By Melissa Quinn
As the Rev. Ann Gillespie’s gaze drifted across the rows of people at Christ Church, she couldn’t help but notice that something seemed different.
The typically full crowd at the 9 a.m. service looked a bit thin, and Gillespie, senior associate rector at the church, couldn’t help but wonder where everybody was.
She got her answer eight hours later.
At the 5 p.m. service April 21, more than 150 people packed into the Alexandria church, all bearing witness as Melissa Capers and Bruni Hernandez took their places at the altar.
Capers and Hernandez were no strangers to parishioners — having been members since 2009 — and on that Sunday, the couple stood as the centerpiece of the church’s first same-sex blessing.
“Lots of people waited until later in the day to be part of this history,” Gillespie said. “The church was so proud of what was happening they didn’t want to miss it.”
COMMITTED TO COMMITTING
Capers and Hernandez met in 1996, the same year Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred same-sex couples from receiving the federal benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy.
Hernandez was a friend of Capers’ sister, and the pair began dating three years later.
After moving to Alexandria in 2000, the couple started exploring the options available that would solidify their commitment to one another. Gay marriage is not legal in Virginia, and it was no different 13 years ago.
Still, they held a commitment ceremony at the Church of Saint Clement in 2002, with family and friends gathering for a celebration. But, according to the rules of the church, the couple could not receive a blessing.
Capers and Hernandez view the service as their wedding, but the exchanging of vows was initially required outside the church’s walls. At the time, though, the D.C. sniper held the metropolitan area hostage, making it dangerous to even stand outside.
For Capers, it was either allow the exchanging of vows to take place inside or call off the whole thing. The priest relented.
“There was this need to have a bright line between our exchange of promises and the church holding a mass,” Capers said. “That was painful, but it was OK as we did it, and it was really a matter of everybody going as far as we could. It’s hard to remember how different things were in 2002.”
As time passed, Capers and Hernandez began to feel the sting of inequality. Churches hold ceremonies to bless cats and dogs, Capers said, but not same-sex couples.
BLESSED BY GOD, BUT NOT RICHMOND
As the same-sex marriage debate spread across the country, the Episcopal Church found itself relatively divided on the issue.
When a bishop within the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire — who had been involved in a committed, lifelong same-sex relationship — was elected to head the organization, it caused a rift within the church. A few parishes supported such relationships, but others did not, said Tara Knox, director of development for Christ Church.
After a lengthy process, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia gave permission to a handful of churches to perform same-sex blessings, with the ceremony called a holy union.
“We felt that this is something we need to do for our parishioners,” Knox said. “We felt it was the right inclusiveness and fits into the philosophy of Christ Church, which is an inclusive one.”
For couples participating in a same-sex blessing, the process is no different than those getting married, Gillespie said.
The Episcopal Church requires couples to attend three sessions of counseling and, at Christ Church specifically, a marriage class called Water to Wine before becoming eligible for the ceremony. And though the liturgy for same-sex blessings is similar to a wedding, the language varies slightly.
Couples make vows of commitment to one another, exchange rings, and receive blessings from God and the congregation, but they are not recognized as married in Virginia.
“I feel completely confident to say that God blessed what we did, and [blessed] them on Sunday,” Gillespie said. “It’s the blessing of God, the blessing of the church and the commitment to one another.”
Though churches perform same-sex blessings — and have for several years — gay marriage in the commonwealth has yet to garner overwhelming support. Voters passed the Marriage Amendment in 2006, which enshrined the union between one man and one woman as the only kind valid in or recognized by the state. The move eliminated the possibility for not only gay marriage, but civil unions as well.
And, according to a poll released by the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies last month, 46 percent of Virginians oppose gay marriage, compared to 45 percent who support it.
“This is Virginia,” Gillespie said, “and that’s OK. Virginia is taking its time.”
FIGHT FOR EQUAL RIGHTS
After their commitment ceremony in 2002, it began to dawn on Capers and Hernandez that laws would leave them with no protection if either was injured or died.
Vermont began offering civil unions for same-sex couples in 2000, and they decided to participate. With the help of Hernandez’s friends, the pair connected with a justice of the peace and formed a civil union not long after their commitment ceremony.
“[With] the certificate of civil union, people will acknowledge it as an intent to be treated as family,” Capers said.
Then, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004, the pair headed north and became legally married in 2008.
“One of the things that has been part of our journey … and part of the struggle of all gay couples is this whole thing of trying to figure out how to be recognized and protected legally,” Capers said.
In states that have legalized gay marriage, including the District of Columbia, the spouse is considered next of kin. But in others, like Virginia, they are left with little legal protection.
“That is still a concern,” Capers said.
Capers and Hernandez became involved in Christ Church shortly after they were married and were instrumental in encouraging dialogue between the church and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.
The couple started a monthly potluck called Out and About that “extends Christ Church’s welcome to LGBT people,” the house of worship’s website states. Capers also worked as the facilitator of the church’s LGBT inclusion group.
So when Christ Church received permission to hold same-sex blessings in October, Capers and Hernandez were the perfect pair to participate in the inaugural ceremony.
“It was possible because we had done so much work at the church,” Capers said. “It was nice to have a celebration of the church.”
Though the couple had participated in ceremonies spanning three states, the blessing from the church represented more than the two of them — it proved the church’s desire to move forward and “made it bigger than ourselves,” Capers said.
“It was really amazing,” she added. “It’s a vision of what the church could be: risky and open and celebratory and jubilant and relevant.”
Afterward, Capers and Hernandez hosted an Out and About potluck to commemorate the occasion.
“That this kind of pivot was possible, to say this is the way the church community as a whole can celebrate where we’ve come,” Capers said, “it marked the turning point for the whole community.”
BLAZING A TRAIL
Christ Church is the only Episcopal Church in Alexandria to have publicly celebrated a same-sex blessing, but Knox believes others are not far behind.
In addition to the Church of Saint Clement, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Grace Episcopal Church have received permission to offer the blessings, though few have been performed.
And though the commonwealth may not express vast support for gay marriage, the Christ Church community has been overwhelmingly positive, Gillespie said.
“It has just been phenomenal,” she said. “People … are just so proud of the way the church has been able to move toward this.”
Though Capers and Hernandez have found support in the Alexandria community, they also have encountered others who have not been as receptive.
“Locally and from people who know us, it has been lovely,” Capers said. “But [a negative reaction] is also what is true about the reality.”
Still, the couple finds solace not only in the church, but also in knowing what same-sex blessings represent for others.
“I expect that people who were there were thinking about their kids and their cousins and their brothers,” Capers said. “We’re just happy people’s version of what is possible may have shifted and broadened.”