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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ain't nobody gettin' hitched there

A Moratorium on Weddings

Published: January 14, 2005

NEW HAVEN, Jan. 13 - In a protest against the Episcopal Church's refusal to allow same-sex marriages, the leaders of a church in the stately East Rock section of this city have announced that they will perform no marriage ceremonies at all.

The decision, conveyed on Thursday in a letter from the priest to the 115 families of St. Thomas's Episcopal Church, is a novel challenge to the social and religious barriers to marriage between homosexuals.

Some Episcopal churches have handled the problem by offering gay couples a blessing ceremony that is not legally considered a marriage. Lay leaders at St. Thomas's have decided that the absence of a ritual at the heart of a church's spiritual and social functions is a powerful way to protest what they consider a form of religious discrimination.

The church has adopted the new policy even though no gay couples have asked to be married there.

Only about five heterosexual couples a year seek to be married at St. Thomas's. The Rev. Michael F. Ray, the church's priest, said he would refer those couples to one of a dozen other Episcopal churches in the area. He also said he would ask the couples "to postpone their marriage and stand in solidarity with same-sex couples so they understand what it's like not to have that privilege."

Officials of the Episcopal church say priests are under no obligation to perform marriage ceremonies, so that Father Ray's decision to enact a moratorium on them violates no canon law.

Two couples who had already booked the handsome Gothic church for their weddings will be able to proceed, Father Ray said. But one long-planned wedding will not take place there: his daughter's.

In his letter to parishioners, Father Ray cited the decision by his daughter, Catherine, a graduate student in Arizona, to forgo a religious ceremony for now. "I am overwhelmed by their expression of support and solidarity," he wrote of the couple, who will proceed with a civil ceremony.

Father Ray said that St. Thomas's had lost some families since discussion of a possible moratorium began in November. Parishioners said the conversation about the issue has been bubbling up for at least four years.

As many other religious groups have done, the Episcopal Church has been wrestling with the issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The issue came to a head in 2003 when the church confirmed its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

That decision threatened to splinter the church, and it continues to cause tension in some corners of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Right Rev. Andrew D. Smith, who heads the Episcopal Church's Connecticut Diocese, supported Bishop Robinson's confirmation. But he has denied parishes the right to encourage or legitimize same-sex marriages or blessings.

"The issue of gay marriage is real clear," said Bishop Smith, citing language in the Episcopal prayer book and canon law that defines marriage as being the union of a man and a woman. "It's prohibited. We don't go there."

But he added, "We have to reach some understandings about the ways to support persons in same-sex relationships within the church, and we haven't yet."

St. Thomas's was founded in 1848. Father Ray, who came to the parish in 1985, is only its fifth rector. "Once we come, we stay forever," he said.

According to Father Ray and some congregants, the church has been largely middle-of-the-road in its policies. But in 2000, it issued a proclamation welcoming all worshipers regardless of sexual orientation or other differences. Parish leaders also sent the diocese a message in 2003 expressing their support for Bishop Robinson's confirmation.

Louis Nemeth, a vestryman, or member of the church's lay administrative council, said the primary backers of the marriage protest were heterosexual parents with children in the church's day school, not gay members of the congregation.

"St. Thomas's is just a very inclusive parish," he said. "It's just part of who we are."

Some parishioners said they had met with officials from the diocese last year and received some quiet encouragement to "make some noise if they felt strongly about the issue" of same-sex marriages, according to Mark Branch, the church's senior warden.

Bishop Smith said he had been the host at dinners for gay and lesbian members of the clergy and their supporters in recent years, including one that was well attended by representatives from St. Thomas's. He said he considered St. Thomas's "a lively and engaged congregation, and that he advised guests who had concerns that they have "a right to address policy."

In November, the members of the vestry voted 10 to 1 to ask Father Ray to "treat same-sex couples and different-sex couples equally when it comes to marriage." They left it up to him about how to proceed.

Father Ray, 62, a divorced father of three, said he struggled over the decision. "The generation I grew up in, you didn't talk about these things," he said. "I grew up in Texas thinking I was the only gay person I knew." He said his children and the congregation had been accepting when he and his wife separated in 1986, a year after they arrived in New Haven. Congregants now speak comfortably about his 17-year relationship with another man.

Dorothy Asch, a longtime parishioner, said she supported equal treatment for all those in committed relationships, but was not sure "whether it should be called marriage."

"At 83, you have to think a little longer about it," she said.

Father Ray said he, too, had had difficulty at first "using the marriage word." But, he said, same-sex couples were deprived of many benefits available to married people, and "if the church takes the lead, it will help the civil issue."

"We're pushing the envelope," he said, but "our feeling is any change requires somebody making waves."


C.W.S. said...

As a worshipper in the Diocese of CT, I was very disturbed by Bishop Smith's statements against blessings, as we have had three SSBs openly celebrated in our parish (with liturgies, full choir, the works) over the last 14 months, supposedly with his acquiescence. However, I then noted this piece is from 2005. Smith's position changed in the fall of 2006 and he agreed to allow blessings going forward, having previously agreed on a moratorium until GC06.

scott said...


right you are.


Heinz 57 said...

St. Thomas's adjusted their policy after Bishop Smith adjusted his. The parish's web site,, says this:

"In 2004, the vestry adopted a resolution calling for St. Thomas's clergy to treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples equally in administering the sacrament of marriage. Since the Diocese of Connecticut prohibited the blessing of same-sex relationships at the time, the result was a moratorium on performing weddings at St. Thomas's that lasted for two years. (Same-sex unions may now be blessed in the diocese, so the church now offers ceremonies of blessing for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.)"

As a St. Thomas's parishioner, I can say that the moratorium sent a remarkable message of inclusion that attracted newcomers, not just LGBT people (though lots of those) but people from all kinds of families.

johnieb said...

Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, Bishop Smith's Cathedra, celebrated the union of two gay members of the parish last Summer after we spent some time with them working on the ceremony. We felt it was not only for our parish, but as an example to other parishes in the diocese.

I first met Bishop Smith as an ecumenical colleague more than twenty years ago; I am sure he is on the Angels' side in this.