Love Wins Again. And Again.
We are growing accustomed to rapid change in support of equality—now 12 states and the District of Columbia provide full marriage equality, lots of nations do the same (can you believe Uruguay?), and the polls show a national majority in the U.S. in support of marriage equality (and even in Virginia!).
Religious bodies tend to change more slowly—that is generally an understatement—but even there we find change. And there are moments when even in religion a tipping point is reached and everything changes.
We are accustomed to change coming from people at the top sometimes—Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church is an example—but in truth most of the time it takes people on the ground to make change happen. Bishop Robinson did not become a bishop by himself—Episcopalians in New Hampshire voted to make it so.
Now, we have another gay bishop elected—R. Guy Erwin as the first openly gay man, and first Native American, bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), in the Southwest CA Synod. Of course, Bishop Erwin did not do this on his own either. Without the vote of the governing body of the ELCA in 2009 to allow gay men and lesbian women to be ordained as clergy, Bishop Erwin would still be layperson.
Here is a bit of history. In 2007, Rev. Bradley Schmeling was removed from the ministerial roster of the ELCA because he admitted he was in a committed same-sex relationship with another Lutheran minister, Darin Easler (a former pastor at a church in Minnesota, he was also removed from the roster). But Pastor Schmeling’s congregation, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta, refused to accept the ELCA action and voted to keep him on as pastor. The congregation decided they would leave the ELCA if that was necessary to keep their pastor. They loved him that much. Their action forced a painful, but ultimately, positive change for a majority of delegates at the 2009 convention of the ELCA.
It took six years—from Pastor Schmeling’s removal in 2007 to Bishop Erwin’s election in 2013—to bring about change from top to bottom in the ELCA. That is pretty fast in religious life. Sometimes, love moves mountains fairly quickly.
Of course, while a leader needs to be in place, ready to stand for change, without supporters, without lots of allies in the ranks, without lovers, the change won’t happen.
That’s what makes another story in the news so exciting. Did you see the news about those Mormons for Equality marching the Utah Gay Pride parade? This is their second year showing strong public support for equality, including in marriage, in Utah. And other local chapters of the group are active around the country.
The church hierarchy no longer excommunicates people for being LGBT, but for many of their faith, that is not enough. Already, some political leaders who are Mormon have moved beyond their church—including former Republican Utah governor and presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman.
Another group, Mormons Building Bridges, showed up Utah Pride again this year. They don’t take a position on marriage—which of course means they do—but they at least are trying to say that they don’t hate LGBT Utahns. Even that is a start. Not hating certainly makes love more possible.
In the long run, this could be a case where the hierarchy is overtaken by the members.
That seems to be what happened in Rhode Island, the last New England state to embrace full marriage rights for same-gender-loving couples. This tiny state is also the nation’s most Catholic (more than 40% claim that faith), and many predicted that despite its pretty regular tilt towards the Democrats, the Roman Catholic Church would deny a marriage victory.
But despite feverish efforts by the church’s powerful lobby and a statement by the Bishop of Providence that referred to marriage equality as a “grave risk to our spiritual well-being,” the church lost. The vote was overwhelming in the state legislature.
The bishop then condemned “immoral or destructive behavior” and encouraged Catholics to think carefully before attending or participating in gay marriage ceremonies, saying that to do so “might harm their relationship with God and cause significant scandal to others.”
But that’s not how the openly gay, and deeply religious, Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives sees it. A faithful member of his church choir for decades, Speaker Frank Ferri says that when he was struggling with his sexuality he got a clear message from God: “You’re going to be OK. Be who you are.” The message of loving oneself is indeed pretty powerful.
So, here’s another take on that. Rev. Gary Meier is a Roman Catholic priest—at least for now. Recently, he came out publicly, in a book he first published anonymously but has now released with his name as the author,
“I have tried over the years to reconcile my silence as a gay priest with that of the Church’s increasingly anti-gay stance. I have been unsuccessful,” Meier writes in his book “Hidden Voices: Reflections of a Gay, Catholic Priest.”
No one knows how long, or whether, he will be allowed by the church hierarchy to remain a priest. It seems he has effectively ended his career as a priest. He has stopped administering the sacraments on his own initiative. In his book, Meier said he had to go public as a matter of personal integrity. “I see my speaking out as an act of love toward a community which was born of God’s radical inclusively,” he wrote.
That is the bottom line, of course, for many people of faith, whatever the faith may be. What is the loving thing to do?
Love is an unruly force, not one that answers or bows to human hierarchies. And that’s why we have Bishop Erwin, marriage in Rhode Island, Mormons marching, and priests coming out.
Stay tuned. There will be more. Even here, perhaps even especially here, in Virginia.
Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline is President of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, an interfaith organization of gay and straight clergy and lay people working for equality for LGBT Virginians. Read more of his thoughts on faith and spirituality on his personal blog.
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Support for LGBT rights and religious inclusion has expanded drastically over the past decadeAugust 26, 2016
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