Differences along the Path towards Equal Marriage

When seeking inclusivity in marriage minutes, it is tempting to focus on similarities between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. There are so many ways in which shaping a lifetime together is a parallel experience for any couple, regardless of gender. Many of the rewards and challenges are similar; indeed, same-gender couples will not have equal opportunity until institutions such as state and church recognize these similarities.

I believe, however, that to live deeply towards fairness we must look squarely at the differences. Faith communities that take same-gender couples under their care must recognize the significant differences between what couples of the same gender and couples of opposite genders are doing. It is not the same thing for a community to bless a couple stepping into the norms of their culture as to bless a couple breaking those norms. These are fundamentally different journeys. For a clearness committee to fully hold a couple in this important transition point in their lives, they must stay cognizant of the cultural parameters that shape the worlds in which the couples are making their commitments.

For me personally, one of those defining differences was fear. In the 17 years since my celebration of commitment with my spouse, Heather, we have known other same-sex couples who have had public ceremonies, yet in 1991 we had no role models. It is hard to describe how strongly I felt that I lacked the courage to stand up in front of everyone I knew and say by implication, "The path less traveled has chosen me. I hereby publicly sign off from the known and respected route. I honor the love that God has given me, knowing that society will deny me equal social security benefits, a shared pension, financial security, and legal recognition for my family. Do you hereby support me in taking this step?"

The day of my wedding was unquestionably the most terrifying day of my life. I add that the second most terrifying day was one when, as a canoe guide, I evacuated a teenager with a ruptured appendix and returned alone in the dark. Not finding the group where I had instructed them to wait, I spent the whole night alone in the wilderness without a sleeping bag. I mention this to let you know that it is not simply that I don’t know true fear. The night alone, however, was an isolated event, contained by time and caused by circumstances beyond my control. Finding the group again the next morning brought resolution. The wedding was a wholly different matter, created by my own choice, and its implications were forever. Everyone I knew would watch me. I couldn’t design a next morning that would erase the fear and vulnerability that the public nature of our commitment raised within me.

As a same-sex couple, Heather and I did not have the luxury of having marriage predefined for us. We could not look to role models among our community or elders to know what it meant for one woman publicly to commit her life to another. Marriage between two individuals of the same gender was not a ready-made equation in 1991, nor is it now. There was no predetermined formula of what to say or do. We defined for ourselves what our commitment to one another meant to us, what we hoped it would communicate to others, what we would call it, and why celebrating it publicly was important, despite all the vulnerability and obstacles. While this was not easy, I never find myself envious of those who have the option of skipping the step of truly defining and understanding what they are doing when they decide to marry each other. On the contrary, I wonder how those for whom marriage provides a predefined set of roles might have access to the richness of self-inquiry that was required of us.

Although it is true that my wedding was the most terrifying day of my life, it is also true that it is among the most joyful, spirit-filled, and sacred days I have experienced. While I do feel irrevocably scarred by some of the events leading up to our wedding, I also feel eternally blessed by the depth of what we were given along that journey. The intermingling of pain, vulnerability, and fear with the richness that was given to us shapes who we are and our understanding of marriage, commitment, hierarchy, faith, community, and God. Among other things, the struggle of our journey planted a seed that led us to Quakerism.

Our wedding, planned as a hybrid of two faith traditions, was not the last time we worshiped as Methodists, nor the first time we worshiped in the manner of Friends. But it was pivotal in our understanding of the power of the Quaker form of ministry. I didn’t have the language at the time to name what occurred that day, but with the perspective I have since gained as a Quaker I understand how God was truly present that day, ministering through the members of the community in a way I had never experienced in a Protestant church service.

Four days before our wedding, our Methodist minister received a registered letter from her bishop warning her that if she spoke at our wedding she would be called before a discipline committee, risking suspension of her pastoral credentials and her job. At the bottom of the letter the bishop had added on, "Tell Annika and Heather that I’m sorry."

It is hard to speak of the vulnerability we felt at having friends and family flying into town from all over the country to witness our wedding, and to know that the key leadership for shaping it was being silenced. Not only was this a logistical challenge, but it also undermined the authority and legitimacy of our celebration to many of our friends and family who only tentatively understood and respected what we were doing. The church affiliation grounded this wedding for them, as it did for us. To have denied us the most visible link to our faith community jeopardized the integrity of our celebration. It was a deep betrayal.

