Elisabeth: You Brought Me To Church

Coming to terms with a church wedding

A few months ago we woke up to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. K goes to church almost every weekend, and we’ll be married there next month. That day, we were planning to meet up with our photographer afterwards, to walk through the garden where we’ll hold our clambake, so I went along, too. I don’t go frequently, but I was so glad I did that day. The room was heavy and sad. Listening to K’s fierce priest talk about the Good Samaritan and what it means to help your neighbor and what we can and should do to honor the memory of this child’s death made me feel infinitesimally better about the situation.

I remember that K and I first started talking about religion while we were nursing cocktails on our first date. I had been halfheartedly looking for a place over the past several years, feeling like there was something spiritual missing in my life and not sure how to find it, or if I’d even find it in a church at all. I’d checked out a Presbyterian church in Fort Greene with a gorgeous mural and a robust choir, and a hilarious service at a gay church in Manhattan where everyone brought their tiny dogs. Nothing felt quite right, partially because these churches weren’t quite the right match for me, but also because I’d recently ended a relationship with someone who was raised deeply evangelical, and her struggles, and her family’s struggles, with her sexuality were fresh on my mind.

I was raised Episcopalian, and went to church with my family nearly every Sunday until I went away to college. St. Barnabas was a warm, storied old church where my childhood best friend and I grew up together. When my parents went through a lousy divorce, the community provided me tremendous comfort and an anchor at a time my siblings and I were uprooted. Church makes me think of wearing my life-size Kirsten school dress, racing around the parish hall eating soft, stale generic Oreos with Lucy, proudly reciting the entire Declaration of Independence for the service on July 4th, and listening to my dad harmonize with the people in the row in front of us.

In all those years, not once do I remember hearing that God created man and woman in His image alone, or that same-sex relationships were sinful. The community, and certainly my childhood self, was much more focused on the social side instead of scripture. I don’t remember that St. B’s was emphatically supportive or unsupportive of queer relationships either way, but growing up in a conservative, evangelical community, my ex had heard it plenty. Her agony about reconciling her faith and her sexuality was horrible to witness. Much worse for her, of course, but it’s an awful feeling to be the nearest example of corruption.

Once we broke up, I felt wounded and distrustful of the church. I couldn’t think of the warm, kind community of my childhood without thinking of the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-feminist venom that other churches, supposedly of the same faith, were spouting at people like me. And I felt lonely. Church made me think of my family pre-divorce, before everything changed, a time that I didn’t really want to go back to, but would always miss nevertheless.

The first time K brought me to her church, everything was foreign. I sometimes experience church like experimental performance art or maybe senior prom: a place where it seems like everyone else in the audience “gets it” and I’m the only utterly baffled one cringing in this uncomfortable chair, wondering what the song for two voices has to do with the lady in the banana costume, or why we think making duckfaces and dancing to “Sexual Healing” on this leaky party boat on the Hudson is the time of our lives, or is everyone else seriously thinking about a voice emerging from a burning bush—but I’d better act into it, so no one catches on.

At K’s church, there were bongos and a guitar instead of a booming organ. There was a raggedy choir who sang all kinds of stuff instead of traditional hymns. There was an active focus on social justice threaded through the sermon, the prayers of the people, and all over the announcements in the back of the program. The congregation sat in a circle facing one another, and took communion in a circle, and the priest sat there right along with them. Where was the altar? The pews? The blue hymnal and the red prayer book, excellent for paging through when you’re bored, were missing too. There were also a lot of delightful people who clearly adored K, but I was so busy grumbling about why they’d swapped out Father for Creator in the Lord’s Prayer that I couldn’t really pay attention. As I was complaining, I was dimly aware, and horrified, that I was essentially complaining about missing the patriarchy, simultaneously suggesting a return to something that made me feel ostracized. What. But I couldn’t stop spouting on about tradition, like a queer, Episcopal version of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof.

When we first started talking about getting married, we debated the idea of having a small, intimate ceremony with just a few people, followed by a big blowout party. I have some strange anxiety about feeling all those eyes on me when I’m making vulnerable, personal promises to K, so I loved this idea. But K, who has very conflicted feelings about marriage to begin with, decided to talk with her priest about it, and came home with a new perspective.

If we were getting married at all, she wanted it to be in her church, using a blend of old and new Episcopal ceremonies. Her priest pointed out that marriage is the only sacrament that couples make themselves. That all the other sacraments, like baptism and communion, are administered to participants by a priest or deacon, serving as representative of the church and community. Sure, there’s a wedding officiant there, but the actual marriage is officiated by the couple themselves when they take vows to one another, and the priest acts as a witness to offer the blessing of the church and community. She also said that the sacrament is ongoing, that throughout the course of a lifetime together, it continues to reveal itself.

Originally I liked this suggestion because I like being the boss of anything, including sacraments. And I liked that my dad would be so happy when his big queer daughter ended up getting married in a church. And I really loved the idea that we’d enter into this marriage fully expecting it to twist and turn during our lives. But none of these seemed like reason alone to get married in a faith that some people use to perpetuate the notion that homosexuality is a sin, which honestly, is such a tired idea by now, yet really has legs. I thought participating in a ceremony that has been around for hundreds of years (there goes Tevye again!) sounded incredibly powerful, because I know I’d say too little or too much if I wrote my own, but I didn’t want to participate in anything that wasn’t “real.” I didn’t want a substitute blessing ceremony swapped in because other churches don’t believe we should get married. I wanted real.

