David McClendon and Matthew Haire will be flying to Vancouver, British Columbia, to be married on Aug. 29. The Norman couple will celebrate their eighth anniversary as partners by marrying in spite of their church’s unwillingness to provide the sacred rites that legitimize their marriage.
The men are members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Norman, and their circumstances highlight the state of the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA) and their parent organization, the Worldwide Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion has just completed its Lambeth Conference, the gathering of church bishops that occurs every 10 years. But this year, a separate gathering of conservative bishops met in Jerusalem as a protest to the Anglican Communion’s position on same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay bishops.
The international and ecclesial issues that beset the Anglican Communion have a local and personal face in McClendon and Haire. Speaking on the feasibility of a wedding in their own church, McClendon said: “Suffice it to say at this juncture, the Episcopal Church refuses to allow us to marry, or even have a holy union (a separate term for those who want marriage to mean a traditional male/female couple) to recognize our relationship.
“They will not allow us to have our union blessed publicly in any way, utilize our church with other clergy or permit either of us to be ordained to a holy order. We have also been discouraged from any public recognition of anniversaries that our parish brothers and sisters celebrate annually in an open forum within our church.”
McClendon and Haire are a self-described “boring couple” who present the Episcopal Church in Oklahoma with a difficult test of the limits of tolerance and the application of ecclesial policy. Both men have served on the vestry of their church, a board that is defined by ECUSA as having responsibility to “help define and articulate the mission of the congregation, to support the church’s mission by word and deed, to select the rector, to ensure effective organization and planning and to manage resources and finances.” Both have been convention delegates, as well ” a role that demonstrates the congregation’s trust in and respect for the couple.
“According to the canons of the church, we’re welcome and equal,” Haire said. “But we can’t be equal if we’re not afforded the same rights and privileges as all other members of the church.”
McClendon said they don’t want to be perceived as embittered or angry at their fellow parishioners. “We’ve been treated well at St. John’s,” he said.
The couple said they felt forced to seek a blessing for their relationship outside the Episcopal Church after the church refused to allow them to lease the facility for their wedding and after conversations with the Right Rev. Edward Konieczny, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, failed to yield a satisfactory resolution.
“Implied in every conversation we had with our church and diocese was that they were concerned with the appearance of endorsing same-sex marriage,” Haire said. “We’ve had private meetings with the bishop and he has said he supports us. He said that the church is moving forward, and as the church moves forward, he said the Oklahoma diocese will move forward. For now, he’s supporting the U.S. House of Bishops who called for a moratorium last year on consecrating gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. The issue they’re using as an excuse is that the Book of Common Prayer has no rite for same-sex union.”
The Rev. Canon Jose McLoughlin, the canon to the ordinary of the Oklahoma diocese, said Bishop Konieczny did not want to discuss the matter. “The bishop has a policy of not discussing the private lives of parishioners,” McLoughlin said.
Tony Baker, assistant professor of theology at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, said that the Book of Common Prayer has a more central role in Episcopal ecclesiology than the canons of the church.
“The canons, as far as I know, don’t speak specifically to issues of sexuality, other than to say that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Baker said. “The Book of Common Prayer has no order of marriage for a same-sex couple.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams concluded the recent Lambeth Conference with an appeal to the Anglican Communion to refrain from consecrating more gay bishops and to allow space for Christians to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage. “A fellow Christian may believe they have a profound fresh insight,” Williams said to the conference. “They seek to persuade others about it. A healthy church gives space for such exchanges.”
Baker said he believes the slow pace of change is good for the Anglican Communion, saying it prevents churches or bishops from seeking to define what it is to be Anglican apart from the larger fellowship. Still, he acknowledged that the slow pace of change also presents problems for couples like McClendon and Haire.
“This issue has been building for the past 10 years,” Baker said. “After Lambeth 10 years ago, the U.S. (Episcopal) Church was shocked that the bishops had gone to the trouble of reaffirming the heterosexual nature of marriage without making room for same-sex relationships. That was followed by the consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a non-celibate relationship, as bishop. Episcopalians were caught off guard.
“The Anglican Communion has always been defined as a church that was not built around centralized authority,” Baker said. “Instead, they have been conciliatory toward differing opinions and believed in working out questions in discussion.”
Also, according to Baker, the consecration of the Right Rev. Robinson, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, signaled that factions within the Anglican Communion were willing to forego the discussion in favor of activism.
Haire said the Anglican definition of full communion, or full membership, is insufficient. “How can they say we’re full members if they aren’t going to allow us the privileges of full members: marriage, ordination and holy orders?”
‘I UNDERSTAND THEIR DESIRE’
Caught in the middle of this debate is the Rev. Dwight Helt, the rector of St. John’s. Helt came to St. John’s in 2003. He said McClendon and Haire were two of the first people in the church to welcome him.
“In many ways, they are like a typical couple,” Helt said. “They’re very much like other married couples in the church, but my vows preclude me from blessing their union. Being part of a fellowship and taking ordination vows may mean that your heart may long for what you cannot do.”
Helt said he understood the plight of couples like McClendon and Haire and he is aware that other clergy have performed blessing ceremonies. “Some clergy, in their compassion for same-sex couples, have gone ahead and performed these ceremonies,” Helt said. “I understand their desire, but that’s not how the church works. I have strong feelings of my own, and I want to maintain an openness to move with the Spirit.”
Although he speaks well of his relationship with Helt, McClendon disagrees about how the church works. “The Episcopal Church has endorsed by Resolution C051 that it recognizes that individual dioceses are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing of same-sex unions,” he said. “Also, the House of Bishops (in New Orleans, 2007) stated: ‘We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s church.’ Making this statement indicates that such persons are to be considered as nothing less than whole members of the church.”
At issue is how the ECUSA relates to the Anglican Communion. By making statements approving same-sex unions, consecrating a gay bishop, and calling a woman, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, as the presiding bishop of the ECUSA, conservative critics say the American church has located itself on the liberal side of the Anglican Communion. More than 200 bishops chose not to attend Lambeth this year as a protest against these moves in the American church and their belief that Archbishop Williams is supportive of the ECUSA.
“One of the few real powers the archbishop of Canterbury has is the ability to invite people to Lambeth,” Baker said. “This year he sent a message by not inviting Gene Robinson and Martin Mims, bishops who represent the left and right of the Anglican Communion. GAFCON (the bishops who represent conservative Anglicans opposed to gay ordination and gay marriage) bishops will find themselves increasingly isolated and will probably move back toward Canterbury.”
In the meantime, McClendon and Haire will fly to Vancouver and be married. They said they chose Canada because a ceremony performed there would be recognized in any U.S. jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage. Current Oklahoma law would not recognize their marriage because the state legally defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The couple will have a reception in Oklahoma City when they return. Robin Meyers, a United Church of Christ minister in Oklahoma City and Oklahoma Gazette commentary writer, will fly to Vancouver to perform the ceremony.
Haire said he has been informed by Helt that, although Helt had originally agreed to read Scripture in the service the two will hold upon their return to Oklahoma, he “decided he should not participate.” According to Haire, Helt said this was to ensure he was in keeping with Bishop Konieczny’s request that Helt not do anything that would give the appearance he was endorsing or blessing the union. “Greg Horton