Presbyterians facing fallout over votes on marriage and investment policy with Israel

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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders are doing plenty of explaining inside and outside their churches these days after their church's top legislative body took stances in June on two volatile issues -- opening the way to same-sex marriages involving its pastors and churches and pulling investments in companies aiding the Israeli-occupation of Palestinian lands.

The divestment vote has strained relations with the Jewish community, historically a partner with Presbyterians in interfaith dialogues and lobbying for civil rights, immigration reform and other causes.

The marriage vote is testing the commitment of the dwindling ranks of conservatives in the denomination. Church leaders have been distributing letters and fact sheets to the congregations and holding high-level talks with their counterparts in other denominations and in mission churches abroad, many with more conservative views on marriage.

"These are difficult times in many ways," said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister of the Pittsburgh Presbytery. "We have certainly received expressions of concern from individual members about General Assembly decisions."

He said he has heard of individuals transferring their memberships to other churches but no congregations leaving the presbytery, which encompasses Allegheny County. During the past decade, however, about 350 churches nationally have left for more conservative denominations, including dozens in Western Pennsylvania, and while the total number of departed congregations is small in a denomination with about 10,000 overall, many of those that left were among the largest in their regions.

The issues of same-sex marriage and divestment might seem unrelated, and many liberals who supported the former opposed the latter.

In a sign of rapidly changing times, the marriage votes were less controversial than the Israel vote, a sign of how rapidly a church that was divided for decades on sexuality has finally coalesced around support for wedding gays and lesbians and for ordaining them after a 2011 constitutional change.

The Presbyterian constitution historically has defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

The assembly took two actions. One was an official constitutional interpretation that immediately gives ministers the right to preside at same-sex weddings in states where they are legal, such as Pennsylvania.

The other, requiring regional presbyteries' approval, changes the constitutional definition of Christian marriage to that of two people regardless of gender. A late amendment added that this is "traditionally a man and a woman," and both members give ministers and churches the right to refuse to preside at same-sex ceremonies.

The vote was 429-175, a lopsided margin especially given the close votes in past years on sexual questions.

"The sex war is over," wrote Beau Weston, a professor Centre College in Kentucky who has followed the battlefront for decades as a church elder -- he was one of the delegates at last month'‍s assembly in Detroit -- and as a sociologist studying religion. "This is strong evidence that the conservatives have mostly given up and moved elsewhere," he wrote.

Even with ratification pending in presbyteries, "there's a sense this fight may be over," agreed the Rev. Jack Haberer, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook, an influential national journal.

Conscience clauses protecting pastors who oppose such ceremonies might help keep some traditionalists who want to stay within the denomination, the Rev. Paul Roberts, pastor of Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, told the assembly last month.

A dozen years ago, Rev. Roberts pastored another Western Pennsylvania church that touched off a national conservative movement by reaffirming beliefs in the divinity of Jesus, the authority of the Bible and traditional sexual morality in the face of what they saw as an erosion of all three in the denomination, but while many in that "Confessing Church" movement have since left the denomination, he told fellow church members he and some others are seeking ways they can faithfully stay on.

"I grieve over the losses of over 300 churches in our denomination," he said. "I grieve over the possibility of additional departures. ... We need to learn how to co-exist, to quit thinking of winning and losing, my way or highway, but use language that really is inclusive."

At Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill, which has long advocated for affirming gays and lesbians, members greeted the news of the marriage vote "with quiet joy" when the Rev. Carol Roth, interim minister, announced the result at worship the Sunday afterward.

The lopsided vote after so many years of debate might seem anti-climactic "but probably not for the people who have been working for this for so long," she said.

Much closer than the marriage vote was the Presbyterian General Assembly's 310-303 vote by to pull investments from three U.S. corporations supplying Israeli forces and settlers in occupied territories -- Motorola Solutions, Hewlett Packard and Caterpillar.

The action drew blistering criticism from international Jewish groups across a wide spectrum that said it denounced Israel's actions without holding Palestinians to similar account or acknowledging the security threats posed by Hamas, which is committed to destroying the Jewish state.

"The Presbyterian Church didn't just divest from three companies doing business in Israel. It also lost its place at the table for making peace," said Gregg Roman, community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. "While we have made our opinion known in multiple forums, we have not made a decision to cut off relations with the church."

Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill said the vote "dismayed" him, but he remains committed "to work with Presbyterian ministers and lay people here in the Pittsburgh region who support Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and advocate for a two-state solution."

Bob Ross, a member of East Liberty Presbyterian Church and an advocate for divestment, said he had heard from Palestinians, some Jews and others saying divestment could help break the impasse over the occupation.

"Along with the marriage vote and many of the other overtures, it's going to bring young people back to the church," he added. "A lot of younger people see this as being a move toward a more justice- and peace-based church."


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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