At K’s church, a bunch of people, all very different from one another, certainly one of the most diverse spaces I’ve seen in New York City, show up each week to face each other and confirm the same thing every Sunday: I tried this week, some things went according to plan, I screwed up some other things, I’m going to try again next week, and here, in case I falter, are the ethics and moral code by which I want to live.

When I can stop thinking about everything that’s missing at K’s church based on my nine-year-old analysis of what a church should be, I see why she keeps going back. I have a moral code, sure, somewhere between try to be kind, don’t be too greedy, don’t let anger rule your life. I think about it sometimes, but most of my days are just getting by between the commute and thinking about what’s next. But K’s is laid out, right there, and she takes this opportunity to reexamine it and to decide she wants to commit to trying it all over again every week, and I find that incredibly compelling.

There’s a moment during every service where the church asks if anyone has any announcements to share. On that day, we looked at each other, and K squeezed my hand. When I stood up and told them we were getting married, the clapping was long and loud and reverberated through the three hundred-year-old space.

Afterwards, over generic cookies, one by one people came up to us and congratulated us and offered to help us, and I stood there remembering how it felt to be nine, surrounded by a community that supports me.

Photo Vivian Chen

Featured Sponsored Content

  • Kat91314

    “the sacrament is ongoing, that throughout the course of a lifetime together, it continues to reveal itself.” Love this way of looking at it. After being brought up in a RC church by my parents, I stopped going once I reached high school. Now, my relationship with religion is pretty tenuous, and like Elisabeth, I keep feeling like somehow I want to find my way to whatever version of faith will fit me best as the adult I’ve become, but I have NO idea of how to get there. Her post gives me hope that someday I will eventually get there.

  • Daisy6564

    Wow, thank you for this. I too am getting married in a church and I am trying my darnedest to articulate for myself and my partner why we should do this besides to please our families.

    I am the church goer in our pair though, so I am the one pushing the religious ceremony but I’m fighting to define why for myself. I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic university and yet all of my friends from childhood and college have left the faith, mostly due to its stance on homosexuality. I have never been to a Catholic wedding. I see that there is much more to the faith than restrictive sexual rules. My church has a social justice mission and even a gay ministry (meaning made up of out, gay, faithful Catholics who talk about that dichotomy and struggle, not a ministry to “help” gay people). I like the idea of following a centuries old tradition too.

    In doing research, I have also been pleasantly surprised by some of the meaning behind it. Like K’s priest said above, the couple performs the sacrament themselves, which seems really egalitarian and awesome. Also, in the Catholic faith, and probably Episcopalian as well, the language of the vows has been changed a bit to make it more equal and gender neutral (though straight, we are going to get rid of “husband” and “wife” in favor of “spouse,” which is allowed). Its also written in that the bride and groom walk down the aisle together.

    Yes, I want to get married in a church to please my family. I also want it to meaningful to me and my fiance and inclusive to those who are not Catholic or who have deliberately left the church. Thoughts?

    • InTheBurbs

      I’m getting married to another woman in a non-Roman Catholic Church in a few weeks – we’re doing the whole mass – because it’s important to US – there are plenty of folks in our lives who would much prefer us to do a 10 minute ceremony and then move on to the party. We’re making it meaningful in all sorts of ways – we’ve chosen the readings and all the music, we’ve had pre-marital counseling with our priest (who’s married!) and we’ve engaged our faith community to help us with the mass. We’re assembling a program that includes what to say when – and our parish also welcomes all to communion – and that will be reinforced. The theme throughout is that getting married like this is important to us – and all the folks that are assembled are important to us…

      • Daisy6564


        • InTheBurbs

          Thanks – we feel lucky to have found a place that fits us both – and that is excited to celebrate with us!

    • lady brett

      i think, as a non-religious person, that there’s nothing non-inclusive about viewing others’ religious convictions. the difficult part about services is the participatory bits – do you just play along and say the right words, which seems disrespectful to me (saying things you don’t believe comes too close to mocking those who do), or do you stay respectfully quiet and simply observe, which seems disrespectful to the other people in the room and puts your non-belief on a sort of display.

      so, that’s kid of the awkward bit, but i would definitely say that the point is that it is meaningful to you, which will make it meaningful to the people who care about you, albeit in a different way. (this is why we did not include any religion in the parts of the ceremony we wrote, but asked my in-law who is a preacher to do a reading: coming from him it *is* meaningful by virtue of *his* believing it – i don’t have to believe it for it to have meaning.) hope that makes sense and maybe helps a bit.

      • Amy March

        Just to note that I never find it disrespectful when someone sits quietly during a worship service of any kind.

        Scratch that. When my ex spent a whole nuptial mass checking espn on his phone, that felt disrespectful. But I can’t imagine you’re doing that.

    • MDBethann

      Most of our families are church go-ers, but a few relatives & several of our friends either do not attend church or are not Christian, but we held our ceremony at the Lutheran Church in which I was raised (the one we attend now isn’t near our families). We had a very traditional service, and none of our friends seemed to mind. In fact, 2 of my bridesmaids (one Jewish, one pagan) helped with communion by handing out the cups since they couldn’t take communion themselves (my Jewish friend is married to a Lutheran, and she said afterward it was funny handing the cup to her husband).

      I think there are a couple of things that can help make the ceremony more inclusive:
      (1) Have a program/bulletin. Yes, it’s a bit of an added expense, but then your guests know what is taking place & can participate if they aren’t used to religious services.

      (2) Be true to your faith but don’t use exclusive language and ask your priest/pastor not to use exclusive language in his/her sermon. For non-church goers, a wedding can be a time and place for them to see that churches are warm, welcoming, and not scary places. Obviously those who aren’t Christian shouldn’t take communion, but that should be the only exception (if you’re having communion).

