What same-sex marriage means to Presbyterians
Amid shouts of joy and cries of lament, some Presbyterians stop to take stock of the newest amendment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Constitution
March 20, 2015
As reports began to leak Tuesday evening that gender would no longer be a barrier to marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), social media began to light up. Soon Facebook and Twitter were filled with press releases, blogs, and secular news articles. Cell phones beamed with a New York Times alert, saying, “Largest Presbyterian denomination gives final approval for same-sex marriage.” Then came the phone calls, pastors’ letters to their congregations, and the hum of Presbyterians—anxiously, joyously, painfully—whispering, sometimes shouting, that a monumental day had arrived for the church.
The church, they all said, would never be the same. On that at least all could agree.
Earlier that day, the Presbytery of the Palisades had cast its vote in favor of an amendment to the PC(USA) Constitution that would change the description of marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” In doing so, it had become the 86th presbytery to cast an affirmative vote, providing the majority needed among 171 presbyteries to approve the change. (Read more about the passage of the marriage amendment here.)
For resources and more information about the marriage amendment, check out the Office of the General Assembly website.
For more stories of Presbyterians and congregations wrestling with these changes and for resources related to dialogue and conflict management, see the December 2014 issue of Presbyterians Today, “The enduring church.” A few of the articles are available for free online (search for “Leaving or staying,” “Our Emmaus Road,” and “Coming home”).
In Chicago, the news came sporadically. Gathered at the NEXT Church National Gathering, hundreds of Presbyterian leaders sat crammed into the pews of Fourth Presbyterian Church, listening to author Diana Butler Bass. She was speaking of a spiritual awakening, of a movement beyond fear and walls, when a few began to notice the violent jar of cell phones beeping and beaming. As more and more participants began feverishly texting and tweeting, one of them stood up and asked if they could acknowledge what was happening.
At first, there was silence. It was, Alex Patchin McNeill says, a “very Presbyterian” moment. Many of the gathered leaders, after a pause, rose from their pews and began to applaud, some cheering, their faces visible with celebration as well as a deep consciousness of those for whom this may be either a hello or a goodbye.
“It was hard not to be swept up in that moment,” says Daniel Vigilante, pastor of Grace-Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis. “Here we were at the NEXT Church conference, envisioning the next church, and then suddenly we realized . . . this is it.”
Meanwhile, on Twitter, the Religion News Service announced that with the PC(USA) change “mainline Protestants have solidified their support for gay marriage.” The tweet masked deeper divisions, however. While some tweeted, using a rainbow-bedazzled PC(USA) seal, “I love my denomination” or “It’s official—love wins!,” others (some of whom admittedly were not from the denomination) had more disparaging comments to make: “Exodus will continue from PCUSA,” “PCUSA demonstrates what happens when the church does not get right the question of Christ and culture,” and “For some reason, the church thinks it has the authority to overrule the Bible.” Celebrants were quick to respond in equal numbers and vehemence.
One tweeter responded, “There are always disagreements on issues but we can all rally around an unequivocal faith in Christ.” Another message included an image, saying:
Not a redefinition, but a celebration
“I love the church. I have grown up in the church. And I want the church to be with me in all aspects of my life. Ordination was a huge part of that. And now that I am on the journey toward being married, the church’s support means the world to me,” Vigilante says, choking back tears.
The authors of the amendment to the PC(USA) Constitution that will make it possible for Vigilante to covenant in marriage with his soon-to-be husband were very intentional in avoiding the phrase “redefinition of marriage.”
“I think that’s what makes this ruling so remarkable—that my wedding and marriage won’t be different than anyone else’s,” Vigilante says. “What makes it so special is that it’s so ordinary. It’s a service of Christian marriage just like everyone else’s.”
The amendment is not a redefinition but a celebration of marriage, says Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network. “It celebrates what marriage has been all along—the love, the sacrifice, the mutuality, the respect, the faithfulness. What has not changed is the definition of marriage. What has changed is who is invited to participate.”
For Vigilante, this means he can bring his whole self to the church once again. “Here’s someone who loves the church, waited a long time to be ordained in it, and is now in a relationship where he wants to demonstrate faithfulness and love for the rest of his life,” Ellison says. “Why would the church not honor that?”
This denomination has strong global infrastructure for missionary coworkers, disaster relief, and self-development programs for afflicted people internationally and domestically. And there is a tremendous and effective witness for our Lord entrained in this vital work! . . . Stay at your post. Serve your missions and communities for Christ. Don’t be a quitter.
