A “Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” binding Robert Graham Stansbery and John Michael Pionke was held last Friday in the historic chapel of the Falls Church Episcopal before 110 witnesses and under the direction of Rector John Ohmer.
It marked the first such same-sex union celebration at the church since the courts formally remanded the control of the historic church property last spring to the Diocese of Virginia, ending a seven-year occupation and court battle maintained by a breakaway congregation hostile to same-sex unions.
Stansbery and Pionke were married a year ago to the day in Maryland, where it is legal, and plans for last week’s ceremony had been underway longer than that. By coincidence, the event would have been a confirmation of that legal marriage but for last week’s 11th hour stay by the U.S. Supreme Court of a ruling that would have permitted it.
Nonetheless, last week’s service was prescient at least, as the legality of same-sex marriage in Virginia and across the entire U.S. is considered a virtual certainty, sooner rather than later.
During the service, the Rev. Ohmer affirmed the couple’s commitment to seek the blessing of their union in the company of their friends, their family and faith, calling it “a relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love, forsaking all others, holding one another in tenderness and respect, in strength and bravery, as long as they live.”
In a statement issued to the News-Press after the event, the Rev. Ohmer wrote, “It was a joy to officiate at Rob and John’s ceremony, and one of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that we not only recognize, but we officially celebrate such relationships of commitment and faithfulness. When a couple is willing to make a lifelong commitment to one another, it’s my joy, and the church’s joy, to pray for God’s grace to keep those sacred vows.”
Stansbury and Pionke are both long-time residents of Northern Virginia who have been together for six years. Stansbury is a teacher and Pionke is the membership director of a not-for-profit firm in Washington. Of the 110 in attendance last Friday, 45 were family members.
Pionke is a formal member of The Falls Church, aligning with the “continuing Episcopalian” congregation two years ago when it first was granted access to the historic church property, pending court appeals that weren’t exhausted until this spring.
The “continuing Episcopalians” who are now back in the church, Stansbery wrote in comments to the News-Press this week, were “a vibrant, enthusiastic and growing community that welcomed us immediately…The leadership and the church members welcomed us and made us feel at ease very quickly. We have made good friends there, and feel like an important part of the community.
“When we approached John Ohmer about the idea of holding the wedding in The Falls Church, we weren’t sure what response we’d get. The church was certainly welcoming to us, but to openly celebrate us might have been another matter…I don’t think it was entirely without controversy in the parish, and I think there was a lot of thoughtful discussion that led to a decision that it was not only appropriate, but a joyful thing to celebrate God’s blessing for us and with us.”
Stansbery also gave credit to the congregation of “continuing Episcopalians” who held out against the defectors for such a long time “trying to keep the Episcopal presence active in the community,” saying, “If they hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be welcome in The Falls Church.”