      • Daisy6564

        “For non-church goers, a wedding can be a time and place for them to see that churches are warm, welcoming, and not scary places.”

        This is what I want. I had already thought of doing a detailed program explaining the parts of the mass and providing responses so that people could participate but also clearly stating that they are not expected to. I want to love and support my friends who are gay or allies (like me), welcome non-Catholics to look in on another faith, and remind those who have left about their fondest memories of church.

        • Daisy6564

          I also want guests to be interested in what’s going on, like I was at the 4 hour hindu wedding (!) I attended a few years ago, rather than irritable that they have to sit through an hour-long ceremony when most that I have been to last 20 minutes or less.

          • marbella

            I wrote a bit about our Catholic wedding (with a full mass) further down. I’m not Catholic, but husband is, and the majority of our guests were not (pretty much just his family, which granted is large, and a couple of my friends). Programs were definitely useful for people to follow along, and I don’t think it felt too long. Our priest was wonderful and really inclusive, and very aware that most of the guests were not Catholic. I think finding a priest you like and gel with is the most important step toward making it the ceremony you are looking for. Feel free to email me if you need any tips! stella f taylor at gmail.

        • MDBethann

          In addition to the pagan & Jewish friends in my bridal party, I also had a Hindu and several atheists &/or agnostics at my wedding and none of them seemed to mind the religious bits (most of the Christians there were either Lutheran or UCC, faiths which are pretty close so a lot was familiar to them).

          I think your intentions are good and should be very doable. And your friends are there to celebrate your union, so I can’t imagine them being anything but respectful, even if they don’t say all the words because they don’t believe them.

  • Hintzy

    so so many complex thoughts and emotions in response to this article, I don’t think I could really articulate them. My grand aunt told me last year that I needed to own my relationship to divinity, and I think this story speaks to that ownerhip. I’ve been struggling with the thought of who to have as our officiant, so I appreciated reading your thoughts.

    and nice touch on the title :-p

    • Elisabeth

      You caught that, eh? I really love the idea of owning a relationship to divinity. I’m going to keep turning that around.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Elisabeth for such a beautiful piece. As someone who has been feeling alone and a bit untethered lately, my thoughts keep coming back to looking for a replacement family and church has definitely been one idea.

    As a former Catholic, I have emotional ties to the rituals and traditions – even if I no longer feel tied to the beliefs those rituals represent. But unlike my husband I’m no atheist. I like believing in something – even if I don’t know what that something is.

    I’m going to keep looking for my place to feel supported; I’m so glad you found yours.

    • Emily

      I too am an ex-Catholic, and I’ve found a lot that I love in the Unitarian Universalist community – definitely worth checking out if you can! They’re all about supporting finding your own truth, which seems to fit your “believing in something – even if I don’t know what the something is.” Good luck in your journey!

  • Ruth

    Could you please share the name of this amazing NYC church? I would love to find a place like that.

    • Elisabeth

      Ruth — St Marks Church in-the-Bowery. Check it out here! http://stmarksbowery.org/ If you’re serious about coming, I’m actually going to be there over the next few weeks because they read out the wedding banns during the service and I want to hear them. Hilarious. Fascinating. TRADITION!

      • Beth

        I’m glad Ruth asked this, because I wanted to know the same thing! Maybe this will spur me on to finally finding a church in the City, like I’ve wanted to do for two years. Thanks for sharing!

      • Also Peter Stuyvesant’s grave is in the backyard of the church!

        • (FYI I don’t attend the church, but I grew up down the street and always wandered around the small grounds looking at graves.)

    • Amy March

      And if you’re looking for a similar feel, the Church of the Village United Methodist on 13th and 7th has an inclusive progressive ministry. I also hear great things about Park Slope United Methodist, which has chosen not to conduct any marriages until the Church changes it’s position on gay marriage, if that speaks to you.

      I still haven’t found a church home in the city- it’s hard! I’m looking for a vibrant main line Protestant church with a traditional liturgy that isn’t an hour subway ride from Hoboken, and failing. But it sure is an interesting process.

      • Hope

        Side note: You’re in Hoboken? I live nearby and teach in Hoboken!

        • Hope

          ETA I go to Hoboken Grace but it doesn’t sound like what you’re looking for (although it is an awesome community that helps me feel like this is my home even though I’m thousands of miles away from my family).

      • Caroline

        Hey, you can come to my church! First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. Mainline Protestant WITH progressive values AND lots of African-American spirituals and gospel music. PLUS, we’re extremely queer-happy (as a point of reference, we sang the spiritual “Freedom is Coming” and the Muppets “Rainbow Connection.”) We’re in Brooklyn Heights– not sure how long the schlep is from Hoboken, but I bet it’s close to the PATH train.

        Here’s our website: http://www.fpcbrooklyn.org

        And a sample of our fabulous music (I’m in the choir, so I’m a little biased): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzdmZz2XqZE

    • moe

      On a sidenote I would love to find a similar gay church in LA that allowed me to bring my tiny dog.

  • Addie

    “At K’s church, a bunch of people, all very different from one another, certainly one of the most diverse spaces I’ve seen in New York City, show up each week to face each other and confirm the same thing every Sunday: I tried this week, some things went according to plan, I screwed up some other things, I’m going to try again next week, and here, in case I falter, are the ethics and moral code by which I want to live.”

