‘Today feels like a miracle’ for same-sex couples in two Dallas parishes

January 22, 2019

Some of the 15 couples renewing their vows and having their marriages blessed Jan. 19 at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in north Dallas sing during the evening service. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Dallas] The talk over the weekend in two Episcopal Diocese of Dallas parishes was of history being made, dreams coming true and miracles happening as 24 same-sex couples received what they had longed for: their home church’s recognition and blessing.

“For a lot of years, you and I have been told that our relationships are not worthy of celebration, are not worthy of God’s love, not worthy of God’s blessing,” said retired Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson in his sermon at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in the first of the two services the weekend of Jan. 19-20 to bless couples who had to leave the diocese to get married, or be married in civil ceremonies, because the diocesan bishop opposes same-sex marriage.

“Today we put that aside forever,” Robinson told the 15 Transfiguration couples. “We know it is not true, and our lives will show it. This day may feel like a miracle to you, and that’s because it is. Thanks be to God.”

A miracle was happening in their midst, retired Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson told the nine same-sex couples who were renewing their vows and having their marriages blessed Jan. 20 at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Dallas. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The following day, Robinson reiterated that sense of the miraculous at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, where nine couples participated in a similar service. He called those expressions of unworthiness “a perversion of God’s love.”

Robinson, the Christian church’s first openly gay, partnered bishop, told the St. Thomas congregation that he was elected in 2003 just weeks before the United States Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law. Lawrence v. Texas effectively meant states could no longer count same-sex sexual activity as a crime. The decision paved the way for the 2015 Supreme Court decision, known as Obergefell v. Hodges and Consolidated Cases, that said same-sex couples have a constitutional right to be married.

Ten of the 24 couples had been married in civil services while 14 had had church weddings, mostly in other Episcopal churches. The liturgies at the two churches recognized that difference. Those with civil marriages asked for the blessing of God and the church on their unions, pledging, in the words of the St. Thomas service, “to fulfill the obligations which Christian marriage demands.” The other 14 gave thanks for God’s blessing received during their liturgical marriages and renewed the vows that they made.

Then, all of them together had their marriages, and their rings, blessed.

Having their wedding rings blessed was part of the services for the 15 same-sex couples at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and the nine at the Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

“Many of you in this congregation have been waiting a very long time for this moment,” Robinson said during his Transfiguration sermon. LGBTQ people “have been waiting since time began.”

“And we get to be the generation where it happens,” he said, fighting back tears.

The weekend services took place after Transfiguration and St. Thomas, along with Episcopal Church of the Ascension, said they wanted to perform same-sex marriages under a 2018 General Convention compromise with Dallas Bishop George Sumner and seven other conservative diocesan bishops. The bishops had refused to authorize two trial-use marriage rites that were approved by General Convention in 2015 and required couples wanting to use them to be married outside their diocese and away from their home church.

In 2018, when convention approved Resolution B012 to give same-sex couples unfettered access to those rites in all of its domestic dioceses, Sumner and some of the conservative bishops interpreted the resolution to mean they had to appoint another bishop to provide some sort of supervision or pastoral support of that access. Such supervision is only required for straight couples in cases of remarriage when the divorced spouse is still living.

Sumner decided that he could not be in a pastoral relationship with parishes that wished to perform same-sex marriages. He negotiated with Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith to provide Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, or DEPO, to those parishes, relinquishing oversight but not diocesan authority. (More information about the 2018 compromise and its impact is here).

Brooke Robb sorts M&Ms Jan. 19 as she assembles rainbow-themed centerpieces for the reception at the Church of the Transfiguration. Robb, a lifelong member of “the Fig,” as some call the church, recalled that the parish raised up the first woman priest in the diocese, the Rev. Gwen Buehrens. The parish has always been a leader on issues of inclusion, she said, adding she was glad that same-sex couples could finally be formally recognized by the parish. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

“We are aiming to live out ‘communion across difference’ with all charity and respect,” Sumner told Episcopal News Service in an email Jan. 19.

Smith, who met with leaders of the three parishes the previous weekend, wrote to ENS that he believes B012 “provides a provisional and contingent way forward, as our church seeks a balance between theological diversity and the unity which most Episcopalians desire.”

Smith called Sumner “gracious in welcoming me to Dallas and clear about his continuing desire to care for the three parishes entrusted to my pastoral and spiritual oversight.”

“We are both, I have found, committed to showing generosity toward one another, so necessary if DEPO is to work,” the Missouri bishop said. “And I want all that I undertake to be both clear in purpose and transparent in all the particulars, for the sake of the parishes, the Diocese of Dallas, and the whole of our church.”

Fred Ellis, a St. Thomas member and longtime LGBTQ advocate, told ENS just before the Jan. 20 service there that Sumner has “made every effort to make this as seamless as possible.”

“We’ve come a long way in this diocese,” Ellis said. “We’re able to talk to each other now without rancor and without the vitriol that previously occurred.”

Both Transfiguration and St. Thomas decided to live into the access granted by B012 by first recognizing couples whose marriages were caught up in the diocese’s prior refusal to authorize the rites in any way. The Rev. Paul Klitzke, Ascension’s rector, told ENS that members there did not feel the need for such a service. Instead, same-sex couples who until now had been unable to even have their anniversaries blessed were all invited to join in the parish’s tradition of giving those blessings on the first Sunday of each month. Those blessings first happened on the First Sunday of Advent, Dec. 2, the day when B012 became effective.

