For eight years they lived together without benefit of marriage. Even after they spoke their vows in a church ceremony witnessed by 500 guests, plenty of people remain convinced that this couple is living in sin.
But when Mark Benson, a 47-year-old physician’s assistant, and Philip Straw, a 45-year-old postal worker, promised to love, comfort and honor each other in a ritual last Saturday at All Saints Church in Pasadena, it marked a spiritual evolution. By blessing the Benson-Straw union, All Saints--the largest Episcopal church west of the Mississippi--assumed a bold stance in the crusade to liberalize traditional Christian views concerning homosexuality.
“Homosexuality is such a divisive issue, I’m sure there is a great deal of distress” about the ceremony, said the Rev. George Regas, All Saints’ activist rector.
“But the people who were there, who know these men, knew this was appropriate and good. . . . It had such a sense of rightness about it,” added Regas, who proposed that All Saints confer blessings on gay unions in a November, 1990, sermon titled “God, Sex and Justice.
Such “weddings” or other ceremonies blessing gay unions--while not recognized by the family laws of any state--have been performed for years in the United Church of Christ, the gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church and some other liberal churches and synagogues. Gay activists and clergy alike consider the All Saints effort significant because of the prominence of the church, which has a membership of about 3,000. According to a church survey, about 8% of the congregation is gay.
The initiative at All Saints--whose congregation is known for its activism in such liberal causes as aid to Central American refugees and opposition to the Persian Gulf War--has been blamed for polarizing factions within the wider Episcopalian church. The denomination, which draws from Catholic and Protestant traditions, is known for embracing people with diverse theological viewpoints.
Episcopalian leaders at last summer’s national convention in Phoenix called for more study, prayer and dialogue after they were unable to reach a consensus on the homosexuality issue. They affirmed a traditional Christian standard of sexual morality that advises celibacy for persons who are not part of a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman.
Surveys have indicated that a majority of the 2.4 million Episcopalians nationwide oppose such changes.
“The whole concept of Biblical authority and the teaching tradition of the church have consistently upheld a very high standard in sexual morality,” said the Rev. James Stanton of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale. “It’s very clear about homosexual behavior. It’s clear that it is prohibited, certainly not condoned, certainly not to be blessed.”
Stanton predicted that All Saints’ efforts will create “further division within the church.”
“The All Saints activity is premature and precipitous and may be calculated to do exactly that. George (Regas) tends to be impatient of the institution,” Stanton added.
But, Regas and gay activists say, just getting more clergy to openly debate the issue of homosexuality is something of a victory.
Benson and Straw say they reconciled the conflicts of homosexuality and Christianity long ago. Straw, who attended a Baptist seminary, studied Greek to better understand the nuances of Biblical interpretations. “I came to a point where I believed God loved me whether or not I was gay, and that God’s plan for me was no different from anyone else,” he said.
The two men met 8 1/2 years ago at a lecture at West Hollywood Presbyterian Church. A few months later, “we made a commitment to each other. That was between ourselves and God,” Benson said.
The “blessing” ceremony fulfilled a dream. “That’s a celebration non-gay couples take for granted, and that wasn’t an option for us,” Benson said. They could have arranged a ceremony at a more accepting church, he added, “but those weren’t our church. And we like our church.”
More traditional attitudes in Christian churches range from the hard-line fundamentalist perspective that homosexuality is an abomination to be condemned to the view that it is a weakness that may be “healed.”
The progressive view, as argued by Regas and others, holds that homosexuality is a natural aspect of some individuals and that committed gay couples should therefore be accorded the same acceptance as husband and wife.
“Giving the church’s blessing on a same-sex covenant,” Regas said in a Nov. 10 sermon, “is the clearest symbol the church can offer that these precious children of God are fully accepted into the life of the congregation. . . .
“I’m convinced that our sexual orientation is a condition we are given and not something we have chosen. Human sexuality for homosexuals and heterosexuals is one of God’s great and good gifts, to be fully integrated into one’s personhood and expressed in ways that honor both God and the human community.”
Regas said his views were shaped by years of meditation and friendships with gays in All Saints. He heard predictions that “the church would destroy itself--that it would become a gay church,” he said.
R. J. Merrill, a gay man who participated in the Benson-Straw ceremony, said he feared rancor and dissension within the church and was surprised that relatively few parishioners spoke out against Regas’ views. “I was flabbergasted at how positive the support was,” Merrill said.
A nine-member church committee appointed by Regas--the “Task Force on God, Sex and Justice"--unanimously endorsed the concept of blessing same-sex unions after 11 months of study.
“For too long we, like others, have remained silent and inactive while gay and lesbian people have suffered injustice in society and in our churches,” members of the church task force said in a 23-page report. " . . . We will no longer exclude them from any of the sacred rites and symbols of our faith.”
Even though Benson and Straw spoke traditional wedding vows, church officials are careful not to use such terms as “wedding” or “marriage” in describing the Benson-Straw union, saying such terms properly apply only to husband and wife. Rather, the ceremony was a “blessing” of the Benson-Straw “covenant,” church officials say.
A variety of political issues have prompted parishioners to come and go at All Saints, but “only three or four” specifically voiced objections to Regas’s support for gay unions, said Anne Peterson, an assistant to Regas. Others, Peterson said, left the church without giving a reason.
At All Saints, gays and lesbians have long been a visible, though not extraordinarily large, part of the congregation. In a 1989 survey of church membership, 8% of the church’s 3,000 members identified themselves as gay or lesbian, Peterson said.
“The vast majority of people who belong to All Saints church are there because we’re willing to take on justice issues,” Regas said. “This is a critical justice issue for society. It’s a critical justice issue for the Christian church. . . .
“We want to show you can do this kind of justice ministry and still survive and thrive as a community of faith.”
Bishop Frederick Borsch of the Los Angeles Episcopalian Diocese has been a key ally in the debate within the wider church.
Borsch expressed his position in a press release: “While I personally believe the church should move forward to affirm the covenants of all persons seeking a lifelong relationship of commitment and fidelity and believe this would be beneficial for them and for society, this understanding has not been accepted by the Episcopal church at this time, and therefore as bishop I cannot approve or grant permission for all such blessings.”
Stanton, the Glendale priest, views Borsch’s sentiments with trepidation.
“My point to Regas and others is we don’t understand enough to warrant making sweeping changes,” Stanton said. “We need to be more certain about the moves we make in the ethical and moral arena. I think we need to be very careful here.”
At All Saints it is expected that the ceremonies blessing gay couples will become a regular part of church activities. Two more ceremonies are being planned.
Benson and Straw said it was gratifying that so many of their non-gay friends at All Saints attended the service, some bringing their children along.
Benson’s brother attended the ceremony. The Straw family was not represented.
“My family are fundamentalists,” Straw said. ". . . They’re now realizing I’m not going to change. And they continue to pray for me, whatever that means.
“And that’s good,” he quickly added. “They pray for me. I pray for them too.”