When the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church meets this summer, it’s widely expected to pass a measure fully approving gay marriage within the church. It took a big step toward that decision the last time the body met, in 2015. There were, however, some holdouts, including the diocese that encompasses the Episcopalian churches of Northeast Florida.
Lawrence Denton, a lifelong Episcopalian, took it hard when the Diocese of Florida opted out of the church’s 2015 decision to approve “trial rights” for gay marriage. While the Episcopal Church has been far more progressive on the issue than most protestant denominations, the diocese that represents Northeast Florida is part of about 10 percent of dioceses that chose to go in another direction. Denton describes himself as a “lifelong Episcopalian who happens to be gay.”
So in 2015, Denton stopped attending the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Riverside, where he’d been a member since 1997, sending a letter of protest to Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard, as well as to leaders and friends in his home congregation.
Denton has lived in Jacksonville since the late 1980s and has belonged to various congregations, including St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral downtown and the Metropolitan Community Church. He joined Good Shepherd because a friend told him the clergy and members were gay-friendly; the members founded a local chapter of the national group Integrity USA, whose website characterizes it as “working for full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Episcopal Church and beyond.”
In Denton’s letter to Bishop Howard, he wrote, “If I find a same-sex partner to be my spouse, I can’t get married in my local church. I could be married in the Episcopal Church; however, the service must be performed in a church outside the Diocese of Florida. I find the idea of having to ask my guests to travel to a diocese where the bishop allows same-sex marriages terribly offensive and discriminatory.”
Lawrence Denton’s modest St. Nicholas home is decorated with art. A collection of church iconography forms a kind of coffee table shrine in the center of his living room. Denton baby-talks his cats, which roam the house freely, while piano jazz plays in the back of the house.
His friend of 30 years, who wishes to remain anonymous, sits in an easy chair and describes the feeling of love he felt when Good Shepherd congregants formed the Jacksonville Integrity chapter in 1998.
“The Integrity chapter was probably half-gay and half-straight,” says Denton’s friend. “I felt this incredible love coming through from the straight congregation. I had been worshiping at the cathedral downtown, but I was so moved by the love of God that I saw existing in this Integrity chapter that I joined Good Shepherd.”
Denton notes that some church leaders in Jacksonville operate with an abundance of caution. Rather than being opposed to gay rights, they walk a dangerous political line with some of the more conservative churches in the diocese.
The fact that he blames that same politic caution for Northeast Florida’s rejection of the House of Bishops’ movement toward recognizing gay marriage doesn’t mitigate the sting.
In his “Pastoral Letter from Bishop Howard regarding the 2015 General Convention of The Episcopal Church,” the bishop wrote that though “the policy of our diocese” regarding “liturgies for blessing of same-sex couples remains the same,” … “our expectations regarding marriage and sexual relationships are in the accord with those expressed in our Book of Common Prayer (1979).”
To the church’s gay and lesbian members, Bishop Howard continued, “I love you and I remain insistent as I have since becoming your Bishop over 10 years ago, that you be loved and cared for as part of the Body of the Faithful.” He then admonishes, “Part of being human is the possibility that we love our ways more than God’s ways. A lack of humility often makes us deaf to the will of God.”
Denton points out that Bishop Howard came to Florida in 2004 from New York, shortly after Gene Robinson, of the Diocese of New Hampshire, became the first openly gay bishop. Bishop Howard left New York for one of the most conservative Episcopal dioceses in the nation.
When first instituted, the Diocese of Florida represented the whole state, but as Florida’s population expanded southward, the diocese was demarcated from the Georgia state line to the northern boundaries of Volusia, Marion and Citrus counties and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Apalachicola River. The Diocese of Florida is only as progressive as Northeast Florida.
In response to the movement of the national church toward supporting gay rights, several Episcopal churches have sought to secede, even calling themselves “Anglican,” the national Church of England, one of the first protestant churches, from which the Episcopal Church evolved in North America.
Part of Bishop Howard’s challenge in heading the diocese from St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Downtown Jacksonville has been to keep the diocese from splintering further.
Denton acknowledges, “It was miserable for Bishop Howard here his first several years, and the people who made him miserable are not gay people, but these conservative secessionists. He’s had to ask other parishes to increase pledges to make up for shortfalls incurred from secession.”
Denton misses worshiping at Good Shepard, but says his faith is strong and solid enough that he can worship at home and be equally close to God.
Denton’s friend says, “The church loves Lawrence. I hear them asking, ‘Is there any way to get Lawrence to come back?’ They love him. He contributed. He made a difference.”
But Denton says, “Some people can’t understand why I’m doing this, why I’m abstaining from church attendance. I’ve heard people say, ‘You don’t have a prospective spouse, so why is marriage such a big deal to you?’ The issue is this: The church accepts my contributions, but denies me its sacraments.”
LGBT Episcopalians feel confident—and yet a bit hopeful—that the House of Bishops will announce its “trial rights” for gay marriage to have been a successful endeavor at this summer’s assembly. Most likely, the next convention will put still greater pressure on the Bishop of Florida. The next step would be approval of liturgy for gay marriage in the Book of Common Prayer. Since the Episcopal Church, so far ahead of others, still moves slowly, that approval might not be a reality until 2021 or 2024.