It’s just before nine o’clock on Sunday morning and the bells are ringing loud at St Matthew’s Church in Albury.
It’s already 25 degrees Celsius and the sun is beating hard and bright on a small group of people crowding outside. Among them are two men with matching cream linen jackets and nervous smiles.
Peter Sanders, 58, and Peter Grace, 62, are there to bless their marriage – almost two years after their marriage.
The pair drove 10 hours from their hometown in northern New South Wales after their own parish failed to acknowledge their relationship.
The men say St Mary’s Anglican Church in West Armidale not only refuses to bless their union, but that they have recently been faced with the prospect of losing their position in the church if they don’t go their separate ways, did not live in celibacy and did not take religious advice.
The Bishop of the Diocese of Armidale, Reverend Rod Chiswell, has previously said the church will not dismiss Mr Sanders from his role as the church’s music director and organist, but that involvement in positions of ministry or leadership is “conditional upon acceptance of loyalty in code of service.”
The struggle that followed was bitter, with about a third of the congregation leaving the church outraged by the couple’s treatment.
But this day is the day of happiness.
“If you want the world to change, we change it”
Albury Priest Peter MacLeod-Miller, a longtime advocate for the LGBTQIA + community, told Sunday’s congregation that “we are celebrating a better and kinder world, and also real change.”
He reads a letter from Bishop Clarence Bester, head of the Diocese of Wangaratta of which St Matthew’s is a part and who passed a resolution to offer blessings for same-sex marriages in August 2019.
Bishop Bester says he prays that “the love and care for the ministry offered today can restore hope and dignity to all who feel left out.”
The congregation is made up of well-dressed elderly worshipers, a family with young children, as well as a few individuals and couples, looking a little unsure, wearing t-shirts with the rainbow flag and face masks.
Father MacLeod-Miller sends his message loud and clear to the group.
“If you want the world to change, then we change it. If you’re not happy with a government that discriminates against people, we change it,” he says.
The two Peter’s arrive in front of the church and kneel side by side with their arms tied as Father MacLeod-Miller blesses them.
Once that’s done, they get up and smile shyly at the assembly, looking a little overwhelmed.
The group burst into joyful applause.
“It is not anti-Anglican to applaud,” said Father MacLeod-Miller.
Continue the fight
“I feel like I’m well married now,” said Mr. Sanders, looking relaxed and a little relieved.
It has been a long journey to get to this day. Mr. Sanders revealed his homosexuality at the age of 58; Mr. Grace is 62 years old.
They were heartbroken when it became apparent that their hometown church would not accept their relationship, but had been overwhelmed by the support of so many in their congregation.
“We wanted to leave Armidale because of what happened. It would be so much easier for us to leave,” Mr. Sanders said.
“But now we feel obligated to the people who have supported us,” said Mr. Grace. “How could we leave them?” “
The nearest church that accepted same-sex relationships was a two-hour drive away, making it impractical as a regular place of worship, especially for older members of their congregation.
So in November, the couple began hosting a service in their backyard offered by a United Church reverend.
Mr Sanders says he is now considering becoming ordained – he started the process several years ago but has retired.
“I couldn’t balance the two: being gay and being tidy. I just couldn’t do it right then.
In the meantime, the church has been informed that the two men are taking the case to the anti-discrimination council.
Even though they now have the blessing they wanted, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Grace are concerned that the new federal religious discrimination bill will hamper the acceptance of same-sex couples in the church.
Seeing the bill presented to parliament motivated them to keep fighting for change.
“We want people to know that God loves them,” Mr. Sanders said.
He says the couple’s main concern is with LGBTQIA + youth in the church who might not have the same support as them.
“We’re not doing this for anything personal,” Grace said.
“We are doing this for everyone.”