“The biggest heartbreak for us with this was that we had a really faithful couple who were here every week, sat in the front row, were really excited about the outcome of General Convention, and one of them died this fall,” Klitzke said. “We were expectant and hopeful, and I think they would have been out marking the new era because they would likely have been married now. Probably, this month we would have had a wedding service for them; instead last fall, we had a funeral.”

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, House of Deputies president, acknowledged in letters to both parishes that the historic celebrations “cannot fully compensate for the sadness of being unable to be married in your own church.”

She told the couples that “Episcopalians rejoice with you that justice has finally come” to their parishes. She said faithful LGBTQ Episcopalians “for too long have been asked to bear the burden of the church’s historic struggle to embrace the Gospel’s promise of inclusion.”

In her letter to St. Thomas, Jennings echoed a theme of both services when she remembered “with particular gratitude the saints who labored for decades to bring God’s justice to God’s church, including those who went on before us without seeing their dream come true today.”

Each of the Transfiguration couples could order their favorite cake and frosting for their individual “wedding cake.” Some further customized the cakes with toppers reflecting their interests. Each cake was displayed with the couple’s photo and a place card noting the date and location of their marriage. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Beth Ann Hotchko told ENS that she and her wife, Sandra Kay Potter, were married three times in different parts of the country as U.S. laws changed. She said she appreciated the leaders of the Episcopal Church who crafted Resolution B012, which she said brought Transfiguration to “a place where we don’t have to rely on our bishop to say yes or no, we have alternatives.”

The Rev. J.D. Godwin spent decades at Transfiguration, first as an assistant beginning in 1982, and then as rector from the fall of 2000 until leaving in March 2013. For all of that time, his partner, David Stinson, was with him. “For the first 18 years, we were very quiet,” Godwin told ENS before a rehearsal on Jan. 18. However, Godwin said, it was during the search that led to his being called as rector that the vestry understood and accepted the relationship.

The two men were married in 2012 in a United Church of Christ congregation in Davenport, Iowa. To be able to come back to Transfiguration and be among the 15 couples to renew their marriage vows “is just awesome, it’s heartwarming, it’s just incredible,” Godwin said.

“And, I am so sorry for the years that people didn’t get this opportunity. I look back at the numbers of people who are rejoicing on another shore.”

The Rev. Casey Shobe, Godwin’s successor, told ENS that being able to offer such a service “really does feel like a dream coming true.” Shobe testified at convention and was deeply involved in the work by deputies and others that resulted in the passage of B012. Robinson described him “as astounding in his passion for justice, even when he doesn’t have a pony in this race.”

Shobe in his interview with ENS said he hoped that the publicity the service received tells the rest of Dallas that “there is a Christian church in this community that really does believe in the equality of all, and that the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in Christian churches is no longer a fringe issue, something only done by a radical subset.”

Here is how the Dallas Morning News covered the Transfiguration service.

Shobe was involved in the development of a website called “Dear General Convention” that included videos and written stories about people who, prior to Resolution B012, could not be married in that diocese. The aim was to convince bishops and deputies to ensure full access to the rites. He said the site will eventually become a thank-you to the convention for its passage of B012. The organizers want to show “how grateful we are that the leaders of the Episcopal Church listened to our stories and heard our appeal and understood our hurt and our needs and helped to solve this problem,” he said.

St. Thomas members David Flick and Bob Moos were part of that appeal and were among the couples who renewed their vows on Jan. 20. In a Dear General Convention video, Flick and Moos told the story of when Flick received a bad report during his struggle with prostate cancer and how glad they were to have the support of St. Thomas clergy and members.

“The church was with us in the worst of times, and it never seemed right to me that they couldn’t be with us in happy times as well,” Moos said after the service.

Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle members David Flick, left, and Bob Moos take a turn at cutting the cake at a reception following the Jan. 20 service there. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The couple have been together since 1997 and were married in 2015 at the Church of St. Mary of the Harbor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Some St. Thomas members went with them to Cape Cod for the service, “but it’s not the same as being surrounded by your fellow parishioners (in your home church). I felt bad about that. I felt like a second-class Episcopalian,” Moos said through tears.

John Touhey, who renewed his vows with John Lambert during the St. Thomas service, said his sense of not being welcome in the Episcopal Church had driven him to a Universal Unitarian congregation. “If they’re not going to keep up with me, why should I stay in a church where I am not accepted,” Touhey said of his decision.

The Rev. Joy Daley, who served at Transfiguration as a deacon and priest before becoming St. Thomas’ rector in 2014, told ENS that, over the years, she found herself “sending people off to this church or that justice of the peace” to be married. Often, those couples would ask if she could bless their rings before their marriage elsewhere. “It always struck me as strange: I can bless these objects but not this beautiful relationship that God has brought into being?”

Daley, who testified during the B012 debate at convention, said she wants the rest of the Episcopal Church to know that the weekend of celebrations in Dallas means “love wins. If you don’t give up standing up for what you know that God has called you to, that faithfulness will ultimately be rewarded. You never know when and how.”

“I just feel grateful that in my time here, all that pain that I have seen people go through, that I have been able to be here for this day is a true blessing,” Daley said. “All those long meetings and frustration that people here have had to live with, that day has finally passed.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.

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