Across New York City, and the entire Empire State, truckloads of wedding invitations are being dispatched for July 25. On that auspicious day, happy gay and lesbian couples are inviting their friends and family to join them on beaches, boats, churches and courthouse steps to watch them tie a knot that, in many cases, should have been tied years ago.
As someone who worked hard toward making this historic moment happen, I'm giddy with excitement. But as a reverend who is now newly sanctioned to conduct legal, state-authorized weddings, I am feeling a little uninvited to the party, as not one same-sex couple has approached me to officiate at their ceremony.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I'm an obvious choice as a bona fide minister and the president of Union, a seminary, where open LGBTQ students and faculty have been studying and teaching for decades. Given this, it's interesting to ask: Why is my schedule for July 25 not booked solid with vow-sharing celebrations? In some small way, I think, it indicates that the tide of intolerance toward gay and lesbians is not only turning, but has been for quite awhile. After all, it's been nearly 20 years since I presided over my first same-sex marriage.
This was back in the early 1990s, when I was a professor at Yale Divinity School. At this time, no state in America was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and few churches were even talking about it. I don't recall being particularly shocked, or even surprised, however, when two women who were Divinity School students approached me one afternoon, and asked me if I would marry them.
There was no question that I was willing. Immediately, it struck me as an idea whose time had come. I teach the history of Christianity, so I'm all too aware how the church has, at various points in its checkered past, refused to allow interracial marriages, interfaith marriages and even international marriages. Just as these unfair interdictions faded away over time, I believed prohibitions over same sex couples being wed would, too.
But here's what most interesting. I didn't say "yes" to the lesbian couple's request right away. Instead, I paused. Why? Because I wouldn't have given my assent immediately to a heterosexual couple, either.
Marriage is a serious business, and shouldn't be entered into lightly, whether you are gay or straight. With this in mind, I insisted we have a series of conversations together about what their proposed union meant to them, during which I could discern if I found them compatible enough for me to publicly sanction their commitment ceremony. Like any responsible pastor, I had to make sure I wasn't enabling a destructive union to take place, one potentially marked by violence, for example. In this case, after six weeks of marriage counseling, all was well. I agreed to marry the women.
This is a crucial point, and worth pondering for a moment longer. I am proud to be ordained by the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, as both of these denominations have been at the forefront of supporting LGBT issues, be it the ordination of gay clergy or the right for homosexual couples to marry. Support, however, does not translate in our faith communities into special treatment. Marriage equality is just that: equality. Despite some of the inflammatory and fear-mongering rhetoric that swirls around this contentious issue, gays and lesbians can't expect, and shouldn't get, an express pass to the marriage altar.
Here's a funny story. Later that distant summer, an older woman friend, she was probably 75, asked me if it was true I had married two men. said, "Oh no, that's not true at all!" She looked immensely relieved -- at least she did until I added, "I married two women." Well, she hesitated for a moment, staring at me. Then the woman smiled and jerked up her palm to give me a high five. On the spot, she changed her mind. She was open to the new normal.
Alas, not everything worked out quite this happily ever after. I'm sorry to report that this first same-sex marriage I oversaw did not last. The couple ended up separating and eventually dissolved their bond.
Two decades on, I look forward to an even "newer" normal, when I'll watch reports and hear tell of the many hopefuls (Reuters has estimated 66,000 gay couples will marry in New York state in the next three years) who will begin lining up on July 25. Again, though, let's remember that homosexuals are no different -- not worse, not better -- than straight couples, in that their legal unions are just as apt to succumb to pressures and problems and just as likely to result in divorce. Sadly, that's just how it is.
My hope, however, is that churches will continue to be places where guidance is offered and support given to couples as they struggle through difficulties. Our task as clergy is not to marry everyone who asks. Our calling is to provide honest and caring direction to couples who seek to embark on that awesome task of binding their hearts and minds together.
The end of any marriage -- including, I might add, the unraveling of my own -- does not lessen my commitment to the idea of holy matrimony.
On the contrary. If the church is to have any relevance in our lives, it must be a place that every single day celebrates and nurtures love of all kinds, yet consoles and forgives everyone whose love falters or fails.
That's marriage equality.
Dr. Serene Jones is the first female President of Union Theological Seminary.