On June 19, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted at its General Assembly to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages and to change its constitution’s definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people. ”
Starting last weekend, Presbyterian ministers were permitted to start marrying same-sex couples in the 19 states and Washington, D.C., that sanction marriage equality, after 61 percent of the General Assembly voted to allow ministers the discretion to marry same-sex couples in states where it is legal.
While the decision allows ministers and churches to perform same-sex weddings, it does not force them to do so.
Katie Day, a parish associate and long-time member of the Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia, said she was euphoric when the majority votes were announced.
“It’s been a good week to be a Presbyterian,” Day said.
However, she said, many Presbyterian clergy have been affirming same-sex couples long before last week.
“I performed my first same-sex commitment ceremony 25 years ago,” Day said. “Many Presbyterian clergy have supported marriage equality for many years.”
While the ministerial vote went into effect almost immediately, in order for the language change to be finalized, it will require approval by a majority of the church’s 172 regions, or presbyteries, which is a year-long process.
About 71 percent of the General Assembly opted to change the constitution’s language concerning the definition of marriage. The new language reads that marriage is a civil contract between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” This particular language reflects a changing world yet also describes the historical realities of marriage — and demonstrates a compromise made between those on both sides of the Presbyterian debate regarding same-sex marriage.
The Presbyterian Church is a Protestant denomination that spans a wide range of liberal and conservative Christians.
On two previous occasions, the church voted to ban pastors from performing same-sex marriages (1991 and 2008). At the last General Assembly in 2012, delegates voted against a proposal that would amend the constitution to define marriage as being between “two persons.” Church leadership has also put ministers on religious trial for defying the prior ban and affirming gay couples. In 2010, the GA voted to allow openly gay members to serve as ministers, prompting a number of conservative congregations to leave the church.
Sharon Groves, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program, discussed the significance of these latest votes.
“Young people and their families can go into a Presbyterian church and know that their denomination has not turned a blind eye to them,” Groves said, “but has instead taken a giant step toward becoming a more loving and welcoming place for all people to worship.”
Chris Purdom, a Tabernacle United Church of Philadelphia elder and 50-year member, said the historic decisions have been a long time coming.
“The decision-making process is very slow,” Purdom said, “but it is a correction to a problem in the Book of Order.”
The Book of Order is the constitution for the Presbyterian Church — which will be amended if a majority of presbyteries vote in favor of the new marriage definition.
The Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia is a More Light Presbyterian Church. According to Purdom and Day, this means they welcome LGBT people into the full life of the congregation. There are many More Light Presbyterian churches throughout the country.
Even though marriage is not a sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, Day said it is a primary function of the church and is highly regulated. But, Purdom expressed his desire for the church to focus on other issues besides the marriage debate.
“Marriage is not a part of [Presbyterian] church law,” he said, “but we sure spend a lot of time arguing about it.”
Day echoed that sentiment, wishing the Presbyterian focus was less on debating marriage equality and more on poverty.
“There are hundreds of verses on how we should respond to the poor, and that’s very hard to ignore,” Day said. “My hope is that we stop gravitating to these very few verses that deal with homosexuality in various cultures and look at the overwhelming amount of poverty and take more time to address that.”
Highlighting the clear divide within the Presbyterian Church, there were many congregations and members that left the Presbyterian denomination due to the pro-LGBT ordination decision four years ago.
Other conservative congregations on the brink of leaving could do so following last week’s votes, but Day said the church is changing with society.
“Our congregation has lost some people,” she said, “but the attrition is slowing down because the country is changing so fast.”
For many, the General Assembly vote is a clear sign that the Presbyterian Church has become a more inclusive, Christ-like place. However, critics of the vote argue it is a sign the church is simply following the masses of society and ignoring the Bible — an argument Day said holds little weight.
“There are many things from the Bible where we say, ‘That was another time, that was another culture.’ There are very few passages that deal with homosexuality, and they are engrained in the cultural context of that time.”
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