Presbyterians to study marriage issue
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Despite pressure and pleas to allow pastors in states where gay marriage is legal to preside at same-sex weddings, a fracturing Presbyterian Church (USA) voted only to spend the next two years studying the meaning of Christian marriage.
The Rev. Jack Lolla, pastor of Northmont Presbyterian Church in McCandless and a longtime leader in Pittsburgh Presbytery, said "of all the choices that were there, this is the best for the church."
The decision took place at the biennial General Assembly at the David Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
At least four congregations in Pittsburgh Presbytery are considering leaving the 1.9 million denomination over issues of theology and sexual ethics. The denomination has lost at least 182 congregations to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church since 2007. A recent survey by Presbyterian Outlook magazine indicated as many as 800 more of about 10,400 were poised to leave if the denomination approved gay marriage.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the theologically conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, called the vote only to study an issue that there was so much pressure to approve "stunning." "It's a very positive action by the assembly," she said. "With all of the other options that were on the table, this is functionally an affirmation of marriage as we have known it."
"My disappointment is deep," said the Rev. Janet Edwards from Squirrel Hill, who was tried and acquitted on a technicality for marrying two women in 2008. But "at the same time, there are such signs of hope in a variety of ways." She cited consistent votes in favor of gay marriage by young adults and seminarians.
Pastors of the denomination are already allowed to bless gay unions, as long as they make it clear that the ceremony isn't a marriage and can't be mistaken for one.
Before the study was adopted, alternatives were rejected. A proposed amendment to change the definition of marriage from a vow between a man and a woman to a vow between "two people" was defeated 338-308.
Commissioners twice voted not to consider proposals to make an authoritative interpretation of the church constitution that would allow pastors in states where gay marriage is legal to conduct such marriages. Unlike a constitutional amendment, such a declaration by the General Assembly would not have to be approved by the presbyteries.
The committee assigned to make recommendations about the many conflicting proposals regarding gay marriage had advocated a two-part approach involving the two-year study, while also recommending that 173 presbyteries vote on a constitutional amendment to allow gay marriage in the church.
"We ... sought to hold a broken church together with both hands," said the Rev. Aimee Moiso, moderator of that committee. "Though we fervently searched for a middle way, we did not find a magic bullet."
By calling for a constitutional change, she said, presbyteries would be forced to discuss the matter, which the committee hoped would drive them to take the marriage study seriously.
Two minority reports were voted down. One, defeated 346-323, called for a four-year marriage study, along with a moratorium on both gay marriages and church trials for doing the same. A call to strengthen the traditional understanding of marriage in the church constitution was also rejected 397-266.
In all of these debates commissioners on one side argued that the heterosexual nature of marriage was created by God and affirmed by Jesus, and there would be a major schism if it was tampered with.
Advocates of gay marriage countered that the biblical understandings of marriage change with the culture, and gay people are already being driven from the church because they are excluded.
Pastors in states where gay marriage is legal pleaded to be allowed to conduct gay weddings without fear of a church trial that could cost them both a great deal of money and their ordination.
The Rev. Melody Young from Olympia, Wash., spoke of a "pastoral crisis" and said her fervent desire was to preside at the wedding of her gay son, who she described as a committed Christian who loves the church.
Without denominational approval "his wedding will cost the church tens of thousands of dollars -- and I apologize in advance," she said.
Some advocates for gay marriage said they believed opponents were simply afraid of change. Bruce Cameron, an elder from Oregon-based Cascades Presbytery, compared acceptance of gay marriage to his discomfort at driving on the left side of the road in Scotland. "We don't give our parishioners enough credit. They will get used to this too," he said.
Opponents argued their congregations and presbyteries were falling apart. The Rev. Charles Bowdler from Mississippi said his presbytery had lost a third of its members because "we have remade God in our own image."
The Rev. Nancy Sumerlin from Virginia said her congregation has lost many members who "did not go in anger ... but in tears and bewilderment." Although she has great empathy for gay friends she attended seminary with "more than I love any of them individually, I love the body of Christ," she said, using a biblical term for the church.
On the other side, Annie Rawlings, an elder from New York City, spoke of gay people who have left the church because they weren't accepted. "While we remember people who might leave the denomination we need to remember all the people who have left and who might one day come back," she said.
Before the final vote the Rev. Ruth Hamilton from Washington, D.C., where gay marriage is legal, said she would vote against the study as the only "act of conscience" available to her.
She urged pastors who secretly conduct gay marriages now "to come out of the closet. And if we claim our ecclesiastical disobedience and bring this into the courts, this will change."
First Published July 7, 2012 12:57 am