Marriage in the PCUSA

March 24th, 2015

The pastoral letter from Presbyterian Church (USA)’s leadership shot through our ranks in the minutes after last week’s deciding presbytery vote approving same-sex marriage —undoubtedly written weeks in advance as the totals rolled in from across the U.S.

“We encourage the congregations … to continue to be in conversation about marriage and family,” it read. “We hope that such ‘up/down’ voting does not mark the end, but the continuation of our desire to live in community.”

Fat chance, I thought.

How do we keep talking about an issue so divisive that about 300 congregations have left for other denominations since a 2011 vote approving openly gay clergy? How do we keep talking when pastors say they’re fearful that leadership will renege on a promise never to force them to marry anyone?

It seems I’m wrong. Observers with vastly more experience say the conversation absolutely will continue, because it must.

Let me give you some context on the vote and its aftermath through a look at my Nashville church and the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. Downtown Presbyterian Church is an historic building, its sanctuary decorated in 1880 to look like an Egyptian (read: pagan) temple. Artists lease studio space on our upper floors for a pittance. Our largest ministry is feeding homeless people, and we incubated the nation’s largest street newspaper in our offices.

All that to say Downtown Presbyterian tends to draw a membership ranging from social moderates to liberals whose hearts aren’t just bleeding, they’re gushing.

If anyone at my church is angry about the recent vote, they haven’t told me. Most people expressed wild support of 14F — the amendment that changed PCUSA’s constitutional definition of marriage from a “civil contract between a man and a woman” to a “unique commitment between two people.” When the Middle Tennessee Presbytery took a vote required of all 171 presbyteries by the 2014 General Assembly, there was little doubt how Downtown Presbyterian’s representatives would go.

But their votes are by no means representative of our presbytery as a whole, where the final tally on 14F was 92 in favor, 84 against. There are PCUSA congregations a few miles down the road with genuine concerns about the amendment.

A similar amendment narrowly failed on a vote at the 2012 General Assembly, but a lot has changed in that short time. Six states and Washington, D.C., allowed same-sex marriage then. Now, it’s legal in all but 13, with Supreme Court hearings pending that could overturn bans in those.

Some Presbyterians compare denying the marriage ritual to same-sex couples with supporting slavery: an antiquated concept that enjoys biblical support but no Christian believes in now. Others say allowing same-sex marriage means capitulating to modern society at the expense of God’s approval.

Bruce Reyes-Chow, a San Francisco pastor and 2008-10 General Assembly moderator, is of the first variety. He also believes most congregations that were going to leave already have done so or at least made their intentions known.

 “Presbyterians, once we take a step forward, won’t go back. So how do we live in disagreement between churches? We have to,” he said.

“I want to reserve the right for myself not to perform a wedding for whatever reason, and I want to make sure that’s an option for other pastors, whether it is right or wrong. We need to make sure there’s not a demonizing of those who disagree. That will be the conversation.”

He said some of his conservative friends are realizing marriage isn’t as big of an issue to the denomination as they initially thought. The Presbyterian Church doesn’t consider marriage a sacrament like baptism and communion, but a sacred ritual, like laying on of hands. Yet Presbyterians don’t deny baptism or communion to gay people.

Reyes-Chow said he’s not hearing resignation in the voices of those who opposed same-sex marriage, just an understanding that they’re still welcome, and that those who supported it are willing to work together with them.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a Tennessee-based conservative watchdog group and news agency, agrees the conversation can continue. But she questions the idea that performing same-sex unions will remain voluntary instead of compulsory. If it’s a matter of justice, she said, how can it?

On the other hand, she’s ready for PCUSA to move on to something else.

“There are huge issues we could all be addressing together,” Fowler LaBerge said. “In terms of our public witnesses, for the world to see Presbyterians talking about something other than sex would be really good.”

She’s predicting another 200-400 PCUSA churches will shift to the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

But Fowler LaBerge, who set aside her PCUSA ordination over these sorts of issues, said she’s staying put and will keep talking.

“You can only speak to these issues if you remain in the conversation,” she said.

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