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The Power of Liturgy: Our Commitment Ceremony in Lander, Wyoming, in 1997

The Power of Liturgy: Our Commitment Ceremony in Lander, Wyoming, in 1997

THE MAGAZINE

by Laurie Gudim

 

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Rosean and I had been together ten years and had been jointly raising our four children, two of whom had now safely transited the difficult teenage years.  We had a grandson who was almost three.  We finally had a priest who was willing to be our celebrant and a faith community that would support us.  We had a lot to be thankful for, a lot to celebrate, but mostly we just wanted the opportunity – a little space selfishly for us – to stand together and publicly say how important we are to one another.

 

I didn’t really expect more than that from the event.  It would be nice.  It would express Rosean’s and my faith in each other, in the God who informs and cherishes us, and in our relationship, an entity bigger than both of us and often possessed of a mind completely its own.  We would get to show off our beautiful old house and our huge yard, in which Rosean had planted a number of exquisite flower beds.  (For those not invited we would pass our commitment ceremony off as a house blessing – a common practice at the time.)

 

When asked, our priest, Ann Fontaine, immediately said she would do it.  It was important enough to her that she would do it no matter what, but she would inform Bill Wolfrum, the interim bishop, because, as she said, bishops hate surprises.  This worried us for Ann.  We didn’t want our ceremony to end her career; it wasn’t worth that much to us.  But to Ann it was.  This was my first clue that what we were doing was more important than I had at first thought.

 

Rosean and I began to make decisions.  We found a book – I think it was the first edition of “Gay and Lesbian Weddings” by David Toussaint and Heather Leo, but I don’t know for sure because we gave it away long ago to another couple.  It was a god-send, offering practical advise on all aspects of planning a same-sex union.

 

It amazed us how much preparation was involved for such a simple event.  The book pointed out the usual things one needed to consider: the invitations, the cake, the rehearsal dinner.  And then there were the things particular to a lesbian event.  Were there relatives or friends we would like to invite to whom we had not yet come out?  What would we do about some of the standard wedding customs, like walking down the aisle, throwing the wedding bouquet, and garters?  How would we word the invitation to insure that only those invited would come?  At best it would be a terrible intrusion and at worst it could really be dangerous if someone adamantly against lesbian relationships showed up.

 

We considered every wedding custom in light of what it meant traditionally and then decided if we wanted to hang onto it, change it or get rid of it.  For instance we learned that the walk of the bride down the aisle was traditionally indicative of an exchange of property between father and husband.  We modified this so that both of us would walk into our living room, which would have become a sanctuary, to be greeted by our priest.  This was symbolic to us of the fact that we both are God’s property, and so is our relationship.

 

We kept the customs of feeding one another cake and dancing to a special song, but garters and flower-throwing were nixed.  Rosean’s father offered to sing us the Hawaiian Wedding Song at the reception.  He reasoned that Hawaii was the first state to have accepted same-sex marriage, but in reality it was just one of his favorite melodies.

 

Ann had her conversation with Bishop Wolfrum.  As she reported to us later, it went like this.  “Bill,” she had said, “I’m going to do a house blessing for a lesbian couple.”  Then she had added, “Well, more than a house blessing, actually.  I’m going to bless their relationship.”  And, to our wonder and joy, he had replied, “Yes, go ahead.  I wish I was more brave about doing this throughout my ministry.”

 

So I wrote the liturgy, staying close to the marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer.  It did not bother me that ours was not quite a marriage but only a commitment ceremony.  For Rosean and me the important thing was that we would get to say our vows to one another in front of our friends.

 

But as I wrote I realized that the sharing of vows would not just be between Rosean and me.  This would be an opportunity for our families to vow their support for us.  And it would be a time when Rosean and I could promise to “give back” to our community.  These elements were included in our liturgy.

 

The invitations went out and we began to get replies.  It amazed us how many people, friends from all over the country, said they would be coming.  This was my second clue that our event would be important.

 

Then Rosean’s children, whom I had lived with and co-parented for years, wrote me letters.  Each welcomed me to the family and told me how delighted they were that I would be their step-mother.  To my utter surprise our ceremony was making my relationship with their mother official in a way it hadn’t been before.

 

The fateful weekend came.  We had opted for a rehearsal dinner that included any of our guests who were in town the day before our ceremony, and it became a large barbecue in our back yard.  Our friends from the National Outdoor Leadership School, which has its headquarters in Lander, shimmied up our trees and created shelter with tarps when the evening turned rainy.  The rehearsal went off smoothly and with humor, and Rosean and I basked in the friendship of all those who had traveled to be with us.  We went to bed thinking that if the rehearsal had been the only event, we would already have had a time well worth everything we had put into it.

