The Episcopal Church earlier this month took a leap forward in its evolving approach to gay rights, voting to allow priests to marry same-sex couples. But that won’t mean a rush to the altar at Louisiana churches.
No churches in the state have permission to marry gay couples until Nov. 29, the first Sunday of the Advent season. That’s when two new marriage rites using gender-neutral language become available for church services.
Meanwhile, priests who are opposed to same-sex marriage can, as a matter of conscience, refuse to officiate at such ceremonies. In Louisiana, that’s the norm.
Only a handful of the 97 Episcopal churches in the state have indicated they are planning to start holding same-sex weddings when the new rites take effect. These also are the only Louisiana churches that have presided over same-sex unions through a special “blessing” the Episcopal Church approved in 2012.
Some of the churches that haven’t offered blessings may seek to offer the new marriage rites, but that’s unclear. The bishops who oversee the two dioceses in Louisiana say they have received no new requests to do so.
Seven active bishops in the United States, after the national church’s July 1 vote, immediately barred all priests in their dioceses from offering same-sex marriages. Among them were the bishops in Dallas and Orlando, Florida.
Louisiana’s bishops say they have no plans to follow that path.
Bishop Jacob Owensby, who oversees 47 churches in western Louisiana, quickly granted permission to St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Lafayette and the Church of the Holy Cross in Shreveport to offer the new marriage rites come Nov. 29.
In a letter that was distributed at churches July 12 , Owensby said he respects the differing views on this controversial topic.
“No congregation, no priest, will ever be forced to perform same-sex marriages,” wrote Owensby, who is based in Pineville. “However, we recognize an array of opinions about marriage and make a space for progressive voices.”
In an email to The Advocate, Owensby said he’s asking the two churches to wait until Nov. 29, but he didn’t foreclose the possibility of allowing same-sex marriages earlier.
“The new liturgies are available beginning in Advent, and I urge waiting to use those liturgies since they are specifically designed for the purpose of marriage,” Owensby said. “However, we always respond pastorally to specific life circumstances.”
Bishop Morris Thompson, who oversees 50 churches in southeastern Louisiana, has yet to make a general pronouncement to his diocese, though he has met with priests from most of those churches.
Thompson, who is based in New Orleans, said he is in a period of “discernment” and is not planning to adopt a policy until October at the earliest.
He acknowledged that “four or five” churches in his diocese already offer blessings to gay and lesbian couples, but he has ordered them not to perform any formal same-sex marriages until Nov. 29. Thompson would not identify those churches, noting that a couple of them have been reluctant to declare publicly that these services are available.
Going forward, he plans to seek advice from other clergy, ask a lot of questions and spend some time getting the details right.
“For us in Louisiana, it’s best that we think this through, so I appreciate the extra time,” Thompson said.
The vote by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Salt Lake City came just five days after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. The Episcopal Church joins two other mainline Protestant groups that allow gay marriage in all their congregations: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The approval of same-sex marriage comes after decades of debate in the Episcopal Church — which has nearly 1.9 million members— over whether gay leaders and same-sex marriage should be embraced. The fighting escalated in 2003 when the church ordained its first openly gay bishop.
The church’s expansion of the definition of marriage, coming so soon after the court decision, has raised hopes among gay and lesbian couples throughout the United States that they would quickly be able to solemnize their new legal right to wed inside an Episcopal church.
In some states, where same-sex marriage was previously legal, they’ve been able to do this for a couple of years. Episcopal churches in those states made use of a provision in the 2012 church resolution approving same-sex blessings. The resolution said that in states where it already was legal and where the bishop was agreeable, Episcopal priests could adapt the same-sex blessing liturgy and preside over a marriage ceremony.
The new marriage rites, though, take matters further. They are unquestionably religious sacraments, which gives them greater spiritual weight.
The new liturgy will refer to a “couple” instead of “man and woman,” though the church’s traditional marriage rite still remains available to couples who want to use it.
The Rev. Jim Morrison, pastor of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans, who is gay, said he’s disappointed by the delay but that he understands Thompson has a lot of different factions to bring along.
“We are eager to offer all the sacraments to all of God’s people,” he said.
Morrison said Thompson has been accepting of gay and lesbian church members and even walked in a recent gay pride parade in New Orleans.
In churches already offering same-sex blessings, interest in offering same-sex marriage ceremonies has been immediate and strong. That’s especially true at Episcopal churches in New Orleans, quick adopters of same-sex blessings.
“We had three calls on the day the Supreme Court ruled,” said the Rev. Mitchell Smith, one of the three priests at Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans, the largest Episcopal church in the state, with more than 2,000 members.
Personally, he said he’s elated by the church’s expansion of marriage to gay and lesbian couples.
“I see this is a great thing,” he said. “It is my prayer that the whole church sees it this way.”
In Baton Rouge, the landscape is less clear. The Advocate called Episcopal churches in the Capital City to see how priests are reacting to the July 1 decision. Many did not respond, and those who did were cautious.
The Rev. Richard Edwards, of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, said he and other priests are in a “state of suspense,” waiting on the bishop to lay out the path forward. He said he’s had no requests from members of his congregation to receive a same-sex marriage or a same-sex blessing. He said that next month, St. Margaret’s will hold “a series of forums and reflections on the nature of marriage, talk about what has happened.”
The Rev. Mark Holland, of St. James Episcopal Church, would not discuss the issue, directing all questions to the bishop.
In Lafayette, the Rev. John Bedingfield, of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, said his church held just one same-sex blessing prior to the July 1 church decision. He has since scheduled a same-sex wedding, he said, but not until December, once the new liturgies are in effect.
“It is not a sacrament without a liturgy,” Bedingfield said.
One area of uncertainty is the referral process that churches will use for same-sex Episcopalian couples who are turned away from their home church.
Owensby said he’s asking all churches to direct such requests to his office.
Thompson said he is urging such churches to help same-sex couples find an alternative church that offers the new rites, but he acknowledged that a few priests have expressed discomfort with doing even that. In those cases, he’s asking the churches to direct people to his office; he does not plan to go further in enforcing referrals.
“I am not going to bring priests up on charges because of their conscience,” he said.