Special Report

A Cathedral Wedding

Will priestly lesbian nuptials by Massachusetts Episcopal bishop accelerate Anglican schism? 

By 1.24.11

Send to Kindle

The New Year's Day lesbian wedding of an Episcopal seminary president to a high ranking diocesan official has accelerated the long-running controversy over same-sex unions in both the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion.

At least eleven Anglican Primates (heads of national churches) have said they will not attend the annual Anglican Primates meeting January 25-31 in Dublin, due to the inclusion of U.S. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Conservative global south primates are increasingly unwilling to affiliate with U.S. Episcopal Church liberalism, especially same-sex unions. The eleven boycotting primates represent about 80 percent of the global Anglican Communion's roughly 80 million members.

The Rev. Mally Lloyd, Canon to the Ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, married the Rev. Katherine Ragsdale, dean and president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, at St. Paul's Cathedral in Boston, with Bishop M. Thomas Shaw presiding, and 400 friends attending.

Ragsdale's Episcopal Divinity School has touted the union, distributing an 800-word press release acclaiming it as "historic." While the blessings of same-sex unions are now commonplace in many liberal Episcopal dioceses, same-sex "marriages" are a relatively new development.

Ragsdale has been a controversial figure in the 2.1 million-member denomination for both her outspoken affirmation of same-sex "marriage" and homosexual clergy, as well as her unqualified defense of abortion.

Nicknamed by conservative critics as "The High Priestess of Abortion" for enthusiastically backing unrestricted abortion rights, Ragsdale formerly chaired the Washington, D.C. based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) and is a board member of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She came under renewed heavy criticism three years ago for declaring "abortion is a blessing" while at a rally outside an Alabama abortion clinic. That criticism escalated when Ragsdale became president of Episcopal Divinity School, one of the Episcopal Church's most liberal of 11 accredited seminaries. Ragsdale is only the second ever female Episcopal seminary chief and the first professed homosexual one. She is also the former director of Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, a watchdog of conservatism in America.

"It's astonishing how the world is changing,'' Ragsdale gushed in her seminary's release about her marriage. "When I grew up, I never believed I would be able to have someone special in my life and now to have almost 400 people show up to support us at our marriage ceremony is wonderful."

As celebrant at Ragsdale's nuptials, Bishop Shaw has openly supported same-sex marriage for years. He gave his parish priests permission to perform homosexual marriages soon after the 2009 Episcopal General Convention voted to allow "generous pastoral response" in such situations.

Much like the consecration of openly partnered homosexual Bishops Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles, the Episcopal Church's embrace of same-sex unions continues sharply to divide liberal U.S. Episcopalians and Anglican traditionalists, especially in the Global South. Refraining from same-sex blessings was one of the moratoria requested by leaders of the global Anglican Communion. Liberals in the Episcopal Church argue for what they attest to be widening human experience about sex, while traditionalists cite historic church teachings and a plain reading of Scripture.

"This is another action of reckless disregard for the life of the Anglican Communion and the authority of the Bible by The Episcopal Church," the Rt. Rev. David C. Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, told the Christian Post. "They continue to ignore the Communion's pleas for restraint and continue to go their own way." Anderson is a bishop in the Anglican Church of North America, formed by orthodox dioceses, congregations, clergy and laity who broke away from the Episcopal Church after the 2003 consecration of its first openly homosexual bishop.

According to an analysis of the liturgy by Anglican writer Peter Ould, the wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral Church used a modified version of the marriage ceremony from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In addition to replacing the traditional husband/wife language to accommodate two persons of the same sex, the service eliminated all reference to procreation and that the bond and covenant of marriage "was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee."

The Diocese of Massachusetts has seen membership shrink over the past decade, with weekly attendance dropping from about 24,000 in 2001 to about 18,000 in 2009. Declining numbers for the diocese have been mirrored by Episcopal Divinity School, which has struggled with a diminishing number of both enrolled seminarians and finances in recent years. In 2008, the school announced the transfer of many of its historic buildings to neighboring Lesley University in a sale that generated $33.5 million in urgently needed income.

Prior to their current positions, Ragsdale served as vicar of St. David's Church in Pepperell, while Lloyd was for six years the rector of Christ Church in Plymouth. Both congregations have declined significantly, with St. David's dropping from 70 attendees in 1999 to less than 30 in 2009, while Christ Church dropped from 200 attendees in 1999 to 150 in 2009, according to the diocese's self-reported statistics.

The decline of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts of course reflects the U.S. Episcopal Church's national decline. Meanwhile, Anglican churches throughout Africa and in Asia continue to grow. Orthodox global south primates are increasingly unwilling to submit to traditional leadership by shrinking, heterodox Western churches. Bishop Shaw's cathedral wedding for two prominent lesbian priests will likely accelerate that trend.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.