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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

March 16, 2002 Saturday 
Religion Journal;
Going Inside the Church For Same-Sex Unions

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. - Deb Julian and Peg Stone are not exactly getting married. But that is the easiest way to describe the act of being "joined in civil union" that they are planning for April 6.

The Rev. Thomas J. Brown, who will officiate, said he was a little nervous about announcing their union in the St. Michael's Episcopal Church bulletin. Though it will be the ninth civil union he has performed, this will be the first time he holds the ceremony in his church. Some members of the congregation, he knew, would not be happy.

The couple, who are from Massachusetts, have been living together for two years and engaged for a year and a half. When they started planning for what they both regard as the biggest day in their lives, they knew they would head to Vermont, the only state to sanction same-sex unions.

And they knew they wanted a church ceremony.

"When I was growing up, I always thought I'd be married in a Catholic church," said Ms. Julian, who presented her partner with a diamond engagement ring on a trip to Disney World and is now finishing arrangements for a reception for 160 guests and a honeymoon in the Bahamas.

"We're girls," she explained. "What girl has never thought about having a big wedding?"

The path leading to a ceremony at St. Michael's began with a phone call to the Brattleboro town clerk.

The clerk put them in touch with Mr. Brown, 31, an openly gay priest who came to this southern Vermont parish in September 2000, two months after the civil union law took effect.

But when Ms. Julian approached Mr. Brown, he balked. He was growing increasingly uncomfortable about out-of-towners whom he did not know requesting his services.

"He was kind of steering us away because we weren't part of his church," Ms. Julian said.

Of the previous eight unions he had performed, Mr. Brown said, six were for out-of-towners.

"I did them out of support for the gay community," he said, but he had decided not to perform such unions anymore.

"It becomes like making a reservation for dinner," he said, adding, "I have a church to grow; I don't have time to be a tour director."

But Mr. Brown did agree to interview this couple and satisfied himself that they were truly committed to each other, and that both Ms. Julian and Ms. Stone, who were raised as Roman Catholics, were taking steps to join the Episcopal Church.

Then came the issue of where to hold the service. He offered them Christ Church, the oldest Episcopal church building in the state, in neighboring Guilford. Though it is now rarely used for regular services, Christ Church has been the site of several civil unions.

But Ms. Julian, 47, and Ms. Stone, 39, did not like the architecture there and started lobbying to say their vows in St. Michael's, the sanctuary where Mr. Brown holds three regular services a week for the 200 members of his congregation.

Ms. Julian and Ms. Stone are in many ways typical of couples seeking a Vermont civil union.

Dr. Bill Apao, the director of public health statistics for the state, said that 82 percent of the 3,471 unions performed as of the end of last year were for couples from out of state. Roughly two-thirds of the couples, 2,291, were women. Almost a quarter of the unions have taken place in Windham County, just over the border from Massachusetts.

Less typical will be the church service. Of the 291 unions performed in Brattleboro last year, only 24, or 8.1 percent, were performed by a member of the clergy, not all of them in church settings, the town clerk, Annette L. Cappy, said.

The issue of whether to bless same-sex unions is hotly debated among Episcopalians nationally. A proposal to have the church sanction such unions was narrowly defeated at the church's 2000 general convention in Denver. Mr. Brown said he planned to speak out in favor of such a proposal at the national gathering in Minneapolis next year.

Mr. Brown said his desire to bring the civil unions he performed into his church was religious as well as political.

"We believe that a couple has to be supported by their community in order for the relationship to last," he said. "No couple is going to get through the hills and valleys of a long-term relationship without the support and prayers of their faith and friendship communities."

The vows taken from the Book of Common Prayer explicitly include those gathered for a wedding in the ceremony. "Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two people in their marriage?" is a question asked in Episcopal weddings. In the case of civil unions, Mr. Brown substitutes the word "relationship" for "marriage."

Since the national Episcopal Church has not explicitly banned these unions, Mr. Brown is within his rights as a priest to bless them. In Vermont he also acts as an agent of the state, making the union legally binding in that jurisdiction.

Laura Lewis, a retired school librarian who joined St. Michael's when she moved to the area with her husband in 1968, said bringing civil unions into the church building was "a huge step." But, Ms. Lewis added, "Thomas is so wonderful that he just does these things that upset some people and makes them seem so logical."

Mr. Brown will perform a second civil union in St. Michael's later in April and a third in July. Though most members of his parish support same-sex unions, he said, "there are a bunch of people in this church who are opposed to the civil union legislation, but because it's the law they're not going to get in my face about it."

Bringing the unions into his church also speaks to his aspirations for the congregation. "I want the parish to celebrate civil unions in the light, not the dark," he said.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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