Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rethink This, Sewanee

Note: This post has been updated HERE.
Before I start this post, I would like to ask readers to please open a prior entry from January, 2013, entitled, "A Tale of Two Churches."  That post, from 16 months ago, has the important background to this present day story of love stopped at the chapel doors by a Chancellor and Regent Bishops.

If you've taken the time to read "A Tale of Two Churches,"  then you are now aware that the governing body of the University of the South, also known as Sewanee, came to a rational decision about how to proceed with any same-sex blessings that might want to happen in the All Saints' Chapel, given that the 28 bishops that support the school were evenly divided in their attitude about the new blessing rite when it was first adopted.  I thought that since the Vice Chancellor was worried that All Saints' was going to become the Elvis Chapel of Love for gay people trying to get around blessing prohibitions in the dioceses that most LGBTQI people would forego Sewanee as a "destination" wedding location.  But that doesn't take into account the many gay and lesbian people who have matriculated from Sewanee and, rightly, hold their alma mater in high regard.  All Saints' Chapel is a beautiful church, and has a special place in the hearts of many who have spent time on the "Holy Mountain."  Therefore, it only makes sense that a gay or lesbian couple with ties to the school might want to return there to have their civil marriage blessed.  

This is the case for a couple named Kathryn and Eva.  Kathryn is a beloved member of the Sewanee community.  Eva, while not a graduate, has been embraced as one of their own in the same way anyone should welcome "the stranger" into the fold.  The story is that they live within the diocese of Atlanta, which is the capital of Georgia, and among the many southeastern states that have refused marriage equality to LGBTQI people.  So, the couple has applied for a marriage license in Washington, D.C., and are planning to be civilly married in our nation's capital.  With marriage license in hand, and approval from the bishop of the diocese of Atlanta, Kathryn and Eva would like to return to the Holy Mountain and have their civil marriage blessed by the church in the company of the Sewanee community who loves and supports them.  Note: they are not asking to have a marriage performed by a priest at All Saints' chapel; they just want to receive a blessing.  All of this is in keeping not only with Sewanee's own policy, promulgated in December, 2012; it is among the many scenarios The Episcopal Church envisioned when it adopted the same-sex blessing rite at the General Convention in 2012.  Given these circumstances, one might reasonably expect that the two women would have their application for use of the chapel approved, and all would proceed accordingly.

But that's not what has happened.  The Chancellor, Bishop John Howard of Florida, and the other Regent Bishops, representing the dioceses of Tennessee, West Texas, and Southwest Florida, have denied their request.  The apparent reason for the denial is that Tennessee, the civil authority, doesn't recognize marriage equality, and since the couple in question will have already been legally married elsewhere, to have a blessing in the chapel might give the appearance of Sewanee giving approval to something that is illegal in the state.   

Commence head scratching now.

The Vice Chancellor sent a memo to the faculty of Sewanee, further explaining this decision:

"The Bishops recommended approving the request if the blessing would take place before the marriage.  Indeed, they saw no reason to even be consulted in that case; however, in their judgment, granting the request to have the blessing several months after the wedding would have the appearance of approving same-sex marriage, which the Church has not yet authorized.  Furthermore, though a secondary consideration, is the fact that same-sex marriage is not permitted in the state of Tennessee.

The Bishops acknowledge this decision may seem to be inconsistent with current University policy but also noted that, at the time the policy was approved by the Board of Regents, in December 2012, this particular scenario was not envisioned or considered."  (As noted earlier, this last point is amazing given that this very scenario was included in the documentation presented at General Convention in 2012.)

As I read this memo, posted at the Facebook group "Rethink This, Sewanee,"  I couldn't help having this image from the classic film, "The Wizard of Oz."  

Dorothy and her friends have been through trials and tribulations and had obtained the witch's broom stick as requested by the Wizard.  When they return to present him with the prized possession, and expect him to fulfill his promises, he bellows out, "Not so fast! Not so fast! I have to give the matter a little thought.  Go away and come back tomorrow!"

In other words, to this decision from the Chancellor and the Regent Bishops, I say, "Humbug!"  

If the couple has crossed every T and dotted every I as they were supposed to in order to meet the criteria for using the chapel for a blessing of their civil marriage, then the good and right thing to do is to say, "We will bless you and you will be a blessing."  

It seems to me that there is something else going on here.  I'm wondering if the unstated concern might be fear.  Fear that more conservative donors to the University might withhold their money.  Fear that if word reached back to the home dioceses of these bishops, all of whom who have refused to allow same-sex blessings to occur, there might be some legitimate questions raised about different policies held up on the mountain as opposed to down in the valley.  They seem to have forgotten the oft-repeated phrase in the bible: "Do not be afraid."  

The couple has appealed the decision and is awaiting a response.  In the meantime, the Sewanee faithful are rallying behind them under the name #rethinkthissewanee.  They've been writing eloquent and thoughtful letters to the Chancellor, and they're planning a peaceful demonstration of support on Sunday, June 8th.   That would be Pentecost.  What better time to hope for the Holy Spirit to blow through the campus, and remove fear with the faith that blessing a loving union is the good and right and joyful thing to do. 

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