    And this had me snotting in my coffee this morning. I am having the week to end all weeks and this is exactly what I needed to hear today

  • lady brett

    “I sometimes experience church like experimental performance art or maybe senior prom”
    oh my yes.

    i think some of that is related to growing up in a “high church” environment – every other church i’ve been too seems confusingly relaxed and untraditional (even the traditional ones). i mean, that and my confusing antipathy towards religion – it’s not something i’ve fostered or made an informed decision on; it’s something that crawled into my gut and makes it twist whenever people start talking about religion (or, mostly christianinty, as my exposure to other religions is limited enough that i have managed to avoid this weirdness around them). i can’t figure out where that came from, because my history with church is actually 100% positive.

    • So much this. I grew up in a mixed-religion household, was raised primarily Jewish, and now am trying out churches. The environment I”d love would be a good mix of high and low church, because high church sometimes feels too ritualistic, and low church sometimes feels too casual. I haven’t found a sysnagogue in my area yet, and I need to. I miss my group and fitting in within it.

  • Dom

    That is one thing that I’m a little disappointed about, not a lot disappointed, but just a little bit, is that my partner is not religious. I’m fairly spiritual and have a lot of faith and while I don’t go to church every Sunday, it was a big part of my life when I was going through my teenaged years.

    But I wouldn’t feel right forcing him into doing a full religious wedding in a church he has never gone to, where some of our close friends who are anti-religion wouldn’t feel comfortable to even attend.

    So we are planning a civil ceremony. I have to remind myself that just because it wont be officiated by a priest and wont be taking place in a religious venue doesn’t mean that there is no spirituality to it. At the end of the day we will say our vows to each other, have faith in our relationship and be surrounded by the love of our family and friends.

    • SJ

      I understand this. My sweetheart is not religious either, in fact he was pretty damaged by the church he went to when he went through some things in his teenage years. My church history was different: I grew up in a small church that still had bake sales, a pastor that had to appeal to a board for expenditures, one that believed in peace and purpose and being all inclusive. I was shocked when he told me about the environment that his beginnings of spirituality and faith were fostered in: legality, resentment and status. Those things were foreign to me. They still are. As we are now: I go to church on occasion, usually with my mom when we are visiting. Future husband and I are getting married in a small historical chapel (built in 1904–love that) with my uncle (an ordained minister) officiating: FH doesn’t mind religious tones as long as he is not obligated to participate and I don’t begrudge him that. I love him, and I believe I’m called to love him just as he is. I’m the luckiest girl in the world.

    • For what it’s worth, I think we had a deeply spiritual civil ceremony. We wrote our own ceremony, selected our own readings, and wrote our vows. One of our reading, in particular, was explicitly religious. I don’t think this has to be an all-or-nothing issue. Identify what’s important to you about the idea of a religious ceremony, and incorporate that into your civil ceremony.

  • Rachel

    There is SO MUCH to love about this post, from the Tevye references to “I like to be the boss of things, including sacraments.” But this is what I really related to:

    “I couldn’t think of the warm, kind community of my childhood without thinking of the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-feminist venom that other churches, supposedly of the same faith, were spouting at people like me. And I felt lonely.”

    I grew up Catholic and don’t remember much in the way of the things you list (though in high school that started to change)…mostly I just remember a community of good people who were there to help each other when necessary and who knew each other. I know exactly why I left the Catholic church and I don’t want to go back…but with the world becoming more spread out and how hard it is for people to make friends or get support from neighbors/family/etc, I do wonder if we’re missing something by leaving the church in droves. Among other things, it’s a good way to meet likeminded people who believe in a similar moral code and build a community around it. I really WANT to find that experience again, but it gets really sticky for me when the aspects that make me feel like I’m at senior prom/performance art come up. So…I don’t know. But it’s definitely something I think about.

    • Have you looked into an Episcopalian church? Friends of mine who are rectors say they try their darnedest to be inclusive and loving – and the Episcopal churches that aren’t inclusive are pretty obvious pretty quickly. Because the services tend to be more “high church” (at least for my local Episcopal chapters), they feel less prommy and have the routine and ritual which was such a big part of my religious experience growing up.

      I agree with this statement: “with the world becoming more spread out and how hard it is for people to make friends or get support from neighbors/family/etc, I do wonder if we’re missing something by leaving the church in droves.”

      It’s a big reason that Jewish-identifying confused-about-my-own-beliefs me has been exploring churches and temples in my area. I want to find a community of like-minded folks who support and build each other up. Being raised Jewish AND Christian means I have an odd formation of what I believe and how I believe it, and finding a religious home where I feel included but not overwhelmed is important to me.

    • meg

      I didn’t grow up Catholic, I grew up mainline Protestant (though Kate is Catholic and practicing, and I know she agrees with me on the following). But my family was really active in the Open & Affirming movement in the early 90s, which was a huge and controversial deal at the time. I stood up and said my piece on gay rights at a fair number of meetings at 11 or 12 years old. (Interestingly, I was far less understanding of intolerance than any of the adults were.) Anyway, I grew up with the idea that if the church is intolerant, it’s our religious and moral obligation to work to change the church (I mean, not to get all religious on you, but “like Jesus did” and stuff.)

      Anyway, long story short, I think that when people leave the church in droves instead of working to change it, everyone loses. The people who leave loose their community and spiritual home, and the church loses the chance to change.

      • lady brett

        that is how i feel about the south.

