An Episcopal priest shares his view of religious freedom: ‘My faith is not a faith of fear’

Rev. Ben Shambaugh kept quiet about gay rights when he led a congregation in Maryland at the turn of the 21st century. Churchgoers got nervous when issues pertaining to gays and lesbians were raised, so he avoided the subject or made equivocating statements when pressed.

He was chosen to be the dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland in 2005, but the Episcopal bishop was unsure about him. “She wanted somebody who would be upfront and open, and I was timid. I was not speaking out about (gay rights) at that time,” he said.

Now, gay rights are part of his ministry, showing that wider religious arguments against same-sex marriage are not clearcut. Some opponents say that legalizing same-sex marriage will conflict with religious freedom, but what about the clergy who want the freedom to be able to perform marriages for gay couples?

“If we really are about religious freedom, then it’s freedom to practice your faith. If your faith says you should bless it, then bless it,” he said.

On Nov. 6, Mainers will vote at the polls whether to allow the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. If the law passes, no religious leader will be compelled to perform a marriage ceremony — whether it’s for people who are straight or gay.

It will maintain clergy’s freedom to choose — the same freedom gay couples are seeking to be able to wed.

Shambaugh, 48, a board member of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, said he grew into an activist as he got to know the members of his Portland congregation. Not everyone who worships at the cathedral supports legalizing same-sex marriage, but the issue doesn’t force people into quiet.

“I see my job as caring for all the people that are part of this parish family, and getting to do that opens your heart,” Shambaugh said.

The congregation, which reaches 200 to 300 each Sunday, does outreach at a soup kitchen, food pantry and has a strong partnership with a church and school in Haiti. In addition to a place of worship, the cathedral is a concert venue.

Serving on boards in support of gay rights — he’s a member of Integrity, a nonprofit of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight Episcopalians — and performing blessing ceremonies for gay couples is a natural extension of his role as both a community leader and Episcopal priest.

“My faith is not a faith of fear. The God I believe in is not an angry God. The God I believe in is a God of love and acceptance who has created all of us,” he said.

Gay couples who attend St. Luke’s pursue lives of love, commitment and faith, he said. Granting them the legal right to marry doesn’t contradict the Bible but falls in line with Jesus’ teachings of acceptance.

“I feel compelled to take a stand and lead on this because of my faith, not in opposition to it,” he said.

In his role, he’s heard many arguments against same-sex marriage. Some argue that marriage is between a man and a woman, but traditional Biblical marriage was about property, he said. Others argue that marriage between heterosexual couples aids reproduction, but many gay couples adopt.

Some might say it changes the definition of marriage, but, for him, same-sex marriage adds to the definition; it doesn’t take anything away.

Shambaugh’s gay stepbrother and partner, who live in California, are an example for his children, he said.

“My kids have grown up with two uncles,” he said. “Does that affect my marriage? No. Does it affect my kids’ view of marriage? Yes, I think so, in a positive way … I think it actually builds up the institution of marriage. They’re like, oh, that’s cool, because it works.”

As the election nears, it’s important to remember that religious voices are diverse, that some clergy support and are fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage. If the issue is about religious freedom, shouldn’t that freedom be extended to religious leaders who want to follow their faith and marry couples, whether they’re straight or gay?

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.