This past January, Washington National Cathedral announced a new policy that allows for same-sex couples to be married at the Cathedral, sending a symbolic message to the nation that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people should have the right to marry the person they love. On the day of that news, Cathedral congregation members Avice Meehan and Barbara Roberts, sent an email to the Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope, Cathedral vicar, to inquire about being married at the Cathedral. They were the first same-sex couple to apply and to be found eligible since the new policy was adopted.
Another couple—two long-time staff members of the Cathedral, head horticulturist Joe Luebke and it professional Tom Wright—celebrated the news in
January while recalling the history they made nearly three years prior when former Bishop of Washington John Bryson Chane, bestowed upon them the privilege of being the first gay couple to be married at the Cathedral—in a private service before an official policy had been adopted.
This issue of Cathedral Age features interviews with both couples about issues
of sexuality and the church, marriage,
Cathedral Age: Please tell me about yourselves: where you’re each from, how and when you met, and how long you’ve been together?
Avice: I was raised a Roman Catholic in the small town of Goshen, N.Y., the oldest of five children. Growing up, our town was very small, and we all went to each other’s churches. One of my best friends was the daughter of the Methodist minister in town. Two other good friends were the daughters of the Episcopal priest. Certainly the Episcopal Church was something I had long been familiar with, and I started going to a church in West Hartford, Conn., when I worked for Lowell Weicker who was governor of Connecticut. He’s quite a vivid political figure, but he’s also someone for whom I think faith is pretty important. He was one of the people who influenced me at the time, and I was formally received into the Episcopal Church in 1994.
Barbara: I was born and brought up in the west of England, in the Church of England, in a little village, confirmed at Gloucester Cathedral, and church was just part of what we did growing up and has always been an important part of what makes Sunday a Sunday.
I worked all my life in conservation of works of art, and have worked on a lot of religious artifacts over the years for many different denominations. One is engaged in many different faiths in that respect: learning about them, learning how to respect them and their history, and the way that so much is communicated through artifacts, or structures, or edifices, or objects, or books. The arts seem to come together in great churches and great cathedrals, and that was one of the reasons why it was always fun initially to come up to the National Cathedral—both for the music and for the quality of the preaching.
I have American family as well. One of my grandmothers was American, and the relationship between the American family and the English family has been very close.
Avice: And in fact we met because of that family.
Barbara: That’s true.
Avice: Our relationship was not ever something that was on our life plan or radar screen. I went to college with a wonderful woman, a poet named Linda Corrente, who has since died. She was married to one of Baba’s cousins, and I rented a little house in Connecticut—now I guess it’ll be 16 years ago—from them. That was how I met Baba.
Cathedral Age: This was the first same-sex relationship for both of you. what kind of impact did it have for you with your family and your faith community?
Avice: I’d say that, for me, when Baba and I decided that this was a really important relationship for us and that we wanted to be together, there were a lot of concerns about how I was going to tell my family and some of my friends. But one of the biggest worries for me actually was St. James’ Church (Madison Avenue)—where we both wound up going in New York. It was a very important part of my life, and I didn’t know how the information about our relationship was going to be received. I really was very conflicted, because if it wasn’t well received, I didn’t know how I would deal with that. I was very close to an associate rector, Susanna Smith, so she was one of the first people that I told at St. James’. I was really concerned—and that concern could not have been more misplaced. One of the things that was wonderful for both Baba and myself was how we were made welcome—not only by Susanna but also by other members of the clergy, in particular Brenda Husson, who was then and still is the rector.
Barbara: It was not necessarily something I was expecting. It was just sort of all a delightful surprise, really.
It was an unfolding, if you will, and
one that I think both of us were lucky enough to be able to embrace.
We very quickly established a legal partnership agreement because that was all that was available to us. But it felt as though it needed to be something that was a serious, lifelong deal, and marriage was not available. But I think what is very important is the fact that one is in some way able to express commitment. And that’s what we did.