In Moncks Corner, South Carolina, however, Timothy Scoonover, a young pastor, talked with an 80-year-old member about a different kind of quitting. As they sat together, over lunch, she told him that she felt like it was the denomination that had quit her. Trembling, she said that when she had read the headline, she had cried. “She felt betrayed by the denomination,” Scoonover says. “She felt like she knows her Bible and how she was taught to read the Bible and couldn't imagine how the PC(USA) could make this decision.”
The experiences in Chicago and Moncks Corner and across the Twitter-sphere exemplify tensions felt across the denomination.
What is perceived by one to be a shining example of democracy at work, for instance, is to another the tyranny of an out-of-touch leadership. “Even though many knew this was coming, reaching this number was cathartic for a lot of people,” says Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians. “There is a difference between General Assembly making a decision and a vote that involves every teaching elder and ruling elders from every congregation across the country. It feels very significant.” The picture, though, looks very different to the members of Scoonover’s congregation, First Presbyterian. “I think they feel like the clergy have become more progressive and left behind the lay people. In many churches, there’s a chasm between the views in the pulpit and the views in the pew.”
To some, these disagreements seem insurmountable. “I feel like I’ve lost my home. No matter how hard we try to keep the tent as big as possible, this is a wedge that is going to drive the church apart,” says Scoonover. “I think the divisions we’ve found in the denomination are deeper than sexuality. It’s how we read Scripture and how we understand who Christ is. Will we need to look across the table and say, ‘I love you, and it’s better for our mission if we go our separate ways’?”
“It’s a sad day,” says Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, which, she says, is going to continue to call for repentance and reform. “How is it that God has to become the one to change, not us? This is a gospel issue—the question of whether or not we stand in need of salvation, whether there are things we can fix ourselves or [which] are irredeemable without Christ.”
Though the new language added to the PC(USA) Constitution clearly states that no pastor or congregation can be forced to officiate a same-sex marriage, fear of that eventuality weighs heavily on pastors like Scoonover. “If progressives believe this is a justice issue, I fear for the future of pastors like me being welcomed in the PC(USA).”
Paul Detterman, executive director of the Fellowship Community, shares this concern. “The tragedy will come if there is ever a move to mandate this. Coercion has no place.”
Many advocates for marriage equality are conscious of these concerns. “I am deeply aware of the Presbyterians who feel differently about this position and am very conscious of the work we need to do toward reconciliation,” says Ellison. “No minister has ever been compelled to perform a wedding he or she didn’t think appropriate. This is merely permission.”
Others are quick to explain that cultural bias works both ways. “Some will say that we have turned our back on the ‘clear teaching of Scripture,’ ” says Todd Freeman, pastor of College Hill Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It appears that many Presbyterians now consider that this is not the case. We recognize that our cultural biases and prejudices were woven throughout the biblical witness. This recognition has helped lead the Presbyterian Church to change its traditional stance on a number of issues, including slavery, racial equality, and the right of women to be ordained into positions of church leadership. Many of us also recognize that the biblical passages that condemn same-gender sexual acts are not in reference to couples in a loving mutual relationship, but rather address relationships that are controlling, abusive, and exploitative.”
A mother’s love
When 89-year-old Faith McCallum picked up the Spokane, Washington, newspaper Wednesday morning and read the headline about the PC(USA)’s embrace of same-sex marriage, she couldn’t help but think of her son.
“I remember Chris wrote us,” she says, sharing the story of how her son came out to her as gay. “It was kind of a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. It came out of left field.” After spending a long time thinking it over, McCallum wrote her son a letter. “I told him it was not something I had expected but that he was still my son and that we all loved him as much as we had before.”
McCallum remembers visiting her son’s apartment where he was leading a Bible study for gay men. She had never condemned homosexuality as against God’s will, but truth be told, she had been uneasy with it. That all began to change when she saw the Bible study. “I had a chance to learn from them, get to know them,” she says. “They were studying the Word of God like everyone else.”
“When you get to know people, you get a different view of things,” she adds.
McCallum says that the change sounds “all right” to her. “It’s been a beautiful life,” she says. “I turn 90 in October. And I was thinking about that today. Maybe when people get to be this old, we don’t take things so seriously.”
Many Presbyterians, however, want to be clear that this is a time for celebration, not explanation, for all those who have felt shut out by the church. “Celebrating this moment is important,” says Vigilante, who wants to emphasize reconciliation and compassion but not at the expense of this cathartic, elated moment. “Living into this joyful news is first.”