We did not quite know how to respond. The thought, "If the bishop wants to say I’m sorry to us, I think she ought to look us in the eye to do it," reverberated in my head for the remainder of the afternoon. By that evening I had convinced myself that I was really only offering her an opportunity for what she herself proposed to do. It was Christmas Eve, so I could not reach her at the office. I looked up her phone number in the phone book and called her at her home, asking if she would meet with us.

To her credit the bishop met with us the day after Christmas. I recall her telling us that she, in her leadership position, was not the person who could make change within the church, that she was too vulnerable, and that speaking out for change would cause her to be ostracized. Change, she said, could only come from the grassroots. I remember that she encouraged us to continue to work from the pews for welcome within the church. While clergy could bless a barn, a pig, a horse, or a cow, blessing us would cause the entire 150-year-old institution of this church, along with all its potential for doing good in the world, to crumble.

For some reason that I no longer recall, I continued my conversation with the bishop by telephone on the morning of our celebration of commitment. I believe I was negotiating with her, proposing, "Could our minister say this" or "Could she say that." As I talked with her, friends and family members began to arrive at our house carrying in food and other things that were to be transported to the church. Heather looked at me talking on the phone and pointed to her watch. I realized that my conversation with the bishop was going nowhere and that I needed to give up trying to gain her approval. I moved the conversation to a quick end, hung up, and drove to our wedding.

As I hung up the phone I thought to myself, "If anyone had told me how hard this was going to be, I would never have done it." I felt in that moment a deep aloneness. I realized that the bishop wanted to cancel my wedding and that I also wanted to cancel it. I so easily could have accepted that we had tried for too much. I would sooner have disappeared into a hole in the floor than gone and stood before everyone I knew to speak about the deeply personal and vulnerable topics of love and commitment.

The powerful realization I have had since about that moment of desperation was that it was too late. The bishop did not have the power to cancel our wedding. I did not have the power to cancel it either. The community was gathered for a purpose that was stronger than the power of the hierarchy and stronger than my individual fear. That day was a living illustration of the scripture, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of you" (Matthew 18:20). The bishop does not dictate who may and may not be blessed; it is God and the people who bring that blessing into being.

Over 120 people gathered and the celebration began. Our minister remained silent. Four other Methodist ministers attended, in solidarity with their colleague, and two of them spoke their blessings. A Presbyterian minister quoted Annie Dillard, speaking her desire to find something that demanded all the joy she had, and how this wedding gave her that. One after another the members of the community rose and blessed us. A child of five rose to speak from the silence saying that she loved us. The sharing continued for almost two hours, causing one acquaintance to stand and bless us sweetly, then add he was so sorry to leave, but he was late for another wedding. A relative who had pledged not to attend showed up unannounced and though could speak no words, kissed the hand of one who spoke eloquently. A colleague shared that she didn’t believe in God and didn’t feel comfortable in churches; but that this gathering opened her heart to what church was supposed to be and renewed in her the possibility of believing in God.

Church hierarchy had imposed silence upon our minister as a form of control. That same silence became transformed through worship to invite in the voice of the Living Spirit in its many manifestations. We had been accustomed to the power of ministry being vested in one person, yet here we experienced the power of community members ministering one to another.

Our marriage was witnessed that day by God and community. Although it is not recognized by the government, it is recognized. The deep grounding of that recognition gives us courage and faith to live into that marriage deeply and openly, even in circumstances where we fear we will be misunderstood, not seen, or disrespected.

Did our faith community hold and support us the same way it would hold and support an opposite-gender couple? Yes, it did. It also held us differently. Had they not held our wedding and made it happen no one could have, not even ourselves. They held us as if we depended upon them to make our wedding real, which in fact we did. Likewise our marriage continues to be deepened and strengthened by our communities’ regard for us as a couple and a family.

We stand outside of cultural expectations, our legal status is unchanged, and at most times and in most places we are not seen or accepted as a family. Only in a very few places do same-sex couples have the safety net of government, church, and culture to recognize us as families. A welcoming faith community is one of these few places where our families are seen and accepted as whole.

Annika Fjelstad

Annika Fjelstad lives with her spouse, Heather Ferguson, and their two elementary-school-age children. They have spent the past two years as sojourning members of Monteverde Meeting, Costa Rica, where Annika serves as director of Monteverde Friends School.