Featured image via Portsmouth News/Solent News
When Aimi and Victoria Leggett walked into St. Mary’s Church in Warsash, Hampshire, they were expecting to be able to have their one-year-old son baptized into the Church of England at the same church where Aimi was. However, after the vicar who was supposed to preside over the ceremony started questioning them and refused to let both women be listed as the mother on the church baptism register, they left the church feeling dejected and insulted. They were told that the forms only had one space marked “mother” and that the other would have to be listed as the Godmother on the form.
Reverend George Gebauer is retired, but has been acting as one of the officiants at the church while St. Mary’s searches for a new vicar. The couple had originally set up the baptism with Reverend Andy Norris, the church’s previous vicar, but he has since left the parish. When they met with Gebauer to set things up, he told them that he “was unable to do this because the church baptism register only has space for one mother and one father” and that he believes “it would be illegal” to register them both as the mother. This is despite the fact that the two women have been in a civil partnership since October, 2011 and that Victoria has received the same parental rights as Aimi, the biological mother, in court, things that would have been easily found out if Gebauer had simply asked. He went on to say that “They will find themselves in the same situation if they go to another vicar or church,” even though they previously had done exactly that with the church’s old vicar and he had no problem with the idea of listing them both as mothers.
According to Aimi Leggett, Gebauer talked to the couple about how no child could have same-sex parents and questioned them about why they even wanted to have the child baptized into the church for ten or fifteen minutes. The Leggetts wanted to baptize their son, Alfie, at St. Mary’s because that is where Aimi was baptized and where her parents were married and they say that they want to bring up their child the same way they were brought up. Rev. Gebauer, however, said he would not perform the ceremony unless Victoria would agree to be listed on the forms as the Godmother instead of one of the mothers. After this, the Leggetts stormed out of the church and started looking at St. Peter’s Church in Titchfield as a possible alternative sight to have their son baptized.
Gebauer denies the couple’s claims that this was case of discrimination, maintaining that as far as he knew, it was a legal issue. According to him, it was simply a case of the church’s documents not having space to list two mothers on it. And even though laws regarding same-sex parental rights in England have changed over the years, the reverend believes that registries and forms can’t be changed to keep up with the new laws. He also claims the two women didn’t even say that they were a couple, although it seems like that would have been made clear when the two women shared a last name, talked about how Alfie was both of their sons and both wanted to be listed as the boy’s mother. Still, Gebauer insists that it had absolutely nothing to do with their sexuality and that he did all that he could to help them. Despite all the powers he has a vicar, he is powerless against the forms that have one spot for “mother” and one spot for “father.” There’s no way that can be changed to list two women who both have legal parenthood as being the two mothers of a single child.
While he started off only making arguments about the practicality of the dispute, that it was the registry’s fault and not his, the reverend soon showed just what he really thinks about the couple and gay and lesbian people in general. He called the couple selfish for demanding to be treated equally to a heterosexual couple in that they both be listed as mothers, saying that “they only think of themselves it seems.” He also claimed he was acting in the best interests of the child. He had to make sure nothing fishy was happening and he insinuated that they may not be the real parents when he said “We can only make sure the child is theirs. For all we know it they may have pinched the child.” Gebauer topped it all off by adding that he believes that gay and lesbian people have something fundamentally wrong with them.
I feel sorry for gay and lesbian people. We know there is something not right with their make-up. They produce too much hormone – they’re imbalanced. That’s the way they are. It’s a medical issue.
So clearly, his refusal to help the couple wasn’t because he has something against lesbians. The obvious problem is that it would have been too difficult to find out if both women had parental rights.Thankfully, the higher-ups in the church know a secret backdoor channel to find out who has legal rights to be called a mother. After hearing about the trouble that Gebauer was causing, the Venerable Gavin Collins, one of the archdeacons of the Portsmouth diocese, used the revolutionary idea of talking to the parents and was able to quickly clear the situation up. Collins said that there would be no problem at all and that Victoria “has full legal co-parental responsibility for Alfie. We can therefore enter their details onto the baptism register as ‘mother’ and ‘mother,’ as they would like.” Thankfully, there is something of a happy ending for the Leggett family and the baptism is back on schedule to happen at St. Mary’s. Also thankfully, Gebauer will not be there to officiate. Although the Leggetts are happy that they will be able to baptize their son, the experience has understandably left a bad taste in their mouths and they are excited to be able to move on. To top it all off, based on the ease that this problem was fixed, it could have easily been avoided. If Gebauer had only talked to the couple and asked if they both had parental rights like the archdeacon did, this could have been solved in about two minutes. Instead, he assumed that they couldn’t possibly both be actual mothers to the child. It was this assumption, probably aided by Gebauer’s archaic notions about gay and lesbian people, that led to the Leggetts being mistreated and denied the same services that heterosexual couples get and that the Leggetts have every right to receive.
This conflict shows the growing generational divide between leaders in the Church of England. Similar to the growing number of Christians in America who support marriage and other rights for gay people, churchgoers in the UK are starting to differ from the church traditions they grew up with. The Church of England has for a long time been strongly opposed to LGBTQ rights, but they have slowly been changing that stance. In 1998, they passed a resolution where they rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” but also said that they should listen and be sensitive to the queer community. A recent poll showed that 44% of Anglicans support gay marriage while 43% are opposed. It’s not only the congregations that are supporting gay rights, though. When a gay marriage bill was being argued in Parliament, the Church made the decision to try to strengthen the bill, and especially parental rights for queer couples. While they still do not support same-sex marriage, the Church of England decided that the law’s passage was inevitable and according to the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, they should “join with other members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape.” One of the major ways they decided to do that was to fight to change a provision that said when a woman in a same-sex marriage has a baby, her spouse wouldn’t be classified as the child’s parent.
Unlike Gebauer, some parts of the Church seem to be trying to reach out to queer parents. In its most recent job description for a new bishop, the Manchester Diocese included a “requirement to foster better links with the city’s lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender communities.” While they may not be 100% on board with gay rights, it does seem like they are evolving their position and are willing to help the queer community in some instances. If Gebauer had only talked to the couple and asked if they both had parental rights like his superior did, this whole problem could have been solved in about two minutes. Instead, he assumed that they couldn’t possibly both be actual mothers to the child. It was this assumption, probably aided by Gebauer’s archaic notions about gay and lesbian people, that led to the Leggetts being mistreated and denied the same services that heterosexual couples get and that the Leggetts have every right to receive. What’s interesting about Gebauer’s actions are that they aren’t only out of step with most of the world, but with the culture of his own religious community. While we may be used to cringing at stories like the Leggetts’ because they’re so familiar, it seems like we’re finally reaching a time where we can roll our eyes and laugh at them for their backwardness — because increasingly often, the rest of the Church is too.