These sentiments of hope extend into places that might surprise, including evangelical communities in Scoonover’s state of South Carolina.
Seeking the life of the Spirit
Colin Kerr worships with an evangelical Presbyterian congregation and is director of the Journey, a campus ministry for the College of Charleston. Among the evangelical young adults he works with, Kerr discerns very different priorities. “For them, it’s almost a nonissue or at least a secondary issue best compared to older debates about the ordination of women,” he says. “As long as they don’t see overt prejudice, students who are for same-sex marriage have no problem attending a church that doesn’t allow same-sex marriage. In the same token, students from more conservative backgrounds have no problem participating in a community that is openly inclusive. What they are looking for is a church that has life in it, a church where the Spirit is moving, and where they can wrestle with Scripture openly.”
That doesn’t mean, Kerr explains, that these young adults don’t want to have robust conversations. “They just don’t have as much rancor,” he says. “They believe that we can still stand united under the banner of the gospel even while disagreeing.”
For Kerr, this is a very evangelical stance. “In my new worshiping community, there are people who hold different views, and no one is excommunicating the other. I think that’s because we’re so evangelical. We are focused on wanting people to know Jesus.”
Caitlyn is a graduate student and has been a mentor for the Journey. She attends a PC(USA) congregation and believes that same-sex marriage is inconsistent with Scripture but agrees with its legality in the eyes of the state. While she disagrees with the denomination’s new policy, she doesn’t think that the issue of sexual orientation is as big a threat to the gospel as some make it out to be. One threat to the gospel she does see is the temptation to treat people in an un-Christlike way. That mandate cuts both ways, she says, sharing that she has sometimes felt silenced out of fear of being labeled hateful simply because she holds different views. “Look, we’re not talking about Christ’s divinity. The gospel element of this debate has to do with an ability or failure to love people of all backgrounds. That’s when it becomes a gospel issue—when we’re not treating people the way Jesus told us to and are keeping people away from the church of Christ.”
A way forward
Across the country, Presbyterians, inspired by the vision of a refocused church, are mapping next steps.
For McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, next steps come down to two things: remembering that marriage was just a piece of a much longer arc toward welcome and inclusion and creating space for those with whom we disagree. “What we must do now is keep the chair open,” he says. “When you’re ready to have the conversation, we’re here. Not to teach, but to share.”
Ellison echoes these sentiments, emphasizing the importance of listening and working on our relationships. “We should, as our ordination vows say, be friends with our colleagues in ministry. When we give attention to those friendships, the result will be greater openness to seeing how God is doing something even in those with whom we disagree.”
For many, those friendships have been in the works for a long time now. “I have to believe that the people proposing change are working in the best interests of the church and Jesus Christ,” says Detterman, whose Fellowship opposed the amendment. “That’s why Brian Ellison and I have gone to presbyteries together with different understandings of the gospel. How this plays out for all of us, wherever we land on the theological spectrum, is resisting the pull of culture and representing our savior, Jesus Christ.”
Detterman is adamant that this is an opportunity to move the church in a new direction. “We are finished with the internal squabbling and can now focus on the external questions,” he says. “I don’t want to diminish in any way, shape, or form that I think the presbyteries’ decision is profoundly wrong. But I’m willing to accept that it didn’t go [our way] and not walk away from the conversation. Because we need to have the conversation about human sexuality, both the ways we abuse it and the gift that it is.”
To have that conversation, many Presbyterians have been trying to pull the church away from the abstraction and polarity of the debates and toward a Christlike telling of stories that complicate, nuance, and beatify the issues before us. We have to talk about people and their relationship with Christ, they say.
When he awoke Tuesday morning, McNeill had some of those lives on his mind. “I woke up remembering the people who have been working for this for decades, people who didn’t live to see this day, people who have stuck with the denomination despite so many years of hurt and disappointment.”
One of the people who have been waiting, McNeill says, is Nathan Sobers. After the authoritative interpretation passed the 221st General Assembly (2014) last summer, allowing pastors and congregations to marry same-sex couples in states where it was legal, Sobers married his partner of 28 years in his home church. He had thought that after two civil ceremonies (first in Canada, then in Washington when it became legal), the third time wouldn't be that big a deal. “He says to me, ‘I expected to be as cool as a cucumber, thinking third time’s the charm,’ ” McNeill says. “But standing there at the front of the church with his pastor, hearing the organ play, and seeing his partner of 28 years walk down the aisle, he started to weep. Never before had he felt so seen by his faith community. It was profound in ways he had not fully expected—the sheer joy of being able to share this with the congregation he loves and the man he loves.”
