On Valentine’s Day, Ruling and Teaching Elders from throughout the Presbytery of the Miami Valley (Ohio) ventured out into the freezing weather to gather at Sugar Creek Church in Kettering. The sanctuary, built in 1806, radiates history, with richly colored stained glass and thickly padded wooden pews. Weighed down with printed materials each Stated Meeting of the Presbytery produces, Elder Dennis and I found our seats and began making our way through the agenda. Each of us understood the import of the day: amendment 14-f was on the docket.
The process for this Presbytery has been quite deliberate, with discussion groups at Presbytery meetings and ongoing dialogue within congregations. As a pastor within the only More Light congregation in the Presbytery, I have spoken forthrightly at meetings and encouraged my colleagues to pray deeply and reflect upon the issue. For most Elders, though, the decision had been made long ago and going into the meeting, I was almost certain that we would vote to affirm the amendment to the Constitution.
I am ordained through the United Church of Christ; my parent denomination dealt with the issue of sanctifying same-gender unions decades ago, but the reality of living into has not been easy. In the UCC, roughly 20% of congregations are Open and Affirming (ONA); a great number of UCC members do not identify as “liberal” or “progressive,” and do not necessarily support marriage equality. It is simplistic to break this into a “liberal” and “conservative” issue, or to assume that every congregation within a denomination (or non-denominational churches) will have the same opinions regarding the blessing of same gender marriages.
In the past year of serving a PC (USA) congregation, I have come to love the Presbyterian Church. I am very proud to be a voting member within the Presbytery and Moderator of our Session; I sat in the Presbytery meeting knowing full well that I was living history. I was also acutely aware that for a number of persons in attendance, the vote was going to be painful. It was going to symbolize an assault to their understanding of the Gospel; it was going to represent a threat to their ability to keep members in the pews, and congregants in positions of leadership.
Debate ensued by the Moderator of the Presbytery separating into two lines; those who wished to speak were each allotted two minutes and offered the microphone in alternating fashion. One minute for follow-up would be provided when everyone had an opportunity to have their say. I hopped right up and was the first person to speak. I said, in part, “Regardless of today’s vote, we remain members of this Presbytery. We belong to the same Body of Christ. For those of you who feel that sanctifying a same-gender marriage is an affront to your religiosity and piety, and you are approached by such a couple, send them to us. We will love them and will speak lovingly of you; we will affirm your stance as in line with our polity, and thank you for being in relationship with us.” Satisfied that I had properly represented my Session and congregation’s position, I sat down.
The discussion that unfolded was heated and passionate, yet civil. However, the emotions were palpable. One man grasped his Bible, reminding me of Billy Graham in the old-time revivals, and said, “Jesus Christ changed my life. I don’t hear people talking about a personal relationship with Jesus anymore. And the churches that are heading down this path are shutting their doors; they are losing people, and so will we. I know Jesus and the cross, and that’s all you need.” I admit, it was my instinct to jump up and talk about how the church I pastor is growing; how our open doors policy is helping people return to the Church on their own terms, feeling the love of God through Christ while affirming who they are made to be in God’s image. But I didn’t. I told myself to listen, to inhabit this person’s perspective as best I was able. It is unsettling to feel that one is losing a spiritual home, to sense that one’s voice does not matter. This is how people within the GLBT community have felt for years: Our voices have often been silenced or pushed to the side; we’ve been told that we will corrupt the Church, that we don’t know the Gospel. Perhaps this is an inexact comparison, but in the meeting I attended, I heard the fear in person’s voices as they quoted Scripture to support their position. What they said was from the Bible, what I heard was, I’m not homophobic. I’m not calling for the stoning of gay people. But my faith leads me to oppose the Christian blessing of marriage.
So my praise for the final vote, which passed 54-19, with two blank ballots and an abstention, was tempered by the lament of others. A number of persons left the meeting before the tally was announced, largely because they–rightly or wrongly–believe that the General Assembly has foisted the issue on congregations, leading to the perception that the individual votes of Presbyteries are meaningless. In other words, with the GA indicating that Teaching Elders and/or Sessions have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they will bless unions the perception is that the GA has taken a stance in favor of equality. I feel palpably the pain of these persons; while I believe that the wording of the amendment allows for each congregation to make its own decision, some see this as equivocation of the Scriptures. They feel that the denomination is veering too far afield. I strongly disagree, and regard the amendment as one that allows for the PC (USA) to remain a “big tent” denomination that respects hermeneutical and exegetical diversity, but the fact remains that there are fissures throughout Presbyteries. For those of us who support the amendment, I think the call is clear: let us reach out to those congregations with whom we have disagreement on this issue, and express our understanding of their position and see how we might be of service to help them live their stance on same-gender marriage but not do harm to couples who approach them.
The amendment, for all its strengths, has a major weakness: people outside of Presbyterian polity may not understand that individual congregations get to make their own decisions. I am approached several times a month by persons who do not attend church but who wish to be married within a sanctuary and with the blessing of an ordained member of clergy. Within the GLBT community, this task can be quite daunting and intimidating; it can be a risk to approach a church if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That is why it is so important for those of us who serve or worship within congregations to reach out and establish relationships with communities that hold different views.
As I left the meeting, a very large man hustled up to me. I admit, his size—6’6”, built like a linebacker—intimidated me. I am a sizable guy myself, but the handshake made my hand look like that of a toddler. He looked down at me and said, “Thank you for providing us an option. I will be calling upon you.” It seems clear to me that most of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters are not looking to do harm to members of the GLBT community, but they remain steadfast in their conviction that the Gospel does not allow for same gender marriage. Most likely, we will never convince them otherwise. And that’s fine. What we can do, though, is offer our love, our support, and our services so that as a denomination we can make this amendment work. We also must accept that some congregations will not take the offer; they will have no interest in supporting same gender marriage in any way, shape, or form. Again, this is why communicating clearly on our websites, promotional materials, and within the GLBT community which churches are affirming.
In the end, Jesus is clear. We are to love one another. If we can’t do this within the Body of Christ, how can we ask others to join us?