      • Rachel

        I completely understand that line of reasoning and I don’t disagree exactly (it’s why I stick with many problematic things actually) but I just feel SO powerless with regards to religion. When the infallible person at the top is basically disinterested in what the individuals think, I feel kind of hopeless and feel like associating myself with the religion isn’t something I can do in good conscience. Because with, say, living in Texas, I can protest, I can vote, I can help other women who are here. But with the church, it’s not a democracy. I know it’s a cop-out but I felt like sticking around and fighting didn’t make a difference and in the meantime it required me to give time and money to an organization that, ultimately, is going to use that money in a way I think is harmful. So…I dunno. I don’t know why it’s different for me and religion and I’m not sure that I’m right about it.

        • I completely understand. I feel this way about a lot of social and environmental justice movements. Sometimes I believe SO strongly in the change that needs to happen, but the system is SO stacked against the change, that I can’t really see my efforts doing much.

          I think with particular regards to religious institutions, there’s no one answer. People “leaving the church in droves” provide some statistical data so those with power can see there’s a problem, and those who remain in the system and work for change can guide/become leaders to solve the problems.

        • meg

          I think Catholicism is particularly tricky in that way. Exploring the Episcopal church might be helpful. First, their hearts and policies are already in the right place. Second, there is no infallible guy in the top, since Protestants don’t believe in that. Which is helpful to me ;)

          • meg

            Because just like Elisabeth, I like to be the boss of things. Including sacraments. Luckily as a raised liberal Baptist, now Jew, that’s how my religion(s) works…

          • InTheBurbs

            There are other “kinds” of Catholic besides Roman – we’re members of an “Old Catholic” church that is open to anyone – and still has the ritual of a Mass

      • Anyway, long story short, I think that when people leave the church in droves instead of working to change it, everyone loses.

        As a former long-standing and very devout Catholic (who still has multiple Virgin Mary statues throughout her very small apartment) I very much agree and very much disagree with this sentiment.

        Catholicism is not set up like most other religions. Between mass, communion, confession, and the sacrament, your religious experience is always, inherently, mediated by some one else (notably someone male). This means that as a lay person, and especially as a female lay person, you’re a prop, a dollar in the donation box. There are no avenues to affect change from within. You can complain, and you might even have a sympathetic priest, but you are just a voice blowing in the wind.

        So it’s complicated. My very dear friend still attends church and is trying her damnedest to be part of that tiny bit of change, and I admire her endlessly for that. It pains me too much to try, and I still miss it. People (although not anyone here!) judge Catholics for staying (especially in the face of rampant, covered-up sexual abuse) but why are people forced to forsake the way they honor their relationship with god because of a bunch of corrupt, evil men? At the same time, personally, how can I attend mass and accept communion, without that being implicit acceptance?

        Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that people sometimes leave in droves because they feel they have no other option, and they mourn the loss for many years to come. And sometimes people stay, but that may feel like a loss too.

        • Jessica

          I’m very sorry that your experience with Catholicism made you feel like “just a prop” or “a dollar in the donation basket.” As a practicing Catholic myself, I’ve found it possible to be both a Catholic and a feminist. While you might not see changes at your local parish right away, Pope Francis has recently discussed the need for a “theology of women” and talked about different roles that women might start to have in the church. 40% of the workforce in the Vatican are women, and at least 10% of high leadership roles are held by women (a higher percentage than in Fortune 500 companies). Of 35 theologians posthumously recognized as “Doctors of the Church,” five are women, all given this honor within the past 50 years. American Catholic women have done some amazing things:
          – Founded Catholic Worker movement (Dorothy Day)
          – Founded first Catholic university for Blacks in the US (Xavier University)
          – Founded first school for girls in North America (Ursulines in Canada)
          – Founded first school for Black girls in the US (Ursulines in New Orleans in the 1700s)
          – Educated indigenous girls in North America (Katherine Drexal – and yeah, we know the downsides of Indian boarding schools now, but at the time, fighting for indigenous’ “right” to act like whites was pretty revolutionary)

          …I also happen to be a history grad student as well as a Catholic, can you tell? :)

          Anyway, I thought this thread of conversation was edging perilously close to the idea that Catholicism = bad kind of religion, so I had wanted to say something, even before Kyley’s comments. I agree that Catholicism is hierarchical and that men will continue to be in charge of administering sacraments, but to me there’s an egalitarian aspect to these beliefs as well: nobody, not even the Pope, can just do what he wants. Personally, I’d often like to be in charge of and control All The Things, but life keeps reminding me that that’s impossible, and my lived faith experience is no different.

          Thanks for reading, I hope my voice can help broaden the range of voices in this conversation a little bit. :)

      • Tuppet

        My mother learns Italian with a man who happens to be the head of the Methodist Church in Australia. Being an italian class, the topic of the Pope came up and he asked mum if she was religious, at which she fumbled a bit before saying she was raised Catholic.

        He responded ‘oh, you’re a member of the fastest growing religion in the world: lapsed Catholic’.

        If the Methodist Church noticed then surely the Catholic Church can see their members disappearing.

      • Jack

        I grew up in the Catholic church, and am now an ordained Episcopalian. And I think it’s more complicated than “we all lose” if you don’t stay and change your tradition. Especially as a former Catholic, where I felt deeply disempowered, I think everyone has to make their own decision to stay or leave. For some, it is simply too painful to stay, whether or not the institution is hierarchical– or it makes them too angry to be effective, or gets in the way of a relationship with God. I think we get to choose our battles. I am grateful for the women who stay in the Catholic church, but neither I nor the church would have benefitted if I had stayed.

    • Elisabeth

      “A community of good people who were there to help each other when necessary and who knew each other” — this is definitely the thing I remember most fondly about church and what I yearn for most, I think. K has all these people all over NYC that she probably wouldn’t pick to hang out with normally, but because they’re put in a room together every week this care and concern for one another organically sprouts up. And I really try with my community garden, for example, but it’s not quite the same!

