CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The bishops of North Carolina’s three Episcopal dioceses have announced they will allow their priests to bless same-gender marriages and officiate at civil ceremonies for the couples, following a federal judge’s ruling last week striking down the state’s anti-LGBT constitutional amendment.
Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina was first out of the gate, announcing the change would become effective on Nov. 1, the church’s Feast Day of All Saints. New guidelines for clergy are expected before that date.
Curry and the North Carolina diocese made provisions for the blessings of same-gender unions in 2004, a statement from Curry’s office read.
“Since that time, the Rt. Rev. Anne E. Hodges-Copple, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, and I have, following our understanding of the teachings and the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, been on public record in support of marriage equality and in opposition to the limitations on the civil rights of same-sex couples and others imposed by Amendment One,” Curry said in the statement.
In a follow-up via diocese communications director Christine McTaggart, Curry added: “[The Diocese is], indeed, revising the guidelines to reflect the change in the North Carolina marriage laws. In the new guidelines, the same theological and moral values will apply equally to all, regardless of whether it’s a heterosexual or same-sex couple. The sacramental rites of marriage will be available to the faithful with the same pre-marriage pastoral expectation and support that has always been given to couples seeking marriage.”
North Carolina’s two other dioceses — in the west and in the east — have followed suit.
Bishop G. Porter Taylor of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina has issued new guidelines, similar to those in the Diocese of East Carolina, that clergy ” may officiate at the civil marriage of a same sex couple as a ‘generous pastoral response’ to lesbian and gay couples seeking to be married, and may bless the civil marriage of the couple.”
Individual priests and parishes are not required to perform blessings or marriages for same-sex couples.
The moves in North Carolina come even as official U.S. Episcopalian doctrine on marriage remains unchanged. In 2009, the national church approved rites for blessing same-sex relationships, but stopped short of including LGBT couples in their definition of marriage.
But, the church also gives broad authority to individual bishops.
“All of our bishops are equal, even our presiding bishop. She is ‘first among equals,'” Vivian Taylor, executive director of LGBT Episcopal ministry Integrity USA, explained to qnotes on Wednesday. “In our church, there is a great deal of respect for individual dioceses,” “It has very much paid off when you see how many dioceses have opened themselves to same-gender marriages.”
In Charlotte, local Episcopalians welcomed the new changes from their bishop.
“We are joyful at this opportunity,” said the Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, associate rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the city’s oldest Episcopal parish.
St. Peter’s has been one of the many Episcopal parishes blessing same-gender unions, including those of their own members.
“We’re thrilled that the political reality is aligning with what we’ve believed is the spiritual reality — that God blesses people who want to live in lifelong committed relationships,” said Schaefer. “It’s part of what St. Peter’s has been about for a long time.”
Doug Hutto and his partner Steve Thomas, both in their 60s, are members at St. Peter’s, where Doug is a Eucharistic minister. Hutto and his partner have been together 35 years. They had a service blessing their relationship in the early 1980s, but now that marriage is legal, they plan on having holding their ceremony at St. Peter’s.
“It’s about time that this has happened here,” Hutto said. “The day it was announced, I called the church. They had already emailed me a congratulations saying they were ready and wanted to sit down and talk to us about the ceremony.”
For such a long wait, Hutto wants the occasion to be special.
“Yes, I want it to be full tilt. It will be with Holy Communion and the whole thing,” Hutto said. “This is historic. I don’t want to down play it. It’s not to be showy or in your face. It’s just that I want it to be done with a lot dignity and pomp and celebration.”
Polly Paddock welcomed the news, too. A member at Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter on Park Rd., Paddock’s daughter was married to her wife out of state.
“I know it’s important to them (and to me) that their marriage be recognized in their home state,” said Paddock, herself a daughter of an Episcopal minister. “I think there’s no question that Jesus would favor marriage equality; he was all about love, after all.”
Paddock also thinks the step forward will be a relatively easy one. A lesbian couple together for 30 years has already had a blessing ceremony at Holy Comforter. Several church members attended.
“I think most (but I’m sure not all) of my fellow parishioners share my views,” Paddock said. “I’m sure there will be some tough discussions, but ultimately I think this will ease acceptance.”
Diocese ‘moving forward’
Integrity USA’s Taylor, an Albemarle native, said the news of advancements in her home state are particularly welcome.
“I’m the 11th generation of my family to be born in Stanly County in North Carolina,” she said. “North Carolina is my home.”
Taylor offered particular praise for Bishop Curry, who she says “is very strongly moving the diocese forward.”
On Nov. 6, just days after priests can begin marrying same-gender couples, Curry will host a special 40th anniversary Eucharist service for Integrity USA. The group is expanding their work into the U.S. South.
“We have been in conversations about where to go next and one very important thing to realize is that there is a huge LGBTQ population in the American South. There are huge numbers of families with children. Huge numbers of people just trying to make it by,” Taylor said.
Taylor said LGBTQ people in the South are often left out of national advocacy efforts.
“We felt it important to start move to and especially working in the American South,” she said. “Since North Carolina is, of course, an important state in which we have so many connections, it seemed like a good place to start. Bishop Curry, especially, has been incredibly welcoming and supportive of our work.”