For more than 40 years the Episcopal Church has stood in support of the rights of gay and lesbian people and in more recent years has expanded that to include transgender people. This support for LGBT rights isn’t a political stance but a theological one, based in the knowledge that people are beloved children of God and worthy of respect.
It was one of the first Christian denominations to recognize in 1976 that “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern of the Church.” This resolution was passed only one year after the American Psychological Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. At its next General Convention in 1979, the Episcopal Church declared that there is no barrier to the ordination of homosexual people.
Over the next 36 years, we struggled with the recognition of the faithful and monogamous relationships between gay and lesbian couples. Our denomination has its conservative wing, and we were unable to reach a consensus to give full recognition to these relationships.
In the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church to understand better the ways in which God has created human beings, I believe the most important lesson we learned from medical science is that the male/female identity is not a binary choice. It is a continuum in which each person will find himself or herself at a different reference point.
A major change of emphasis took place in 2000, when a majority of the deputies to General Convention passed a resolution that changed the focus from addressing the issues of relationships of same-sex couples to an acknowledgment that the issues of relationships are common to all of our members. The resolution stated that the church expects all lifelong committed relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God. We moved from “them” to “us.”
In 2015, we finally were able to reach a majority, and the General Convention adopted a resolution authorizing the marriage of same-sex couples. That final determination resulted in a schism in our denomination with several parishes and dioceses leaving the Episcopal Church. We are still grieving this loss, but it seems inevitable that other mainline churches will be seeing a similar departure as they continue to address these issues of LGBT recognition.
During this period of time, we have also struggled with an understanding of the issues of transgender and the expression of gender identity. We had always given support to LGBT issues, but we really did not fully understand the last letter in that acronym. However, our long years of studying human sexuality gave us a head start. We also had the advantage of hearing the experiences of several transgender deputies who became important leaders at our General Convention.
It is only through friendship and experiences with “the other” that we come to an understanding of our common humanity.
In 2009 our General Convention adopted a resolution to “support the enactment of laws at the local, state and federal level that a) prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or the expression of one’s gender identity, and b) treat physical violence inflicted on the basis of a victim’s gender identity or expression as a hate crime.”
When a person is baptized in the Episcopal Church, one promises to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and “respect the dignity of every human being.” We fulfill those promises in many ways, but one way is to advocate for equal rights for those whose sexual orientation, or their gender identity, can place them on the margins of our society.
And we do it because of our faith in a God who loves us all equally.
Larry J. Bingham is treasurer of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas and chair of its finance committee. He served seven times as a delegate to the Episcopal Church General Convention, its highest legislative body.