The Episcopal Church, America’s branch of the global Anglican Communion, is taking major steps forward on LGBT issues this week at its General Convention in Indianapolis. Yesterday, both houses of the General Convention — the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies — overwhelmingly passed a resolution adding gender identity and expression to the church’s nondiscrimination laws. In addition, the House of Bishops, which is an all-clergy body and the more conservative of the two houses, voted to approve a liturgy blessing same-sex unions. The House of Deputies is expected to approve the measure later this week; if it does, the Episcopal Church will become the largest mainline Christian denomination in the country to allow such unions.
Gender identity and expression were added to two canons. Changes to the first, titled “Extending the Rights of the Laity,” mean that transgender people are named and included as full members in the body of the Episcopal Church for the first time. Adding gender identity and expression to the second, which concerns ordination, opens the discernment process and ordination itself to trans people. Rev. Carla Robinson, the deputy from Olympia, spoke of the profound importance of including trans people like her:
By including gender identity and gender expression in this canon, you will rightly name us. By naming us in this canon we as a church are continuing to incarnate the Christ-like welcome that is central to our way of faith, and to make it clear to the whole world that the gospel of God’s love in Jesus Christ is for everyone.
Today the Episcopal Church “put the T in equality” by explicitly including transgender people in the work and witness of the Episcopal Church and as candidates to the ordained ministry. . . And it is not just a good day for transgender Episcopalians and their friends, families and allies. It is a good day for all of us who are part of a church willing to the risk to continue to draw the circle wider as we work to live out our call to make God’s inclusive love known to the whole human family.
The House of Bishops’ approval of the rite, titled “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” is significant because in the past, Episcopal bishops put up the strongest resistance to allowing the blessing of same-sex unions. Yesterday, though, the resolution sailed through on a 111-41 vote.
These major steps forward in the Episcopal Church come at the same time that the worldwide Anglican Communion appears to be moving backwards. The General Synod of the Church of England — the UK branch of the Anglican Communion and that nation’s established church — put off a vote yesterday to ordain women bishops after reformers rejected an amendment by conservative traditionalists that would have allowed parishes who object to female bishops to choose their own, male bishop in the event that a woman is named to head their diocese. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently decried the struggles for women’s rights and LGBT rights as “identity politics” that carried the risk of “fragmenting the society we belong to,” and has pandered to the Stone-Age sexual mores of the church’s homophobic African bishops in an effort to hold the fragile Anglican Communion together. Bishops in the United Kingdom have even threatened to disestablish the church from the state if the government carries out its plan to legalize civil marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Progress on LGBT rights in other mainline Christian denominations has been mixed. The Methodist Church recently voted to preserve anti-gay language in that church’s bylaws, also caving under pressure from sexually conservative African delegates. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America approved the ordination of LGBT people in committed relationships in 2009, and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. followed suit last year. The United Church of Christ voted to support full civil and religious marriage equality in 2005. For its part, the Roman Catholic Church is sharply divided between clergy and laity on LGBT issues. A large majority of American Catholics support LGBT rights, including marriage equality, but the nation’s Catholic bishops are waging a high-profile campaign of spiritual bullying against LGBT people.