After decades of debate, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has endorsed same-sex marriage and is allowing its clergy to perform the ceremonies.
At last count, 93 of the 171 presbyteries — groups of local churches similar to a Catholic diocese or Methodist conference — voted to approve an amendment to change the definition of marriage from “a woman and man” to “two people” in the denomination’s Book of Order. Forty-one Presbyteries voted against the change and 37 presbyteries have apparently yet to vote.
The presbyteries began voting after the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved Amendment 14-F last summer. The change became official on March 17 when the Palisades Presbytery of the New Jersey area became the 86th Presbytery to approve the amendment, according to PC (USA)’s headquarters.
“These decisions have been welcomed by some and a disappointment to others,” the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly, said in a statement. “Let us pray that we can allow the Spirit to continue to create in us a common call to follow Christ while respecting each other’s convictions.”
The 53-church Presbytery of South Louisiana approved the amendment in late February, according to the Rev. Dr. Ron Sutto, general presbyter and stated clerk.
“It has no effect because it (same-sex marriage) is not legal in Louisiana,” Sutto said. “It affects pastors in churches in states where it is legal, but it doesn’t change anything here.”
Sutto acknowledges the same-sex issue has been a struggle for the denomination. Several local congregations and hundreds of members have left this presbytery in recent years to join other groups because of the PC (USA)’s ordination of gay clergy.
Overall, the PC (USA) has declined from 11,141 churches with 2.4 million members in 2001 to 10,262 churches and 1.8 million members in 2012, according to the denomination’s latest Summary of Statistics.
“This is not a new issue. It is an issue the church has been struggling with for sometime,” Sutto said. “Our policy is that we do everything in community. We gather together, we pray and vote and, out of that, in our belief system, we believe the Holy Spirit speaks.”
“I think it (the vote) is a good thing. I think this is part of who and what we are,” Sutto said. “We are a people of grace and extend God’s grace and goodness to all of God’s children so it is part of who and what we are and a tradition of inclusiveness.
“If there is any judging to do, that is up to others,” Sutto said.
The Rev. Patti Snyder, senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge and a longtime member of the national board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said she’s glad the amendment passed because they have worked since the 1990s for full inclusion and justice for LGBTQ persons while striving to also keep the denomination united.
“I’m very happy that this passed, both because of the inclusion and the justice issue,” Synder said, adding “and also for the unity piece because in reality, this particular amendment and our current stance on same-gender marriage make it possible for pastors to determine with individual couples, regardless of their gender, whether we feel like we in good conscience can perform a marriage ceremony.”
The amendment allows pastors to perform same-sex marriages, where legal, but does not force them to do it, she said.
“The hindrance to me right now is the state, and the hindrance, more importantly, to couples who are deeply committed and want to share their lives in a faithful way can’t get married — yet,” Snyder said. “I’m hopeful personally.”
As far critics of gay marriage, especially pastors both from within the Presbyterian denominations and the larger Christian community, Snyder said, “I would say that that pastor and I read the biblical texts in a very, very different way. I would point out that those of us who are in favor of same-gender marriage in the church, we take the Bible very seriously, and Jesus said very, very little — really nothing — about sexuality.”
When Snyder was asked about the passage in Matthew 19:4-5, where Jesus said God created them male and female, and “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,” she replied that passage must be read in a historical context.
“That was the culture of the time of the day of what a marriage was,” Snyder said. “Jesus said a whole lot more about welcoming the outcast. He spoke to women who were not supposed to be spoken to in certain contexts. He welcomed tax collectors, and so his theology of justice and welcome and grace, the whole idea of Jesus is forgiveness and grace for us, for all of us.”