Avice: And I have to say we’ve now lived in a number of jurisdictions where civil union is possible, and we probably could have done it at any time. There’s something about the sacredness of a service that in the end is what it’s about for us.
Cathedral Age: So after a committed partnership for many years,
why get married? i’m hearing that part of it may have something to do with the cathedral itself and what that would mean to you…
Avice: I think that’s a big part of it, because the Cathedral is a place, a community, and a spiritual home, that has meant a great deal in our lives. Theoretically, we could probably do it in New York, but the place that we feel really connected to is the Cathedral.
Barbara: I would agree. The building of that community within the Cathedral, which I think is very open to people of all faiths and all thoughts, and different perspectives, was important to us, too. One wasn’t being put in a cubbyhole in any way. One was asked to open up, and so one did. And then, my goodness, suddenly we’re sharing things that we hadn’t thought that we would be able to share with others.
I think the ability of the Cathedral to encourage truthfulness was and is very strong. Truth in what you are, who you are, why you are, where you want to be, what your faith might be, how you can work with others. And so in some ways affirming this union under both the law and within the Cathedral space is a joining of many threads.
Cathedral Age: What role does your faith play in your personal lives and in your relationship as a couple?
Avice: I think what’s always been interesting to me is that I’ve spent the last 20 years among physicians and scientists in either a healthcare or scientific environment. Often I have found myself among people who are actively hostile to faith. It’s viewed as something irrational. For me at any rate, it has been in those situations in which I have been called upon to define myself, that the role of faith has been most clear—to find some coherence in the world and some moral or ethical center just beyond what I think is good or right. That sense of a higher power in God, that’s what helps give form and shape to everyday life.
Barbara: I think for me the sheer simplicity of an open mind and being able to listen and being able to hear, which is I think a great deal of what faith is all about, is to me imperative. When Avice and I figured out we had a place together, she was able to join me in that place … and still does. That to me is extraordinary and magnificent, and as wonderful as a great piece of music in a great structure. I think it is just part of who one is, and I think that the faith side of it is that little nugget in the middle that is very solid. All sorts of other things could happen around that, but it is pretty stable right there in the middle. And that’s a good feeling.
Cathedral Age: What would you say to those who are against same-sex marriage, especially those based on their religious tradition?
Avice: For me, I may have profound disagreements with people, but I respect their right to hold those views when they come from what I would say is deep faith. Living in New York, every day I see and am surrounded by people who come from different traditions. Some traditions may not be how I would choose to live, but I’m not prepared to condemn people who make different decisions than I do. So I would ask for that same level of understanding and respect in return. In the end, people are trying to lead a dignified life, and we get to that dignified life through many paths. And so I ask of someone else that they respect our path just as they have a right to ask that I respect theirs.
Barbara: My sense is that people will think what they think. And I think time will change that. I think marriage is a civil contract that is made within a community for many purposes, for many reasons, and it was mostly a legal document. It was about who owns what. People can get very upset, but I think slowly things will change.
We’re not trying to upset or change anything or anybody else’s mind. All we are saying is this is the decision I am able to take, and I wish to take it. The Cathedral has taken a huge step, and I admire them standing up. It’s a brave step, and we’ll see what the consequences are. But I think it’s one that gives me joy, and I hope it will bring joy to many other people.
Cathedral Age: First, tell me about yourselves: where are you each from; how and when you met; and how long you’ve been together?
Joe: I grew up in Montgomery, Ind., and came to the Cathedral in 1987 as a horticulture intern. In 1990 I was hired as the bishop’s gardener. Tom and I met in the early 1990s when a group of folks from the Cathedral socialized outside of work. We were friends for a few years before we realized that each of us began to look at each other as possibly more than “just friends.”