  • Anonymous

    I asked my husband if we couldn’t invent our own religion where we based all our principles on our own values – helping your fellow man, community, charity, generosity, etc. I believe in the power of belief. Whether scientific, religious or some mish mash on that great big spectrum – believing is good for us. It makes us happier and healthier. I want a ready made community of like minded people. That’s why I like APW so much.

  • I loved this. I grew up Catholic and am trying to find my way back to the spirituality that I believe in, in the way I believe it (so I don’t personally feel comfotable in the Catholic church but do identify as Christian) and all this talk about social justice missions really excites me as I see that as a key part of the church and always have.

    For us, when we got married a lot of people thought we did not get married in a church because M did not want to, but it was because I did not want to. His total lack of faith made choosing a religious ceremony feel false to me and as my faith (tenuous and hard to pin down as it is) is important to me I could not do it.

    Thank you for this post. It was truly thought provoking and gave me a lot of hope.

  • rys

    “When I stood up and told them we were getting married, the clapping was long and loud and reverberated through the three hundred-year-old space.” The sense of community in this sentence is palpable and beautiful.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. Such a great piece.
    I especially love that last image after sharing you were getting married and being celebrated and supported by a group of people. That is reason enough for me to go to church.
    I look back on my childhood in an evangelical conservative church and cringe because everything there in terms of theology is still stuck. Especially when it comes to being welcoming of all people. My family (or most of my family) has painfully decided to leave that church because of their decisions about gay people. I haven’t attended my childhood church in years, but I can feel the influence of those decisions and arguments in my own spirituality. There are so many churches that hurt people, so why would I want to be a part of that God fueled bigotry?
    But I am, and that’s because I’ve learned that there are incredibly progressive and like-minded people of faith in the world. They just take some finding and some healing on my part. I go to church now because of how strong the community is, how much people support everyone with love and care, and how welcoming they are of anyone that walks through the doors.

  • Anon

    This. I am a Unitarian Universalist and extremely active in my church. As a child I grew up in a Baptist church, then later I went to a Methodist church, then later still I attended independent evangelical churches. To put it mildly, I’m into church. When I found Unitarian Universalism I finally felt like I “found my people.” I still get church without the judgment, plus the social justice. My early days of church have served me well even if that same church wants nothing to do with me. It is complex. When I met my partner, she hadn’t gone to any kind of church since she was a small child so she had no frame of reference for anything to do with church. But I informed her upfront that church was a huge part of my life. She started attending with me and found out that everyone there is accepting of us and loves us, and everyone else, exactly like they are. It truly is an amazing place.

    When we started talking about planning our wedding, I knew I wanted it held in our church (she is now a member) with our church community. She has been having difficulty with issues of being in front of a crowd of people. We’ve been having ongoing discussions about it and it finally came to a head this Sunday when I explained more to her about how I see our wedding as not about just us but about our community as well. It is both and. We do not do our relationship alone. Our relationship is about more than us as individuals. We are making a commitment to each other in front of our friends and family – this is a sacred event.

    We finally got to the hard parts of discussing how she felt hurt by friends who didn’t come to our house warming and she doesn’t want to be hurt by them again if they don’t come to our wedding. Which I totally got. I wish I could kick these friends’ butts…but I digress. A friend of ours – also from church – is starting her own coaching business and has offered to help M work through the issues of being in front of many people. And M and I are continuing to talk (and will continue on up until our wedding day, I’m sure), about what our wedding will be like for us and for our community. I am grateful for our community that supports us and will celebrate with us, no matter what.

    Many queer people I know have a complex relationship with church from our own personal baggage and the way it is now. It is very hard to separate out the past from the present while you’re experiencing it. I continually struggle with this even though I’ve found my church home. I wish you the best, Elisabeth, as you work through this.

    • Erin E

      Yes! Another vote for the Unitarian church! I grew up in this religion, and after exploring other religions as an adult, I keep coming back to what I learned as a young Unitarian. The church’s tenants (social justice, tolerance, respect, community, loving spirituality) are so very much a part of who I am and who I want to be.

  • Laura C

    Elisabeth, you are such an amazing writer! I love how you sprinkle unexpected, funny things (“But I couldn’t stop spouting on about tradition, like a queer, Episcopal version of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof” — brilliant) into such a deep topic.

    • Remy

      Yes. LOVE THIS.

  • A lot of my thoughts echo what’s already been said here. I was raised Catholic, but my mom and her whole side of the family, who I was always closest to, are Lutheran, though my mom converted to Catholicism when I was in 2nd grade or so. I went to 12 years of Catholic schooling. Throughout my childhood, I could easily the difference between my somewhat chilly and cliquish Catholic parish, and the warm and welcoming community in my grandparent’s Lutheran congregation. I experienced first- and second- hand church authorities and teachers reiterating that if you aren’t Catholic, you aren’t going to heaven or that if you don’t go to Mass it doesn’t count. Despite all this, as a rule-follower, I kept going to Mass every weekend until sophomore year of college. (discovering boys and needing my sleep on Sunday mornings had a lot to do with halting my attendance)

    These days, I certainly don’t consider myself Catholic. I did like the rituals of Mass, but even those have changed recently, making me feel like even more of a foreigner when I attend with my dad on holidays. When my partner and I moved, I tried out a few Lutheran churches to little avail, learning that I don’t like being labeled as one thing or another, as I don’t want others to assume what my beliefs are. I’m still spiritual, and I’ve been wondering lately if I should get my lazy butt out of bed for the way cool progressive, inclusive church in town that many of my acquaintances attend, or if I should try a Quaker meeting (I like what they hold to, and it speaks to my PA heritage). I’d like to find a welcoming community of faith, but I’m very hesitant to jump right in when my own faith is so undefined. I’m also starting yoga instructor training this fall, and I think it’s going to be far more spiritually challenging than I can really grasp, so I’m looking forward to that.

