This weekend, 3,000 Presbyterians will arrive in Pittsburgh to debate and vote on issues critical to the Presbyterian Church (USA), with proposals related to gay marriage and same-sex couples at the top of the agenda.
A few days later, the Episcopal Church will open its triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, with a proposed rite for same-sex blessings also high on the agenda. Both denominations have 1.9 million members, and have lost hundreds of parishes as both debated and eventually adopted local option on gay ordination.
Both the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Presbytery had a history of opposition to same-sex unions and gay ordination. But the Episcopal Diocese split in 2008, with the majority leaving the denomination, though some conservative clergy stayed. Pittsburgh Presbytery has lost three congregations over issues of sexuality and biblical authority, and four churches are known to be considering leaving.
"The marriage issue, depending how the vote goes, has the potential to be very, very distressing to some of our congregations," said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, which has 148 churches with 37,000 members in Allegheny County.
"It would not surprise me at all if some congregations would see [approval of same-sex relationships] as the straw that broke the camel's back, for them to leave the denomination," he said.
The Presbyterian General Assembly, which meets Saturday through July 7 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, will consider conflicting proposals on sexuality issues. There are proposals to bless same-sex marriages, but also to reinforce an existing ban. Some overtures seek to overturn the year-old local option on gay ordination, while others seek to prevent conservative presbyteries from explicitly saying that gay clergy need not apply.
The denomination's internal surveys show deep division on gay marriage. In February, 51 percent of members opposed same-sex marriage, 34 percent approved and the rest were undecided. Attitudes reversed among pastors, where 49 percent support same-sex marriage and 41 percent oppose it.
A survey of Presbytery executives by Presbyterian Outlook magazine found that on average 7 percent of their congregations had either left since January 2011 or were considering doing so. They believed that approving same-sex marriage would cause another 11 percent to leave.
The Rev. Janet Edwards, a member of Pittsburgh Presbytery who has been an advocate for gay marriage, resigned her voting commission to the General Assembly in order to care for her husband after surgery. But she believes that on issues where there is no consensus in the church, there should be freedom for each congregation to act on its own beliefs.
She argues that the Presbyterian Church has historically followed civil law on marriage, so that clergy in states where gay marriage is legal should be allowed to offer marriage ceremonies. The church currently allows blessing ceremonies but insists that they not be called marriages.
"The heart of marriage is the love and commitment between the partners, and we all know couples of two men or two women who show all the qualities that we recognize as marriage," she said.
The Episcopal Church is having a similar debate, although the proposed ceremony isn't called a marriage but a "lifelong covenant." Clergy in dioceses with sympathetic bishops have been blessing gay couples for decades, but the proposal is to permit a trial run of an official liturgy.
The draft vows proclaim a commitment to "a relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love, forsaking all others, holding one another in tenderness and respect, in strength and bravery, come what may, as long as they live."
If it passes, "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" will be used on a trial basis in dioceses with a supportive bishop for three years. There also is a proposal for a simultaneous three-year, grass-roots discussion of the theology of marriage and what that means for same-sex couples.
A proposed study document acknowledges theological differences over whether it is acceptable to bless same sex couples, but offers only arguments in favor of doing so. It argues, for instance, that biblical condemnations of same-sex acts in Leviticus and Romans were aimed at pagan ritual orgies and prostitution, and thus condemned idolatry rather than same-sex relationships.
The Rev. Cynthia Bronson Sweigert, assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown, and a delegate to the General Convention, is among a handful of clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh who have long been supportive of gay marriage.
"I believe that this particular effort on the part of the church is long overdue," she said.
The diocese is in transition between bishops. Bishop-elect Dorsey McConnell, who will be consecrated in October, said during the election process that the diocese needed to have a thorough conversation about such issues before any decisions are made about policies regarding partnered gay Episcopalians. Rev. Bronson Sweigert said she hoped that even bishops who don't want to bless gay couples themselves will allow parishes to do so.
"It seems to me that my more theologically conservative friends are becoming more open about this," she said. "While it isn't their first choice, they are discussing it in a way that is more positive for me and in terms that are more constructive for dialogue."
The Rev. James Simons, rector of St. Michael of the Valley in Ligonier, is a theological conservative who also happens to be in charge of tracking and forwarding proposed legislation at the General Convention.
He has written to his parish to say that he expects some form of the trial-use blessing to pass. He doesn't expect any more clergy to leave the Pittsburgh diocese over it, but isn't sure about laity.
"I don't think there is any member of the clergy that stayed [in the Episcopal Church] that didn't know this was going to happen. This is the drift of the culture and, when you have a mass exodus of your conservatives, this is just inevitable," he said.
He's trying to allay fears that parishes would be forced to offer same-sex blessings.
"This is a service for trial use," he said. "Even if the bishop gives permission, the parish still has to decide if it's something they want to do."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 AM