Tom: I am from Annapolis, Md. As Joe said, we met at the Cathedral; I started working here in 1991. We will be celebrating 20 years of togetherness—not to mention three years married—
Cathedral Age: What kind of upbringing did you each have in terms of a faith tradition; and how has your sexuality intersected your own
Joe: I was not raised in a religious household. I didn’t attend church as a child and was not baptized. In fact, the area where I grew up was very heavily Roman Catholic and Old Order Amish and Mennonite. I knew nothing about the Episcopal Church or other mainline Protestant denominations when I was growing up.
As our relationship continued to grow, Tom was adamant that I be baptized in the Episcopal Church, and I was baptized at All Souls Memorial Church during an Easter vigil service.
When we were growing up I suppose we lived by the golden rule. My father—although not religious or one to wear his spirituality on his sleeve—was known as a kind, generous, and caring man. I like to think that I have tried to follow in his footsteps.
I was raised in a conservative area of southern Indiana. I like to say that we had a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in our family. I didn’t discuss my sexuality with my siblings until much later, after I had moved from Indiana. I didn’t tell my mother until Tom and I decided to get married. This was after living together for 17 years. It was certainly known but not discussed.
As a child and teenager I didn’t think that you could be a Christian and gay. The two were just not compatible. It wasn’t until I started working at the Cathedral that it all started to crystallize for me: Yes, these two pieces of me can actually reside together. I’ve always found a welcome home here at the Cathedral. I believe that being here at the Cathedral has allowed me to grow as a Christian and as an openly gay man.
Tom: I was brought up in the Methodist tradition. I never gave much thought to how religion and sexuality intersect, but I do admit that I was subject to the general rejection of the gay population by organized religion. Of course that is changing these days, at least in some faith traditions. I can’t pinpoint the moment when I actually was at peace with my sexual identity and the Church, but I do recall one day when I was in conversation with an Episcopal priest about this subject and he reassured me that all humans are made in the image of God.
Cathedral Age: You were the first gay couple to be married at the cathedral—before this year’s official policy change. how did that come about?
Tom: When D.C. began to issue same-sex marriage licenses in 2010, it was a great joy—but there was an immediate concern that that whole process was going to be subject to a public referendum. If that was the case, then the law could be overturned and they’d stop issuing licenses. So we had a really small window of opportunity to do something if we were going to do it,
and frankly, if Joe and I had ever been allowed to be married before then, we would have been years earlier. The laws had just never allowed that.
We were having dinner in Baltimore one evening, and I just said, “So Joe, you think you wanna get married?” And he said, “Sure.” So we just went about having the rest of our dinner, and then later Joe looked up and said, “Well, where would you wanna do it?” And I said, “Well, I guess the Cathedral—because we work there, it’s our spiritual home, we’ve grown together there.” And we thought, would we be able to do that? We’re really close with Bishop Chane so we should ask him. We thought, oh, he won’t do it. And Joe said, “I’ll send him an email.” Within an hour of that email the bishop responded and said, “Absolutely. Come to my office on Monday so we can talk about it.”
Bishop Chane said, “I really only marry clergy, but I’m making an exception on your part. I would love to marry the two of you.” So we started looking at his calendar and picked the date of July 17, 2010—our anniversary. It just so happened that he didn’t have anything that weekend.
Joe: Bishop Chane’s policy in the diocese was that if a church wanted to perform same-gender weddings that they could. It would be voted on by their vestry. If they did not want to perform same-gender weddings, they didn’t have to. So we asked for permission from the Cathedral to marry here, and there was lots of discussion on what the policy was going to be. It was moving slowly, and so at that point Bishop Chane said, “It’s my cathedral as well. I’m going to do this regardless of what the current policy is.” And that’s how it happened. It was really Bishop Chane who stood up for us and was willing to take the heat and do what he thought was the right thing.
Tom: At the time we were not aware that the Cathedral did not yet have a policy. We had assumed that given the open history of the Cathedral, this would be a non-issue. If not for the courage of Bishop Chane to act on our behalf and declare that he would officiate this ceremony, then this would have never