Gay marriage: Is the Presbyterian Church playing catch-up – or leading?

On Tuesday, the church voted formally to allow same-sex unions in every congregation where permitted by law, making it the largest Protestant group in the United States to do so. 

David Guralnick/Detroit News/AP Photo/File
n this June 19, 2014, file photo, Gary Lyon, left, of Leechburg, Pa., and Bill Samford, of Hawley, Pa., celebrate after a vote allowing Presbyterian pastors discretion in marrying same-sex couples at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church at Cobo Hall, in Detroit. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved redefining marriage in the church constitution Tuesday, March 17, to include a "commitment between two people," becoming the largest Protestant group to formally recognize gay marriage as Christian and allow same-sex weddings in every congregation.

The United States Presbyterian Church has opened its arms to gay marriage.

On Tuesday, the church broadened the definition of marriage in its constitution, making it the largest Protestant group in the United States to officially allow same-sex marriage in every congregation where it is permitted by law. The denomination has about 1.8 million members.

At least 86 of the church’s 171 regional leadership bodies voted to change the wording around marriage in their governing document, the Book of Order,  from a contract “between a man and a woman” to being “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”

The change, set to take effect June 21, highlights the continuing debate about whether allowing gay people to wed conflicts with Scripture. The decision is also a more conclusive step towards gay inclusion than those taken by other Christian denominations, many of which have grappled with the issue and come up with various forms of compromise over the last decade.

In 2003, the US Episcopal Church elected the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, and has since approved a liturgy for clergy to use during same-sex unions – though it has yet to explicitly approve gay marriage. In response, a number of Episcopal congregations have disaffiliated themselves with the church in the US and abroad. 

The United Church of Christ in 2005 affirmed “equal rights for couples regardless of gender,” urging members of its congregations to develop non-discriminating policies around marriage. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began welcoming non-celibate gay clergy into its ranks in 2009, but, like the Episcopalians, it has not formally recognized same-sex marriage.

In January, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons, pledged to support anti-discrimination laws for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual community on the condition that the same laws protect the rights of religious groups.

The Mormons made no changes to their doctrine, remaining opposed to gay marriage.

“But we are suggesting a way forward in which those with different views on these complex issues can together seek solutions that will be fair to everyone," Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a top-tier member of the church, told CNN.

Public opinion, especially among young people, has been shifting toward acceptance of same-sex relationships. Polls show that nearly eight in 10 adults under 30 are in favor of gay marriage, and the District of Columbia and 36 states have now legalized it, not including Alabama, where legal battles continue.

Still, not everyone is embracing the movement towards gay inclusion. In late January, several religious groups held separate events that advocated for the protection of religious freedoms and opposition against same-sex unions, the Monitor reported.

Not a month later, leaders of the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church withdrew their commitment to the ministry of one pastor who advocated for same-sex marriage. (According to Pew Research only about one in five white evangelicals in the United States favors gay marriage.)

“Some people want a court of prophets who will take a surgeon’s scalpel to the Word of God,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in April. “This is infidelity to the gospel we’ve received.”

Even within the Presbyterian denomination, there remains a divide. The church saw a wave of departures of conservative congregations and individuals following its 2011 decision to ordain gays and lesbians as pastors, and some who chose to remain have voiced their concern.

“Our objection to the passage of the marriage amendment is in no way, shape or form anti-gay,” Paul Detterman, national director of The Fellowship Community, a conservative group that stayed with the church, told The New York Times. “It is in no way intended as anything but concern that the church is capitulating to the culture and is misrepresenting the message of Scripture.”

The Times notes that the exodus of conservative congregations has resulted in a leftward theological shift in the past few years, leaving an opening for Tuesday's vote.

“Finally, the church in its constitutional documents fully recognizes that the love of gays and lesbian couples is worth celebrating in the faith community,” the Rev. Brian D. Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which supports gay inclusion in the church, told the Times.

“There is still disagreement, and I don’t mean to minimize that, but I think we are learning that we can disagree and still be church together,” he said.

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