As our reporters talked with more and more Presbyterians, it became clear that on all sides of the issue, people believe they are representing Scripture, the identity of Christ, and compassion for these stories. All sides (and there are more than two) have stories to tell, and all want to avoid capitulating to culture and sacrificing the gospel; they just sometimes have different understandings of what’s “culture” and what’s “gospel.”
Dangers of generalizing
If Facebook’s good for one thing, it’s generalizing.
One group that’s often generalized are evangelicals. As Colin Kerr’s campus ministry, the Journey in Charleston, South Carolina, makes clear (see main article), there are evangelicals who oppose same-sex marriage, and there are evangelicals who embrace same-sex marriage.
Another group often generalized are young adults.
John Sowers, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, says that he often hears that this “broader blessing of sexuality” will be attractive to millennials and gen Xers. “My experience here,” he says, “was just the opposite.”
After PC(USA) presbyteries approved the ordination of LGBTQ persons, Sowers’s church lost about 80 members. “Most of them,” Sowers says, “were in their 30s and 40s. They were singles, couples, and young families. They said they loved First Pres Spokane, appreciated our mission, and had relationships with others in the church, but as a matter of principle could not be affiliated with a denomination that blessed the ordination of LGBTQ persons.”
Sowers has also found that the changes have diverted energy from some of the ministry that drew these young people in the first place. “My sense is that it took some of the wind out of our sails,” he says.
In some cases, it’s the older members who are more in favor of the changes—the people who grew up in the Presbyterian Church and remain committed to its theology, church governance, and embrace of ambiguity and disagreement. It’s the younger members in these cases who leave—the “church-shopping” people who did not grow up Presbyterian, may be unfamiliar with its theology, and are less invested in the life of the denomination and its historic witness. This at least was the experience for some of the older members of Graystone Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Pennsylvania, when the congregation voted to leave the PC(USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church—members who voted against the withdrawal and transferred to neighboring Calvary Presbyterian Church.
“A lot of times when I read stories about sexuality and the church, authors made it out like it was the older people who opposed the PC(USA) and LGBTQ equality,” member Rudy Steffish says. “In my case, it was the exact opposite. The younger people wanted to leave, and the older people who had been through all the mergers and different forms, been through it all, were ready to stay. We knew what it meant to be Presbyterian, to accept others, and to have freedom of conscience.”
Statistics explain some of the generalizations that Steffish and Sowers are hearing. Support for same-sex marriage is greatest among younger adults. Nearly eight in 10 young adults (18–29) in the United States favor same-sex marriage, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. And more than half of young adults in the PC(USA) are also supportive, according to a 2012 survey conducted by Presbyterian Research Services. Even these statistics are a reminder, however, of the danger of generalizations. You’re likely better off if you take the time to get to know someone.
Ellison, though, would like to see us focus on how much we have in common. “The best days of the church are yet to come,” he says. “Even as we continue to work on our relationships and points of disagreement, we have now freed up a lot of energy for mission, worship, and service. I am excited to see what’s next.”
Ellison isn’t the only one who’s excited. “I’m glad to be part of a church where we can continue to have conversations, where both sides of discussion are equally welcome,” says Detterman, who looks forward to a refocus on mission.
That conversation is spilling into unexpected places. Within an hour of hearing the news about the marriage amendment, Vigilante struck up a conversation with a barista at Starbucks. Unable to contain his elation, he exclaimed, “The PC(USA) has just voted to accept same-sex marriage!” He will never forget her response: “I had no idea that Presbyterians were so cool!”
Patrick D. Heery is the editor of Presbyterians Today. Paul Seebeck is a Mission Communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Both are ordained teaching elders in the PC(USA).
We invited Presbyterians to share their responses to the marriage amendment. Here are a few.
