Portsmouth church: ‘Everybody is welcome to God’s table’

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church flies rainbow flag to support LGBTQ community

By Jim McGaw
Posted 9/6/19

PORTSMOUTH — Murry Edwards thinks back to the time when she attended a church that primarily served the gay community. 

“I loved when the priest said, ‘Everybody is …

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Portsmouth church: ‘Everybody is welcome to God’s table’

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church flies rainbow flag to support LGBTQ community

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Murry Edwards thinks back to the time when she attended a church that primarily served the gay community. 

“I loved when the priest said, ‘Everybody is welcome to God’s table,’” recalled Ms. Edwards, a senior warden in the vestry at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. “I think what we forget sometimes is, this is God’s church, not our church, and this shows God’s love for everyone. That’s for him to give, and not for us to withhold.”

She was commenting on St. Mary’s new sign and rainbow flag that was recently placed at the church’s East Main Road entrance in support of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer) community. 

Jennifer Pedrick, church rector, believes it’s the only rainbow flag being flown by a church in Portsmouth.

“I know of one in downtown Providence — Grace Episcopal Church. If you walk in Boston, you’ll see churches with the flag,” Rev. Pedrick said.

The idea for the flag came about in February upon a suggestion by a parishioner, who said it would make members of the LGBTQ community feel more welcome at St. Mary’s. Rev. Pedrick liked the idea, but she first wanted to run the idea by the vestry.

“In February, we had a discussion about what it symbolizes, what it says to the world and to our members, and we unanimously agreed we would put a flag up. We did that in June, which is Pride Month, which was kind of a coincidence,” she said. “If we’re going to put a flag out that says everyone’s welcome, do our members need to talk about that and what does it mean to really be welcoming to the LGBTQ community, and do we have work to do to truly be welcoming? Which, of course we do, and we always will, if we are attentive.”

Gabe Giella, the church’s director of Christian formation, led meetings with members of the congregation. 

“I hosted a couple of these discussions for the parish to try to promote some excitement over the idea of the welcoming initiative we’re doing, but also to give space to anyone who had questions or concerns,” he said. “A good handful of people showed up with their genuine, honest questions, and we addressed them. They left with a better understanding.”

Rev. Pedrick made it clear that not all members of the church community agree on this issue. However, the church decided to be “loving,” and that is how change happens, she said.

“We have this long roadway and wanted people to know that we are welcoming, opening, affirming and our community recognizes that we all feel welcome here. As a heteronormative way of thinking about life, we wouldn’t question whether we’re welcome in a church, but we know there are people who have no idea whether they are welcome, and in fact may think they’re not welcome because historically, the church has not been a welcoming place for that community,” she said.

Feedback has been mostly positive, Rev. Pedrick said. “We’ve had new people come because it speaks to them something that’s very important — being Christian.”

‘Accepting of everybody’

Parishioner Carole Nicodemus said she supports the rainbow flag’s placement because she doesn’t like to see any minority groups marginalized.

“We are accepting of everybody; that’s something that the Episcopal Church is really strong on — accepting everybody regardless of what they may think. It allows us to explore, not just our own faith but our faith with our fellow community and the people at large. It shows that anybody’s welcome to come in here,” she said.

Parishioner Alexandra Allardt said St. Mary’s has always prided itself as being a valuable resource for the wider community, and the rainbow flag merely solidifies that goal.

“Many people who drive by don’t understand that we have so much acreage and so many opportunities, from the Sacred Center, which is our yoga, spirituality based center, and all sorts of different readings and activities we have here. As families split up and children go away and children decide they’re of another orientation, it’s nice to know that no man is an island; everybody belongs to a continent someplace and they can come back here and still be accepted.”

When Ms. Allardt joked that the church offered just about everything short of “giving away popcorn,” Heather Perkins was quick to correct her. The Newport resident, who was scouting churches, happened to be a guest at St. Mary’s for the Saturday service. In her hand was a church welcoming bag that, yes, included popcorn.

“This is my first time at this particular church; it’s beautiful,” said Ms. Perkins, who said she was visiting after hearing that St. Mary’s had labyrinths.

But she also liked what she heard about the church’s policy of inclusiveness. 

“Last year I was in Texas at one of the most friendly churches, but they were struggling as they had come out against the LGBTQ community there, and I sort of suspected it might have been because some of the staff there may have been wrestling with some issues,” she said.

Then she visited a church in Fort Smith, Ark. which had a gay priest, who was causing “a lot of consternation” in the community.

“A lot of people dropped away from the parish and a lot of new people came. But it was really beautiful that even in such a rural, conservative area, they were still welcoming him. The church was going through an identity crisis, and they loved him so much,” she said.

‘Moral issue’

Rev. Pedrick said that St. Mary’s, like other churches of different faiths, is always concerned about losing parishioners, a nationwide trend that has forced the closure of many parishes. However, she insists that was not the reason the church decided to make a statement on embracing the LGBTQ community.

“Of course we want to grow and yes, there’s a reality that the more people are here, the healthier we will be, including financially. But honestly, we don’t really talk about that as much as the need to share the love of God. That feels more compelling to us,” she said.

“This is a political issue, sure. But we feel it’s a moral issue.”

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