 

Our commitment ceremony itself exceeded our wildest dreams, however.  Thanks to a master list I had generated from the valuable tips in our wedding planning book, we had taken care of almost everything and could relax into the joy of the day.   Rosean’s mom, our bridal party and a very dear friend of mine who is like a big sister handled last minute chores like cutting the rolls for the reception.

 

The house blessing took place, and we reveled in the energy sent into the rooms in which we went about our daily lives.  Then everyone went into the living room and dining room, where we had set up rows of folding chairs, and sat down.

 

Our ring bearer, our grandson, Uriah, had to be retrieved from the shower stall where he was experimenting with the sound of his good leather shoes against the fiberglass.  With Rosean and I each holding firmly to one of his hands, we three processed on cue into holy space and time.

 

And there is where things became life-changing.  It wasn’t just that the service was full of significant exchanges, or that there were people there who would never have dreamed of finding themselves at a “gay wedding.”  It wasn’t merely the very special music or how Rosean and I shared, there in front of eighty-six people, the deep sentiments of our hearts.  All those things were powerful, meaningful, things I will cherish forever.  But something even more fundamental happened.

 

We walked into that room liars – people who for years had hidden the true nature of our relationship and had asked our children to keep our secret.  We were part of a hated, marginalized group.  We had both been spit at, yelled at, and shunned.  People like us died because they were queer.  While personally we accepted our feelings for one another as true, God-given and wholesome, we were always scared about being too public.

 

But when our crowd of guests were asked if they would support us in our relationship, they all responded with a resounding, “we will.”  And suddenly I knew that we had allies.  These were people who would not only help us over the rough places in our relationship, these were our stalwart defenders in all areas of our lives.  They would argue with our detractors, speak the truth about us – and they would camp on our porch if we were ever threatened with violence to ourselves or to our home.  Suddenly we belonged in a way we never had before.  Suddenly it was possible to hold our heads up and to speak the truth to everyone.

 

Our ceremony was not only an opportunity for us to renew and confirm our commitment to one another, it was an opportunity for our community to say yes to us.  And this is what changed Rosean and I – and everyone else there.  Our homilist expressed it most eloquently.

 

Our homilist, Syd Archambault, was a lay preacher, a friend and life-long member of our church.  We had chosen the Ruth and Naomi reading as our first lesson, reasoning that, while the story was not about an intimate sexual bond between women it did reflect a powerful, life-altering vow, conceived in love, from one woman to another.  And, to our surprise, Syd preached on it.  To this day what she said brings tears to my eyes.

 

“Rosean and Laurie,” she said, “you are our Naomi and we are your Ruth.  And we say this to YOU.  ‘Wherever you go, we will go.  Wherever you lodge, we will lodge.  Your people will be our people and your God our God.’”

 

________________

 

And here’s a postscript, to illustrate the nature of life in Wyoming.  A couple of months after our ceremony, we drove the 150 or so miles from our home to Jackson, to a friend’s memorial service.  Around half way there is the small town of Dubois, where we stopped at a convenience store for coffee.  It was 6:45 am, and there was no one around except the cashier.  When we had gotten our drinks and I had proffered a check by way of payment, she gazed at the address and said, “Aren’t you those two women who got married to each other awhile ago there in Lander?  My great-aunt lives around the corner from you.

 

Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO.  You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.  She is also a regular contributor to our Speaking to the Soul daily reflections.

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Laurie Gudim

Thanks, Jim Toy!

And Paul Woodrum, that change in how one is perceived is interesting, isn't it? Worth a discussion, IMO, about our -- often unconscious -- attitudes toward marriage. I wonder if others perceive that a church wedding is the same as a City Hall one? How deeply does the sacrament touch us -- or does it at all?

I think it does, obviously.
But how much of that transformation is the result of the particular community which supports us and how much is the "outward and visible sign" piece?

Would love to hear more reflection on this.

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Paul Woodrum

Impatient with the Episcopal Church and the State of New York, my husband and I went to Connecticut in June 2009 and got married at the New Haven City Hall where civil servants couldn't have been nicer. After over thirty years together, I've not noticed that marriage made any change in our relationship, but it has changed the way others perceive us, an acceptability that wasn't there before when we introduce each other as husband. And there are some financial benefits in terms of pension, supplementary medical coverage and taxes. A church marriage would have been nice, but I really don't see much difference, no matter how the hairs are split, between civil and religious marriage, both of which express love and bind the couple in a covenant with each other.

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Jim Toy

Then and now--thank you Laurie and Rosean and your children and Utah and Ann and Bill and Syd and your allies!

All blessings!

Jim Toy
Co-Founder, Oasis TBLG Outreach Ministry, Diocese of Michigan
Co-Founder, Inclusive Justice "Together in Faith" Michigan

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