Summer 2014 proved to be a monumental season for Sewanee and All Saints’ Chapel, as well as for alumna Kathryn Kendrick (C’09) and her partner, Eva Walton. Several months ago, Kendrick and Walton requested that their marriage be blessed in All Saints’ Chapel, an inquiry that resulted in lengthy and complex deliberations by the University’s leaders. The difficulties lay within efforts to consider gay marriage perspectives of church, state, and community simultaneously. When the couple’s request was initially denied, supporters from the Sewanee community only clung tighter to their cause. To support the couple, Kendrick’s former roommate, Hayley Robb Brantley (C’09), created a group called Rethink This, Sewanee. The group’s Facebook page quickly expanded to more than 2,600 members that peacefully rallied behind Kendrick and Walton’s efforts to approve same-sex marriage blessings in All Saints’. University Chaplain and Dean of All Saints’ Chapel, Reverend Tom Macfie (C’80), says, “We tried to listen to all opinions, and we respect them. Our focus was to be true to the policies of the University, the direction of the Episcopal Church and the laws of the state of Tennessee.”
After continued consideration, Sewanee granted Kendrick and Walton’s request to have their relationship blessed in the University chapel. Rethink This, Sewanee held an event called “Behold How Good” that was originally planned as a peaceful protest in support of Kendrick and Walton, but became a joyous occasion after the couple’s request was granted. Lauryl Tucker (C’99), a Professor of English at Sewanee, who played in instrumental role in the organization of the event, says, “It was always planned as a peaceful action and a show of unity, but in light of the decision, the spirit of the event was just one of gratitude and celebration.” “Behold How Good” was also for the Annual Fund and the Rainbow Fund. Tucker says,” I don’t just find the outcome personally gratifying and just: I’m equally proud and inspired, as a teacher of the craft of argument and critical analysis, that we all practiced what we teach. Through calm, reasoned argument, we found room to be patient and attentive to one another.” In order for civil union blessings to occur in Episcopal churches and chapels, the denomination had to approve a new liturgy, which came to pass in December 2012. This liturgy allows for blessings of same-sex marriages, even in states where gay marriage is illegal, such as Tennessee. However, bishops have the power to forbid its use within their jurisdiction. Because Sewanee and its Episcopal seminary are owned by 28 different diocese in the U.S. and not just one, each representative bishop makes up Sewanee’s Board of Trustees, with Sewanee’s chancellor as the University’s religious governing authority. Deliberation produced a compromise: same-sex couples who meet other eligibility for a ceremony in All Saints’ Chapel will be allowed to have a civil union blessing, given that their bishops agree.
The outcomes of the new liturgy have not escaped controversy; one South Carolina bishop has tried to leave the Episcopal Church because of these changes. Though almost two years have passed since the Episcopal Church approved blessings of same-sex marriages, Kendrick and Walton, who Macfie describes as “women committed to walking faithfully their Christian paths,” will be the first same-sex couple to have their marriage blessed in All Saints’ Chapel, with a ceremony occurring this month. However, they won’t be the last. The Episcopal Church, already a frontrunner for same-sex marriage blessings, will see decisions like this spreading, says Macfie. “As other universities wrestle with this issue,” he says, “I think they will come to accept all members of their communities as they are. These are our people.”