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Episcopal couples, advocates hope the church removes gay marriage restrictions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (USA Today) — Episcopalians will consider altering rules related to weddings for same-sex couples when they gather this month in Texas for the denomination's triennial meeting.

The Rev. Cynthia Black, left, and the Rev. Bonnie Perry, right, hug after Episcopalians overwhelmingly voted July 1, 2015, to allow religious weddings for same-sex couples. The vote came in Salt Lake City at the Episcopal General Convention, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (USA Today) — Indie Pereira and her wife, Pari Bhatt, still want a church wedding.

The Nashville couple regularly attends St. Philip’s Episcopal Church but opted for a civil ceremony in the living room of the city’s former mayor because their bishop will not permit same-sex couples to have the religious ceremonies in the church.

Pereira and Bhatt live and worship within the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, one of only eight dioceses in the country where such a ban exists. Their struggle is illustrative of how views on marriage continue to threaten the unity of the denomination.

The other dioceses that ban same-sex marriage ceremonies in the church are Albany, N.Y.; Central Florida; Dallas; Florida; North Dakota; Springfield, Ill.; and the Virgin Islands, according to a report from the church’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage.

“It amazes me that I could literally go to any other diocese that touches us and get married,” said Pereira.

But that could change soon.

Same-sex marriage rules could change

Episcopalians will consider altering rules related to weddings for same-sex couples when they gather this month in Texas for the denomination’s triennial meeting. The legislative session of their General Convention begins Thursday (July 5) and runs through July 13 at the Austin Convention Center.

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Two resolutions before this year’s General Convention could make weddings like the one Pereira and Bhatt want a reality.

One resolution, authored by the denomination’s Task Force on the Study of Marriage, would require that bishops make the religious marriage ceremonies available to all couples. And it proposes changes to the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, including stripping out gender-specific language as it relates to marriage.

Three bishops put forward the second resolution. This one would give couples access to the religious wedding, too. But it would require bishops who object to have another willing bishop step in and authorize it. This resolution would not try to change the prayer book.

“My hope is that what they are able to do at the General Convention is to open this up to those of us who have been left out without making anyone feel like they have to participate in something that they’re not ready for,” Pereira said recently as she sat next to her wife in their home.

The current patchwork of rules started in 2015 when the General Convention opened the door for same-sex weddings by approving trial-use liturgies for marriage. But the rules left it up to each bishop to decide whether the liturgies could be used within their geographic regions.

Tennessee bishop stands firmly behind his decision

Ninety-three bishops authorized same-sex weddings, according to the report by the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. All but 20 of those bishops did so without conditions.

Bishop John Bauerschmidt, who oversees the Middle Tennessee region of the church, stands firmly by his decision not to authorize their use, nor allow clergy within his diocese to officiate the religious ceremonies or permit the weddings on church property.

In doing so, the bishop said, he is being faithful to his job of guarding the discipline, faith and unity of the church.

“The teaching that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman is reasonable, traditional, and scriptural,” Bauerschmidt said in an email. “There really is nothing remarkable about a Christian bishop who holds to this teaching.”

While bishops can place limitations on the use of the marriage liturgies, they must refer couples to a willing diocese if they do not authorize them. Bauerschmidt chose the Diocese of Kentucky.

Pereira and Bhatt became engaged June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples could legally marry across the country. The landmark decision came just days before the General Convention approved the trial-use liturgies for marriage, and Bauerschmidt issued his decision that November.

The couple did not want to marry in Kentucky.

Bhatt is originally from India, and the need for the legal protections civil marriage offers forced the issue. Megan Barry, who was Nashville mayor at the time, married the couple on Jan. 3, 2016, in her living room.

“It clouded the day because it felt like we had to do it at a place that we didn’t want to do it,” Pereira said. “We needed those protections while we were waiting for the church to come around.”

While some members of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee disagree with Bauerschmidt’s prohibition, some church members support it.

Langley Granbery, who is a member of an Episcopal Church in Nashville, agrees with Bauerschmidt because he believes the bishop’s viewpoint matches what Scripture says as well as the church’s historic position on marriage.

“I’m very thankful that he’s taken the stance on upholding traditional marriage,” said Granbery.

He worries the denomination could eventually shift far astray of its past position on marriage. This year, he hopes the General Convention will not overrule bishops  such as Bauerschmidt nor change what the book of prayer says about marriage.

Granbery is concerned that eventually there may no longer be space in the Episcopal Church for conservative positions like his.

The future is unknown

Bauerschmidt has tried to emphasize unity in the face of the division within the diocese, but the ban has strained relationships for those on both sides of the issue.

In January, church members voted nearly unanimously during their diocesan meeting to send an official message to the General Convention, asking the bishops and deputies to “take in account the exclusion, competing convictions, and loss of community experienced by members of this diocese” because of the 2015 policy change.

That step was driven in part by the work of All Sacraments for All People, a local grass-roots group formed in response to the bishop’s ban. The organization wants all Episcopalians to be able to belong to a congregation that allows them to receive all the sacraments, including marriage.

Connally Davies Penley, who is a part of the group, does not know what to expect from the General Convention, but is hopeful.

Davies Penley wants the resolution that does not require a bishop’s permission passed.

The group has been in touch with church members in some of the other seven dioceses where the use of the marriage liturgies is banned.

Members in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas put together a similar campaign. The national group, Integrity USA, also continues to push for LGBTQ inclusion in the church and hopes the General Convention will make it so couples can marry in the church regardless of where they live in the U.S., said Bruce Garner, president of Integrity.

The Rev. Susan Russell, of California, who served on the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, said the bishops’ resolution is well-intentioned but would enshrine a separate and inherently unequal status for LGBTQ church members.

“We can do better,” Russell said in an email.

Resolutions can change as they make their way through the General Convention process. So it remains to be seen what will happen in Texas.