Old Pine Presbyterian Church is steeped in history.
Sitting at the corner of Fourth and Pine streets for nearly 250 years, it has witnessed the Revolutionary War, Civil War, myriad neighborhood and cultural evolutions — and last month celebrated another milestone: its first same-sex wedding.
The Society Hill church was founded as Third Presbyterian Church in 1768 and is the only Presbyterian church in the city dating to that time period.
The current façade is from 1857 but, underneath, the original brick building still stands, although everything but the shell — windowsills, pews, the pulpit — was burned by the British when their forces occupied the area. More than 800 men in the congregation served in the Revolution Army, and 235 of them are buried in the church’s graveyard, their plots marked with 13-star flags.
“The church had an enormous footprint in Revolutionary War history,” said church historian Ronn Shaffer.
The church later merged with Scotts Church and Mariners Church but has gone by the Old Pine moniker since the early 19th century.
Shaffer said that Old Pine has survived for 246 years largely because it has stayed committed to its community — yet willing to change with it.
“The neighborhood changed over a period of years; it went from colonial to federal and, as the city and area started to build up, a lot of families moved out of the area. But the church has great staying power. Looking at the minutes of the church meetings, there was never a serious discussion on its moving, even when Society Hill was at its lowest ebb,” he said. “This community became home for hundreds and hundreds of Slavic people pouring in from Russia and Ukraine and the church saw this moment and hired interpreters, teachers who spoke those languages and conducted Sunday School to mission to those people, even though they weren’t members of the church. The church has always had a sticking power that’s based in being bold, determined and looking forward.”
That’s what makes last month’s wedding so fitting, said Pastor Jason Ferris.
Kristen Shirley and Caitlyn Shaw were married Sept. 20 at Old Pine. The South Philly couple has been together for three years. At the beginning of their relationship, they visited a number of churches to find the right one for them, deciding on Old Pine after meeting with Ferris and learning about the church’s LGBT inclusion and acceptance.
Ferris said the congregation is as diverse as the surrounding area.
“I think we reflect pretty well the neighborhood that we’re in,” he said. “We have a very diverse church, across a lot of lines — ethnicity, age and certainly sexual orientation, which has been for quite a long time.”
The governance of the Presbyterian Church, however, has not always been as affirming. Until recently, Presbyterian pastors were not permitted to marry same-sex couples.
“Frustrating is probably a good word for it,” Ferris said. “There was a time for many years where our church didn’t allow us to conduct these weddings. I had to treat members of my congregation differently; there were some I could marry and others I couldn’t. That to me was inconsistent with what we are trying to do as a church: to convey a message of authenticity, honesty and that God loves people as they were created to be.”
But, in June, just a few weeks after Pennsylvania began allowing same-sex marriage, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted to allow pastors in states that sanction marriage equality to perform same-sex weddings.
“The timing was very fortunate,” Ferris said.
While Shirley and Shaw were elated by both the state and church policy changes, Shirley said, it did complicate their wedding plans.
“Our plans changed totally,” she said. “We got engaged in January and were planning on a ceremony in New Jersey, because it was the closest legal place at the time, and then we’d come back to Philadelphia for a reception. But then it became legal in Pennsylvania so we tried to find a new place here but weren’t able to do it in our church because the Presbyterian Church didn’t allow it, so we came up with another plan and then, right before we finalized it, Jason told us everything passed at the church level. So it ended up working out really well, but a lot changed along the way.”
Ferris worked with the couple to craft the ceremony in the same way he does with other weddings he officiates, he said, although they did have to give some thought to language changes.
“Their marriage is the same as a straight couple’s marriage. It’s the same in the eyes of God — a commitment to live together, to be faithful to one another — so I wanted to make sure they saw that their marriage is just as significant and valued as anybody else’s, so we approached it the same way,” he said. “But the language created some interesting conversations about if they wanted to use traditional language of the ceremony, which is very heteronormative and reflects a long tradition of both positive and negative traditions around sexuality and gender. I wanted them to have whatever language felt authentic to them and I think we managed to honor both tradition but also who they are and how they feel about their relationship.”
Ferris announced during the wedding that it was the church’s first-ever same-sex celebration, which elicited strong applause.
Shirley said the event — attended by about 70 people, who joined the couple for a reception at The Twisted Tail afterwards — was a fitting way for her and Shaw to be a part of both church and LGBT history.
“We’re quiet people but both of us are really into civil rights and all types of movements — race, religion, sexuality — and we often talk about being more involved but not necessarily knowing how to be more active since we don’t have very loud or outspoken personalities,” she said. “So this was a good way to do this, to make history. We were able to make a statement, but it wasn’t anything over the top because that wouldn’t suit us. It made the day really that much more important that we were able to be part of this first step.”
Ferris said he shared their appreciation for the momentous nature of the day.
“It means that, going forward, we can better reflect the love that God has for all people,” he said. “ It also means that we can begin to heal the wounds caused by the mistaken view that same-gender relationships are inherently sinful.”
For more information on Old Pine, visit www.oldpine.org.
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