Episcopal priests soon will be authorized to perform church weddings for gay couples in Washington – the latest example of the American branch of Anglicanism striving to be more inclusive and diverse.
On Friday, a day after the first same-sex couples received marriage licenses in Spokane County, the top leader of the Episcopal Church arrived in Spokane to begin a three-day swing through the Inland Northwest.
“I know it’s something that many people in the church and beyond the church have been working for for a long time,” the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the church, said in an interview Friday.
Jefferts Schori, who grew up in the Seattle area, has championed the church of 2.4 million followers to be more welcoming and accepting of minorities, including gays and lesbians. Beginning last Sunday, the church began allowing its clergy in all states to bless same-gender relationships at the discretion of their bishops.
The church this year also voted to approve a nondiscrimination policy that will allow transgendered people to be ordained to the priesthood. That expands on a momentous policy change nine years ago, when the church approved the consecration of its first openly gay bishop.
Although many hailed the church for making strides in advancing gay rights, disputes over theology and homosexuality opened a rift, with some parishes and dioceses splitting off to form a new conservative alliance.
Despite the backlash, the contentious issues also have proven rewarding, said Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected senior bishop of a national church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has an estimated 80 million Christian followers.
“I think it’s actually strengthened the church’s ability to have challenging conversations, and that’s been a very good thing,” she said. “Even if people don’t agree, I think we’ve learned quite a bit about how to have these conversations, and that’s been a great gift.”
Relating Scripture to contemporary times always poses a challenge, she said.
“The issues change depending on where you are and when you are. It’s part of what it means to have Scripture understood as the living word of God,” she said. “The living word of God.”
In July the Episcopal Church approved a liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships, even in states where gay marriage is not legal.
“What’s happened at a churchwide level is a rite for blessing same-sex unions,” Jefferts Schori explained. “Marriage is only possible legally in a few jurisdictions in the Episcopal Church, all of them in the United States. There’s a variety of opinion about it. There certainly has been a groundswell of encouragement, but we’re not at the point of (universal) same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church.”
Washington voters approved same-sex marriage last month, and the law took effect this week. The Right Rev. James E. Waggoner Jr., bishop of the Diocese of Spokane, and his West Side counterpart, the bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, supported the law and will allow their clergy to perform same-gender marriage ceremonies and sign marriage certificates.
The Spokane Diocese, which extends into North Idaho, will present the new ceremony policy to its Washington clergy next week, spokesman Sam Fletcher said. The diocese is not aware of any same-sex couples who have approached a priest for marriage yet, Fletcher said.
The first mainline Protestant church in Spokane to marry gay couples under the new state law may be Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, which has two same-sex weddings coming up next summer, said Senior Pastor Andy CastroLang.
Westminster actually has performed many same-sex marriage ceremonies, CastroLang said.
“I’ve been doing same-gender loving couples’ weddings for years now because as a church, Westminster decided that they wanted to be inclusive and welcoming to everybody, to support everybody with the rites of the church, the sacraments of the church,” she said.
The difference now is that same-sex marriages in the church will be legally recognized by the state.