    Meanwhile, my partner was raised Presbyterian, but is not a spiritual person at all. I think he tells me he’s agnostic because he doesn’t want to say atheist, but I’m not sure. It’s interesting because his parents are no longer religious, but his grandparents were Mennonite, and left that church, and both they and many of his extended family members remain deeply religious.

    All of which to say, though my partner is okay with a religious aspect to the ceremony if it means something to me, I’m not okay with making promises before God if my partner doesn’t believe in God. It just doesn’t fit the relationship partner and I have. So I think we’re leaning towards a Quaker ceremony, where we can add the elements we like and not have an officiant at all.

    For what it’s worth, the books that have given me the most inward clarity in defining my particular brand of spirituality have been The Color Purple and Breakfast with Buddha– both novels, yet incredible insightful. I’d also highly recommend Robert Putnam’s American Grace, which articulates his research on faith and politics in the US, and how different movements have driven worshippers to and away from established religion. I heard Putnam speak about a year ago about the book, and he was very compelling. (I also liked his book Bowling Alone, which talks about the loss of community in the US, as people stopped doing things together in groups)

    • Remy

      When it comes to books that have resonated with me spiritually, Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings are tops on my list.

  • jashshea


    “I sometimes experience church like experimental performance art or maybe senior prom: a place where it seems like everyone else in the audience “gets it” and I’m the only utterly baffled one…”

  • Amy March

    Can I leave a request for an open thread on religion and marriage here?

    • meg

      Ooooooo! Good call. OF COURSE.

  • Sarah

    Wow, I love this. I grew up Episcopalian, too, and I haven’t been to church weekly since college, but sometimes I miss it very much. It was so grounding and refreshing to hear the Eucharist, but since I went to college in the Midwest and my boyfriend did time in a megachurch community, so he doesn’t take kindly to religion anymore. I live in L.A. now and am thinking about going to All Saints in Pasadena alone on the Sundays when I don’t have derby practice. I just miss church smell, you know?

    • Elisabeth

      CHURCH SMELL. CHURCH SMELL!! Having a total Proustian moment over here. St. Marks does not have church smell and I miss it something fierce. What IS that? Musty communion wafers??

      • T. L. Kate

        Yeah, church smell. In my evangelical mountain church it was definitely the smell of sour milk. I don’t know why. Maybe a divine message that things were way, way off.

  • Hannah

    My computer has gone kaplooee, so now I’m stuck crying in my college’s crowded computer lab when I read stories like this. Beautiful. Thanks Elisabeth.

  • Remy

    I grew up entirely without religion, and became involved with a queer progressive church after graduating college. I see people in various stages of healing from abuse they received in their home or childhood churches, and the church programming speaks to that a lot, but I have a different experience. I didn’t have anything (other than vague media references) to compare this church to; I like the inclusive language and don’t find it jarring the way some of my traditionally-raised choirmates do, and I prefer the diversity of worship content and styles to a mainline Protestant service. The only thing I really had to get over was a general sense of disdain for religion overall. I have learned to be more tolerant and accepting of religious folk of all stripes, which I think is a major benefit. Y’know, I married one.

    The part that made me step away after several years of being deeply involved was that I’m agnostic at heart, and although I identify with deeper themes of service, community, forgiveness, and justice — and feel that I really grew through participating in this congregation — I can’t get behind the God bit. Despite being included (and sometimes specifically called out) in the congregation, which doesn’t require a statement of faith to join, I began to feel out of place as a nonbeliever. I’d gotten into the habit of attending weekly services for a handful of years, and I worry that if I leave the current church I’ll lose that built-in community. As it is, I’m on a break and haven’t seen them more than a couple times since January. At first, with a very crowded schedule, it was a relief to be out from under yet another obligation (3-10PM every Sunday, once you factor in travel time, rehearsal, and service, was like another workday). I find myself missing the camaraderie and the music, and sometimes the message of togetherness and social justice… but the commute time and the energy commitment is just too much. I think it’s time that I left.

    My personal theology is closest to Unitarian Universalism, and I think this would be a good environment to raise children. There are several active UU congregations in our area (closer to home); I just haven’t made the logistics happen yet. I’m also a bit nervous about turning up to an established social group and presenting myself for inspection. Anyone have advice?

    • I did a bit of church shopping soon after I moved. I’d say research what you can– some churches advertise “coffee and fellowship” times. Also, show up and smile and say exactly why you’re there (because in the good church communities I know, someone will invaribaly ask if you’re new) “Nice to meet you! I’m Remy, I’m on the market for a new church community and I wanted to get to know this congregation a little better.”

      When I found a good candidate, I jumped right in on attending meetings, joining groups. Eventually, I still itched at having a label assigned to me, but in my time spent there, I definitely saw decent social groups that I happily could have been part of. It is nerve-wracking to fly solo into a new community, so good luck!

    • del678

      This might sound kind of Random but your post did promt me to share my method of spirituality when you said “I’m agnostic at heart, and although I identify with deeper themes of service, community, forgiveness, and justice…”

      I express my spirituality and find community in the Girl Guides.
      What I get out of it is the sense of community, of a sisterhood (plus partners, husbands, fathers) who are supportive of each other through hard times and fun times, share similar values (promise & law), and are active in the community not only with the girls but with partner organisations like Unicef.
      I love the spiritual magic of a community campfire or attending Guide’s Own, a service usually on camp in the outdoors designed by the girls themselves. That’s my church.

