministries, and most definitely to the collection plate and stewardship campaign. But we are to assimilate and then shut up about this "gay thing." And those actions of acceptance done in Christ's name in Indianapolis this summer? We are to greet such news with a polite smile, a "bless their hearts,"and then we are to proceed with business as usual.
This hodgepodge system of acceptance hardly seems like the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven to me. But what are we to expect when we give bishops the latitude to adapt and make up their own definitions of what constitutes "generous pastoral care" to the LGBT communities in their midst? I realize this is the only way to get some bishops to do the right, and good, and joyful thing of recognizing the Christ in me and others like me. But it is also giving many the out to simply keep us as strangers at the gate and refuse to extend the full welcome we all desire. When is that no longer going to be acceptable?
I appreciate that both Rev. Susan and Bishop Gene are ticked off about the response from the bishop of Georgia. But the door is cracked open in Savannah in a way that it is not in places like Tallahassee and Orlando.
Welcome to my world. It's time for the really Good News to reach the Deep South.