Houston couple united in Episcopal Church's same-sex ceremony
Updated 11:09 pm, Sunday, March 17, 2013
Jeff Meadows and Gary Patterson wanted to set the date for May, but adopted a St. Patrick's Day theme when they agreed to be the first couple in Houston to be joined Sunday in the Episcopal Church's new same-sex ceremony.
It was luck the Texas bishop approved their application just as Spring Break started for the two Lamar High School employees. Without work, they focused on buying green reception decorations, hunting for a guest book that didn't say "Wedding" and ordering two sheet cakes from Moeller's Bakery, where Patterson remembers buying goodies with his mother as boy.
Last Monday, the couple walked into the James Avery Jewelry Store where they bought rings almost 15 years ago.
They sat in front of the same wood-and-glass display case in the corner as the store manager reviewed the gifts they had ordered for friends and returned the rings they left to be polished.
"How can these look so new and these hands look so old?" Patterson, 67, asked as he studied the ring's renewed shine.
When they bought their rings and first moved in together, they committed to be together for life, but there was no pre-commitment counseling, no ceremony and no affirmation from God.
"I'm surprised in our generation we've lived to see this," Patterson said. "Even more surprised are our mothers. Mine is 93 and, Jeff, your mother is-"
"90," answered Meadows, who is also 67. "They are thrilled."
"What this has meant to us is now the church has said, 'Yes. You are a couple. You are living together. You love each other. You are taking care of each other. But you need the same kind of care and understanding we give to our mixed-gender couples that are married,' " Patterson said.
No bride to give away
The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant, which the Episcopal Diocese of Texas approved for two churches last summer, isn't marriage.
There was no bride to give away. No procession down the aisle. No honeymoon car waiting outside St. Stephen's Church and School.
Hundreds of friends and family filled the pews. An usher placed a box of tissues in each row. Two bouquets of yellow roses behind the altar matched the boutonnieres pinned to Patterson's and Meadow's lapels.
The Sunday service started as usual with a hymn, announcements and scripture readings. Shrouds covered the crosses and communion was offered in keeping with the Lenten season.
Rev. Lisa Hunt gestured to Helen Havens in the third row as she began her sermon. Havens was the first woman to become an Episcopal priest in Texas, served as rector of St. Stephen's for 22 years until 2004 and, motivated in part by her gay brother, has been an active advocate of equal rights in society and the church.
Before the service, Havens said she was excited to see people listen to the Gospel's call to have "love for all people without discrimination."
Hunt's sermon sought to assuage uneasiness about change within the church, noting that Episcopal leaders faithfully discussed and studied same sex rites for 40 years before releasing the rites last summer and allowing the bishop of each diocese to decide whether and where to allow it.
"This is good news," she said. "Some of us are in a journey to reclaim our faith because we've been told God cannot love us. Today we are grateful Jeff and Gary do a new thing, but really it is grounded in who Jesus has taught us to be."
Meadows and Patterson held hands throughout the sermon and stood at its end. Patterson's niece and nephew, along with their partners, walked from the first pew to stand before Hunt.
They vowed to care and love another with holiness, then turned to face the congregation.
"Will all of you here gathered uphold and honor this couple and respect the covenant they make?" Hunt asked.
"We will," the audience answered.
Thirteen call-and-answer prayers followed. Meadows and Patterson kneeled before the altar and were blessed.
They stood, turned to each other to peck a kiss and pulled themselves into a hug, patting each other's back in unison.
The day was decidedly joyful, but some couldn't help but be a little sad. Meadows and Patterson's ceremony wasn't supposed to be the first at St. Stephen's.
Another couple, who had been together for 31 years, set a date in February and attended the mandatory counseling sessions. Two weeks before they were to be blessed, one man died unexpectedly. His surviving partner volunteered to help with the ceremony Sunday and the reception that followed.
Green top hats
Meadows and Patterson put on green top hats and greeted each friend at the door of the church's gymnasium.
As Patterson struggled to keep his hat from falling off each time he gave a hug, his niece Cheryl Allison and his nephew Robert Allison watched from a nearby table with their partners, Natalie Murray and Jonathan Harrell.
"I couldn't be happier," Allison said. "Hopefully, one day this will be normal."
Hunt said the liturgy and wording of the same sex ceremony likely will influence Episcopal church leaders as they review and modernize marriage ceremonies in the next few years, which could include removing historically patriarchal language and incorporating the call-and-answer commitment from the congregation to support the couple. She's started mixing straight and gay couples in the mandatory group counseling classes because she said they help each other see different ways to make a relationship work.
Meadows and Patterson did not do a toast or cut the cake, but the church's registrar needed a record of the ceremony. She set a large green book on a table and asked the couple to sign.
The diocese's marriage records require the bride to sign one line and the groom another. They scratched out "bride" and wrote "groom."
"We're rewriting the book," Patterson laughed as he signed.