I’m writing forty reflections (one for each day in Lent 2015) on my pastoral work, from seminary days until my retirement. Today, we look back to a civil union I just about accomplished during my Vermont days. I say “just about,” because I hedged a bit.

I spent more time as pastor of the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in Vermont than anywhere else. (I’m not counting the many more years I spent in non-parish clergy positions.) Vermont was a special place, but Joan and I also refer to Vermont as a special “time.” It was an experience.

It was a small church, it was a rural community, it was a place of beauty whether snow-covered or green-meadowed. We lived in our first manse, learned to cross-country ski, became maple syrup snobs, and tried to herd a cow once. Yes, one cow. She had escaped the fence and confronted us on our daily walk toward Betty Patterson’s house, and we thought we could be heroes if we led her, prodded her, or guided her home. Well, we tried.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is where East Craftsbury is, along with Craftsbury Village, Craftsbury Common, and the town’s other village not containing Samuel Crafts’ name: Mill Village. The people in our church and neighborhood were mostly folks of Scottish descent, and most were connected with small dairy farms. While one might think all Vermonters live in Quaintville, we had our share of independent spirits who espoused various progressive, libertarian, or socialist causes. There was our Congressman Bernie Sanders (an independent-democratic-socialist?) – now a Senator –, and just Google “Bread and Puppet Theater” and see what you get! In many ways, Vermont was (is) on the cutting edge of many societal changes.

In 2000, the state of Vermont passed legislation legalizing a same-sex partnership that gave gay couples the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. Those “civil unions” may have been legal in the state, but church polity almost universally rejected the idea. In our Presbyterian polity, there was no room for such ceremonies, but since there is always room for controversy, the topic was hotly debated, and one minister found herself at odds with her church’s membership when her name appeared in a newspaper ad endorsing civil unions.

In the summer of that year, I got a call from a young man who had grown up in our church. His education and work took him out of state, but his family in the Craftsbury area was still active in the church and community. I knew him and his partner from their many summer visits to the area. [I’m going to call them Mark and Paul here.] They worshiped with their kin at our church each week they were in town, and I enjoyed the fellowship around the extended family tables we shared during those visits.

The call brought a request, or maybe an invitation. “Would you be willing to help unite us in a civil union?” Mark asked. I have to admit that I had thought many times about how I would respond if such a request came my way. I was a supporter of the movement, civilly, and my personal theology was at ease with the idea. But I was also aware that there were some issues of church polity that would be fairly complicated. There were denominational rules, our regional Presbytery to reckon with, and, of course, very close to home, the church where I was pastor.

I told Mark that I never did a wedding without meeting the couple first, and eventually guiding them through some premarital counseling. I’d expect to do the same with these guys. Agreed. And, being a pastor, I expected that vows would be exchanged in a service of worship, whether the service took place in church or on a river bank. The place didn’t matter, as long as we did this thing recognizing God’s presence in the covenant promises. Agreed. So, let’s meet next time you are in town. Agreed.

Now, these guys had been together for years. They both came out of the church and continued to be active in worship, nurture, and faith commitment. They wanted this ceremony to include prayers, scripture, and vows said in the presence of God. These were all green lights for me, personally. I told them I’d have to do some homework, since I had no “gay union template” to work from. And, this was the hard part: I’d have to figure out how to fit this into my relationship to the church I served.

The guys offered some help in that regard. They knew that this would be “complicated” for their families as well. They wanted this ceremony to be low-key, held at their home, with only close family invited. They didn’t want anyone embarrassed by gossip or questioning or judgment. OK, then. And now for my role. My top priority here was to avoid dragging my church into any kind of public controversy or church court. It’s one thing to act in one’s own good conscience (and I’m thankful for those who have done so with bold courage and solid conviction), but I hedged when it came to involving my congregation in a trial. So I looked for a “safe” way to carry this out. And I found my compromise.

One of our church members was a Justice of the Peace. I asked Paul and Mark if it would be OK to involve our mutual friend in the ceremony. They fully understood the strategy at work here, and gladly agreed that our JP would do the official state vows and sign the documents, and I would do everything else in the ceremony that led up to and followed the vows. Since there was no intention to sneak this plan by the church, I announced it to the Session and they agreed among themselves that it was indeed “a plan.” Since the civil union was not being held in the church and I as the pastor wasn’t violating any church law (as far as we knew), there was little objection…maybe a hint of uncertainty, but no objection.

When the day came, the family gathered ’round the two men, I led an informal worship service, the JP led them in their vows, I offered more prayers, and at the end there were tears of joy and happy applause from everyone who had crowded into the room. And then there was cake! A full celebratory meal, in fact.

This was a good thing. And, in a way, just another pioneering moment in Vermont’s long history of edgy endeavors. I still have the note the guys gave me that day. In part it says, “A mere thank you seems so inadequate an expression of the love and support you have shown us by your presence here today…” And it was signed, “Your friends in Christ.”

And they still are.

Next… A Vermont Perk: the Key to the Library

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