But the vote was close, one of many reminders of just how liberal their church has become.
Surprising conservatives and liberals, the 1.9 million member Presbyterian Church (USA), at its governing General Assembly in early July, rejected same-sex marriage.
In 2010, the denomination had abandoned its official prohibition against clergy sexually active outside traditional marriage. At least one hundred congregations since then, and tens of thousands of members, have quit the church. So many assumed that recognizing same sex marriage was the next logical step. But apparently not, at least not this time.
At their assembly in Pittsburgh, the Presbyterians rejected an “authoritative interpretation” allowing clergy to redefine marriage to include same sex couples. They also rejected allowing clergy in states where same-sex marriage in legal to conduct those ceremonies.
The debates among the over 600 Presbyterian “commissioners” of both clergy and laity were intense. “If he [a gay parishioner] and others choose to promise to love and faithfully cherish their same-sex marriage ‘til death do they part,’ I cannot see how this goes against the spirit of Christ as I hear that spirit in the Holy Scriptures,” argued a member of the Indian Nations Presbytery.
A member of the Upper Ohio Valley Presbyterian similarly wondered: “If a pair is willing to come before the Lord, what should it matter what the world declares each of us – male or female?” From a member of the Grand Canyon Presbytery came this complaint: “All of us here serve among LGBTQ people… yet we continue to withhold pastoral care in the form of the church’s blessing on their marriages, because teaching elders are not permitted to marry them, even though to state says it’s legal.”
A member of the Abingdon Presbytery recalled the New Testament vision by St. Peter allowing Christians to eat “unclean” food and suggested: “Perhaps we are moving toward a collective vision that all lifelong, loving relationships are indeed clean.” Someone from New York City Presbytery warned of damaging “relationships with the global LGBTQ community.” A Western New Yorker asked: “What does it say about us as a denomination, that instead of leading, we’re playing catch-up to states like New York?” And a commissioner from the Chicago Presbytery groused: “As Christians we claim the goal of loving and including all, then seek to exclude the LGBT community.”
But most commissioners were apparently unconvinced. Declining specifically to reaffirm traditional marriage, they still refused to recognize same sex marriage, leaving the current traditional standard in place. A handful of ethnic delegates and overseas participants maybe helped persuade wavering moderates not to accede to any marriage redefinition.
A Korean American pastor in California explained that the church’s role should be “changing the norm of the society, not being changed by the norm of society.” And he lamented that the church’s wavering on sexual ethics had already caused “confusion and deep concerns” among Korean Presbyterians. A Kenyan American pastor at a prestigious Dallas church recalled that missionaries had taught his ancestors the “right Word of God,” while asking whether Presbyterians today would “stand with the Christians and what they have known for centuries.”
An ecumenical advisory delegate from Guatemala warned that Presbyterians had already debated whether to break relations with the U.S. church over this issue, pleading: “If you really care about your partners around the world, please listen to us.”
An official with the Presbyterian Mission Agency recalled that the Mexican Presbyterian Church had already broken relations with the U.S. church. He told of a survey indicating probable damaged relations with an additional 35 overseas Presbyterian denominations if the U.S. church redefined marriage. Another 17 or 18 overseas churches might break relations altogether, and still another half dozen would be obligated publicly to criticize the U.S. church.
Of course, many U.S. commissioners asserted biblical arguments against same sex marriage and cited already steep divisions and damage to the denomination due to the abandonment of the ordination standard. Reputedly another 800 congregations potentially are pondering whether to leave the denomination, and endorsing same sex marriage certainly would have encouraged them. In the end, the Presbyterian General Assembly voted 52 to 48 percent against an authorized new interpretation of marriage. By over 70 percent, it rejected allowing clergy to conduct same sex marriages in states where legal.
Prior to the votes, the newly elected Vice Moderator of the church was engulfed in controversy because of complaints that she had already conducted an unauthorized same-sex union in Washington, D.C., prompting her dramatic resignation.
There were debates on issues other than sex. Perhaps the second most heatedly debated topic was over whether to divest church assets from firms that purportedly profit from Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. Divestment was rejected by a 2 vote margin, with “positive investment” in the Palestinian economy instead affirmed.
The usual cavalcade of liberal political stances were approved, including support for the Occupy Movement and recognizing environmental protection as an “essential” part of Christian faith. Presbyterians, evidently worried about spankings, even voted against corporal punishment for children.
One evangelical caucus, Presbyterians for Renewal, after the General Assembly regretted the “determination of the Left to press their ideological agenda” despite “collateral damage” to churches and the denomination’s global witness. “The PC(USA) ‘train’ has left the ‘station’ of orthodoxy and is headed into an undefined future where, seemingly, anything is possible,” they warned. Presbyterians “skittish” about leaving their church must understand that remaining is “not for the faint of heart.”
Another traditionalist caucus, Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry, issued a “Pittsburgh Declaration” hailing the rejection of same sex marriage and asking friends to join them in vowing to teach and strengthen traditional marriage.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) (including its predecessor bodies) has lost half its membership since its peak in the 1960s. Its most recent reporting year showed a loss of over 60,000, and that was even before most congregations had starting leaving after the 2010 abandonment of the ordination standard. The membership spiral will continue. But for the moment, Presbyterians are cautiously unwilling to follow Episcopalians straight off the cliff by fully endorsing same-sex marriage. And an orthodox remnant seems determined to persevere despite adversity, which is very Presbyterian.
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