  • Susan

    Fellow Episcopalian here. My future husband and I both came from evangelical backgrounds and became Episcopalians before we met. We will marry at our church with the beautiful liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer with close friends and family present. I love that, every time we worship there and every time we take communion, we will be reminded of the covenant we entered into in that space.

    Many blessings to you and K!

  • Gina

    I find this article so interesting, and I really, REALLY appreciate hearing about it from the LGBT perspective. Without realizing it, I pushed back (hard) against what could be viewed as the “norm” in my family– a minister officiant; a church wedding, traditional vows– even though my fiance and I are Christian. Our wedding is barefoot and outdoors with a family friend marrying us and a ceremony we wrote ourselves. However, the ceremony contains references to God and the place of faith in our relationship. How could it not? It’s so much a part of us!

    I guess what I wanted was the truth that, whether or not one chooses to get married in a church or follow a particular religious service in their ceremony; there are ways to honor your faith and recognize its place in your marriage. And I think that weaving these elements into your wedding will have just the impact another commenter hoped for: Even if some of your guests view religion or church as a cold, unwelcoming place, they will see your faith and your love as a positive thing. Light drives out darkness, as a certain famous man said :) (PS: Happy 50th, I Have A Dream!)

  • Erin E

    Elisabeth, you ARE a writer, right… like in your “career choice”? Because you should be. Every piece you write is whip-smart, funny and moving. Keep on keepin’ on (please).

  • moe

    “I felt wounded and distrustful of the church. I couldn’t think of the warm, kind community of my childhood without thinking of the anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-feminist venom that other churches, supposedly of the same faith, were spouting at people like me.”

    When I read/hear coments like this it makes my heart incredibly sad and broken. I grew up in a conservative, borderline-legalistic church environment. I went on to study at bible college and spent many years in the church community as a participant and as a lay leader. When I hear comments re: homosexuality and the church it is often ‘believers’ who make me cringe and horrify me with their ignorance and hatred.

    Several years ago when the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) movement was popular, the subversive church-kid in me wanted to snap back with “You would probably be shocked at what Jesus would actually do!” During his time of public ministry Jesus often acted in total defiance of social conventions of his time. He included women in his ministry. He associated with people of ill-repute. The very nature of his being was inclusive and accepting. It was the religious leaders of the day who eventually had him crucified!

    I could go on, but I’m getting riled up now. What I really wanted to express is that I’m glad you found a community that embraces and accepts you. :)

  • marbella

    Beautifully written Elisabeth. We too were married in a church. My husband is Irish Catholic, while I’m culturally Church of England, but hadn’t been since my youth. I attend mass with him every weekend partly to support him, and partly for the exact reason you described – it feels worthwhile to take stock of yourself and recommit to living by your principles each week.
    Since we moved to the States (where the Catholic church is FAR more loudly conservative than in the UK and Ireland) we’ve been to our fair share of Catholic churches where I just could not feel comfortable – places where priests would give their homilies on the sins of homosexuality, pornography, abortion etc and push the congregation to vote in a certain way around election time. I have left in the middle of a homily only twice (though disagreed loudly in my head and vented to my husband after several masses) – once in VA when the priest was telling how he advised a parishioner not to let their child attend an educational discussion at their school by people with HIV because ‘we all know how they got that’, and once fairly recently in AZ when the priest was ranting about marriage equality. On these occasions we’ve decided to no longer attend masses at those churches, and luckily there have always been other places where I feel much more at ease.
    For our marriage we deliberately left out any content about marriage being between a man and a woman, and chose readings that conveyed our feelings on equality, including using Matthew 22:35-40 as our gospel reading.
    It saddens me greatly that the Catholic church will probably never come around to accepting marriage equality in our lifetime, but I like to keep hoping that if enough Catholics work somewhat from within the church, it might happen during the next generation. As it happens when we moved to this area in AZ I did some research and found several local priests had signed a declaration of support for LGBT rights several years ago, and the Bishop forced them to either revoke their support, or be suspended/resign. I witnessed one of our parish priests (who I am 95% sure is gay) weep during his homily a few weeks ago as he talked about the funeral he conducted that morning for a 25 year old girl who had committed suicide (formerly considered a grave sin within the Church). These kind of changes in thinking give me hope that changes, though slow, are coming.

  • Neemarie

    As a non-Christian, I found myself relating quite deeply to this article. I grew up in a conservative Muslim household and then 9/11 happened in NYC, where I lived, and changed everything I thought I knew about my religion. It sent me up to have a deep and complicated relationship with God in general, and forced me to look at the rituals of Islam and struggle with how I identified with a religion that was/is public enemy #1. That process of reconciliation, of painfully separating public opinion from political and patriarchial oppresssion with the Muslim community I was lucky to be surrounded with, has been a long road. And when I got married, and as hubby and I discuss children and family, it is really important to me that our hypothetical kids are asked to establish their own sense of the Almighty, one that is questioning of dogma and focused on God’s compassion and humanity.

  • Laura

    I love everything about this post. You articulated why I feel connected to my church and religion (ELCA Lutheran) far better than I ever could.

  • Anjali

    “like a queer, Episcopal version of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof” – YES.

  • hampton

    i’m a week late, but just had to say how much i loved this post. thanks elisabeth! <3

  • Pingback: by Jacki | Weekend Edition / 5()