“The question we resolved yesterday has been a piece of nearly my entire ministry since 1970. When an associate pastor said to me, ‘I have a gay brother, and he doesn’t have any more time for you to study the matter,’ I made a decision. I needed to raise my voice and add my effort to the work of inclusion. Along the way, I’ve done my best; others have done their best and more. For freedom and welcome, some have paid a terrible price, and the scars remain. Yesterday’s resolution lifted a burden from my shoulders and those of the church. A great injustice has been corrected.” —Tom Eggebeen
“Not everyone or every church is cheering right now. I am glad that a pastor is not forced to officiate at any marriage, heterosexual or homosexual, if they don’t feel it is wise. If this vote brings unity to the church, I applaud it. Time will tell.” —Michele Faith Gaskill
“I hope your work around the ratification of 14F will include some reference to how Young Adult Advisory Delegates at General Assembly have urged us to move faster than commissioners have been willing to send this to the presbyteries. If we really paid attention to how our youth are leading us, we would have been here six years ago. How many of those youth got fed up and walked away instead of waiting?” —Barbara Kellam-Scott
“The expansion or broadening of the understanding of marriage beyond the binary of gender includes everyone in the sacred conversation and experience of faithfulness in relationships. No one is left out now of God’s call to companionship, to love and be loved, and to being part of a family.” —Michael J. Adee
“My prayer is that the peace we have achieved by going through a good process will not be threatened by the latest legislative actions of the denomination. One of the things that concerns me is that as a denomination, we are still captured by a legislative process that I think actually diminishes the relational process. The best kind of summer I have is a summer without General Assembly!” — John Sowers
“I believe the best rationale behind this change can be found in rethinking the biblical passages attached to this debate. Just as the church changed her stance on slavery and women’s role in the church, some of us have come to understand these biblical prohibitions of homosexual behavior to refer instead to violent sexual acts against anyone, with specific reference to sexual acts between men and children. History points to the latter as a common practice in the ancient world. I believe we need to shift our focus to promoting fidelity and respect in marriage between two people.” —Linda Jaberg
“If we are in error before God, I believe we have erred on the side of love. After all, ‘now we know only in part.’ ” —Bebb Stone
“I think for evangelicals the mystifying question is how then does the church speak prophetically about anything, how do we call anyone to repentance, if we’re simply conforming to the culture? You can observe the dynamic and astounding evangelical fruit God is producing through [some] new denominations, and I have great hope that an evangelical Presbyterian movement is going to happen. I regret that’s going to happen outside the PC(USA). I do think, though, there is a potential for hope and benefit. Let’s start talking about definitions of goodness, holiness, beauty, and truth, and stop talking about sex. Start talking about what it means to be in Jesus Christ, in His goodness, holiness, beauty, and truth. And then ask whether we individually and corporately as a denomination are going to conform to these realities.” —Carmen Fowler LaBerge
“When I went before presbytery on February 28 to be approved for ordination, I knew I went to the microphone through which my presbytery had just voted yes for 14F. When I found out that 14F had officially passed, I was speechless. I can’t describe what it feels like to know that I am going to be ordained by a denomination that is truly living out Christ’s teachings and loving all people and opening the door for all people to love!” —Jordan Davis
“While my heart rejoices for the healing that can come to those who have been excluded, I recognize that others believe the church has been wounded. I pray for God’s healing to prevail, for unity in God’s Spirit, for wholeness and true shalom. I am proud to be a member of the PC(USA)!” —Ruth E. Syre
“When you start to mess with marriage, it can have Christological implications. God chose the image of marriage to communicate God’s love. God is the author of marriage. If we start to tamper with it, we’re crossing over into a world we don’t have a right to tamper with.” —Timothy Scoonover
“I fail to see the controversy. Two folks love each other. That love should be sanctified and celebrated.” —Bill Wright
“Marriage is between a man and a woman—it’s in the Book.” —Donna Hawkins Combs
“My first thought was that a member of my extended family will now be able to marry someone in my church because my denomination chose not to further the hate and to love. My church is very dear to my heart as is this family member. What am I witnessing in my church? Acceptance, encouragement, concern, inclusion, and LOVE.” —Janet Martin
“I was afraid I would not see it in my lifetime.” —Patricia Anderson
“Many folks I know have questions, some asking, ‘What the (explicative) happened?’ The key then is to the change the tone and transform the conversation into a genuine inquiry, which addresses the fear underlying all confrontations. In answering what happened, I try to frame the conversation in terms of what this means for us, all of us together. I am teaching, sharing information, and praying to model respect, compassion, and love.” —Andrew Taylor-Troutman
“God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them (1 John 4:16). As the first church in New York City to have performed same-gender marriages in name for over 35 years, we celebrate the church’s decision to honor the courage of two people to commit to each other in love. As we give thanks for the church’s courage, let us give thanks for the courageous witness of all those who took the risk of living into a new reality as a sign of the beloved community that is always coming even before it has not yet come into being.” —Robert L. Brashear