Episcopalians Approve Same-Sex Marriage

One of the standard narratives of the contemporary culture wars is that “Christians” oppose same-sex marriage and fear that their churches will be forced somehow to perform or recognize them.

Generally lost in the discussion is the fact that an ever-increasing number of Christian churches have decided on their own to perform or at least accept same-sex marriages. The trend will probably get more attention after yesterday’s decision by the Episcopal Church of the U.S.–the denomination to which eleven presidents belonged, and traditionally viewed as the the spiritual home of the country’s economic and cultural elite–to authorize national use of a same-sex marriage rite. The decision was made in separate, but equally overwhelming, votes by clergy and laity at the church’s General Convention that happened to occur in Salt Lake City. It’s not one of those “compromise” policies that leave the matter to individual bishops or parishes; it instructs bishops to “provide” marriage rites to all those who ask for them, which does suggests individual clergy can avoid participating if they wish.

The Episcopalians are by no means the first Protestant denomination to take this step. The Unitarian-Universalists have been performing same-sex weddings since the early 1970s. The United Church of Christ (which includes the denomination formerly known as Congregationalists, another church central to American traditions) has repeatedly affirmed marriage equality, though its decentralized structure continues to allow individual churches to dissent. In March the mainline Presbyterian Church USA took a position very similar to that of the Episcopalians (establishing a right to marriage, but not insisting that individual clergy perform same-sex marriages). The largest (and also mainline) Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has very close ties to the Episcopalians, has been allowing individual churches to perform same-sex ceremonies since 2009. And my own Christian Church/Disciples of Christ–another denomination with a strong tradition of congregational autonomy–leaves the policy on same-sex marriage up to individual regions and congregations.

I’d say the only major mainline Protestant tradition in which the wind may be blowing in a different direction is the United Methodists, where conservatives seem actually to be gaining strength in their fight against ordination of gay clergy and any recognition of same-sex marriages.

The ease with which the Episcopalians took the big step reflects not only a general, national change in public opinion on marriage equality, and also the fact that homophobic–or to use their definition, those faithful to scriptural standards of sexual behavior–Episcopalians mostly left the denomination after the battle over the consecration of gay Bishop Gene Robinson back in 2003. And even more obviously, the rapid legalization of same-sex marriages, consummated last week by SCOTUS, made setting a national policy a lot more natural.

In any event, the gays-versus-the-Christians framing of this issue will soon require at least a pretty substantial footnote.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.