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Gay marriage issue hits county's interfaith service

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/20/20/21/wA5Ol.Em.138.jpeg|264
    ROBERT LAHSER - The Charlotte Observer
    Monsignor John McSweeney.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/20/20/21/1827uM.Em.138.jpeg|450
    David T. Foster III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Steav Bates-Congdon (right), longtime music director at St. Gabriel's Catholic Church was fired after he went to New York to marry his longtime partner, Bill Bates-Congdon. Photographed at their home on February 8, 2012.

One Catholic Church in Charlotte fired music director Steav Bates-Congdon after he married his longtime male partner.

Now another has pulled out of hosting the city's largest interfaith service rather than allow Bates-Congdon to be part of the team planning the annual event.

Mecklenburg Ministries’ 38th annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Service is still on for Nov. 26. But it’ll be held at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Dilworth, not at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ballanytne – Charlotte’s biggest house of worship.

And Bates-Congdon, now music director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Mill, will play a prominent role in the interfaith musical program – as he has for several years.

Monsignor John McSweeney, who pastors St. Matthew, said Sunday he declined Mecklenburg Ministries’ request that he formally invite Bates-Congdon to again help plan the service because “in no way would we give the impression that the Catholic Church approves of same-sex marital covenants.”

That view clashed with the mission statement at Mecklenburg Ministries, which has nearly 100 member congregations of various faiths. So it moved the event.

“At the heart of our core values is honoring the dignity of all people and not excluding anyone,” said the Rev. Christy Snow, who chairs the committee planning the interfaith service.

Disagreement over invitation

The drama surrounding this change in locale can be traced to last year, when Bates-Congdon lost his job as music director at St. Gabriel Catholic Church after he and his partner traveled to New York to get legally married and he posted photos on Facebook.

Bates-Congdon said he’d decided to not participate in this year’s interfaith service because he worried it might lead to controversy.

But in March, he said he began getting phone calls – three in all – from people claiming to represent St. Matthew and St. Gabriel. The message, he said, was that he was not welcome to attend any planning committee meetings or rehearsals or even the service itself at St. Matthew.

“If it’s necessary,” he said one caller told him, “we will get a restraining order and have you escorted off campus.”

McSweeney and the Rev. Frank O’Rourke, pastor of St. Gabriel, both said they are unaware of such calls.

Bates-Congdon contacted the service’s planning committee, offering to bow out because, he said, “the church is making an issue of this, and I’m not.”

But at the August meeting of that committee, chairwoman Snow asked Kathy Bartlett, music director at St. Matthew and a member of the planning panel, if she would ask McSweeney to issue a formal invitation to Bates-Congdon to clear up any misunderstanding.

Mecklenburg Ministries also wanted a statement from St. Matthew – Charlotte’s largest church – welcoming everyone to worship.

McSweeney said he had no problem with inviting all to worship. But he said he felt the request to formally invite Bates-Congdon was out of bounds, given Catholic teaching opposing same-sex marriage.

“I don’t think we should have to violate (those teachings). And we were the hosts, and they were the guests,” he told the Observer. “Because you are welcome does not mean we have to agree to everything you may hold to.”

But McSweeney said none of this to the Mecklenburg Ministries committee.

Instead, in a message passed along to the planning committee, McSweeney said St. Matthew wanted to honor its “sister parish,” St. Gabriel, and so would not invite Bates-Congdon to participate in any capacity other than as a worshiper.

“If this is a problem, if this is a concern,” McSweeney said, according to meeting minutes obtained by the Observer, “then we are recommending moving the interfaith thanksgiving service to another church.”

“Disappointed” and “shocked” were how Snow described her reaction to McSweeney’s message.

“(St. Matthew) had been very open and loving and welcoming,” she said. “I just didn’t see that coming.”

The bishops and the pope

According to Catholic teaching, homosexual behavior is a sin. And Bishop Peter Jugis, who heads the Diocese of Charlotte, has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage. In 2012, he helped lead the successful campaign to pass a state constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman.

Then, last month, Jugis and Bishop Michael Burbidge, his equally conservative Raleigh Diocese counterpart, resigned from the N.C. Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization made up of Christian leaders.

The two bishops cited the council’s tolerant position on marriage, which they said was contrary to the Catholic Church’s view.

These Charlotte tensions with other faith groups comes on the heels of a widely-discussed interview with Pope Francis, in which he appeared to steer Catholics away from what he termed an “obsession” with issues in the culture wars, including same-sex marriage.

In the same interview, the new pontiff called for a more welcoming spirit in the church, saying he once answered a provocative question on homosexuality this way: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

Still, to date, Pope Francis has not attempted to alter church doctrine on marriage or homosexual behavior.

“They’re the heroes”

Leaders at Mecklenburg Ministries have been reticent to talk about their disagreement with McSweeney.

Despite the controversy, “our relationship with St. Matthew is still very much intact,” said the Rev. Glencie Rhedrick, president of the Mecklenburg Ministries board. “They’re still supportive of Mecklenburg Ministries. They understand the decision we made, and we understand the decision they made.”

Snow also said she doesn’t want the issue to overshadow what she expects to be one of the biggest and best interfaith Thanksgiving services yet.

It will open with a Native American blessing. Johnson C. Smith University president Ron Carter will give the evening’s sermon. And, for the first time, people not at the service will be able to watch it live on the Internet.

McSweeney, who gave the homily, or sermon, at the 2011 interfaith Thanksgiving service at Temple Beth El, said he hopes the service will focus on giving thanks.

As for Bates-Congdon, who will sing and conduct one of the selections at the Tuesday-before-Thanksgiving event, he lauded Mecklenburg Ministries for standing up for inclusion.

“They’re the heroes,” he said. “Mecklenburg Ministries refused to let me stay home for Thanksgiving.”

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