The Marital Spectator

Here Come the Churches

Is acceptance of same-sex unions inevitable in Mainline Protestantism?

By 6.5.09

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Is acceptance of same-sex unions in the liberal dominated, Mainline Protestant churches inevitable? Not necessarily.

The 2.9 million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) just concluded a grueling vote among its 173 presbyteries across America over whether to delete its requirement that church officials uphold "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." And to the surprise of many disappointed liberals and relieved traditionalists, the biblical standard was upheld, by a final vote of 95-78. 

Liberal caucus groups insisted they had gained ground. But the original vote ratifying the requirement 12 years ago was not much different: 97-74. As my Presbyterian colleague Alan Wisdom describes here, progressives always claim that inevitable tidal forces of history are behind their latest causes, same-sex unions just the most recent. Reinforcing that attitude are often pessimistic and grumpy conservatives, who sometimes even take grim pleasure in expecting cultural defeat.

Believers in the God of Christians and Jews should know that history's only inevitability is the ultimate triumph of Providence, whose designs do not always coincide with contemporary cultural and political fads. But sometimes even Presbyterians, though ostensibly John Calvin shaped predestinationists, forget who is history's final arbiter. Of course, enthusiasts for same-sex unions will continue to push within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Possibly they will eventually win within that numerically declining denomination. But who knows? Only God.

Opponents of traditional morality have been active for nearly 40 years in all the Mainline churches, which, coincidentally, have all suffered continuous membership decline over the last four decades. Perhaps most famously, the 2 million member Episcopal Church partly caved to the sexual revolution, with its 2003 election of openly homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson. Several formerly Episcopal dioceses have quit the denomination, along with over 200 congregations. Together they are forming a new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), with over 100,000 members and 700 parishes, whose founding provincial assembly will convene late this month outside Fort Worth, Texas. Former Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh Robert Duncan is expected to become its first Archbishop. ACNA will be recognized by numerous Global South Anglican primates, if not by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

The old Episcopal Church will itself convene in July with its triennial General Convention in Anaheim, California. Somewhat surprisingly, even after Bishop Robinson's election, the denomination has not formally ratified rites for same-sex unions. Reluctance to further offend the nearly 80 million member global Anglican Communion, most of which is now rooted among conservative Africans, is one factor. The 2006 General Convention, hoping to mollify the Communion, had even called for not electing new bishops "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."

Of course, some liberal Episcopal dioceses have unilaterally touted same-sex rites. But formal ratification by the General Convention, speaking for the whole denomination, would more directly provoke the Anglican Communion and still numerous conservative dioceses, local churches and individuals who remain in the Episcopal Church. The church's House of Bishops, pledged in 2007 "as a body not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions." This pledge has not precluded some individual bishops from blessing same sex unions. Likely the General Convention will fall short of openly ratifying same sex rites, while permitting local dioceses to continue as they please.

Staid Lutherans never get as much attention as the more flamboyant Episcopalians, but the 4.7 million Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will meet in August at its quadrennial General Synod in Minneapolis. Currently the ELCA affirms that "all single rostered people, including those who are homosexual in their self-understanding, are expected to abstain from sexual relationships" and, by common understanding, prohibits same-sex unions. A denominational task force, liberal dominated as such committees always are, is urging the Synod to authorize ordination for persons in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." Wary of following the Episcopal Church into schism, and cautious by nature, Lutherans may refer this recommendation to still more stupefying study and dialogue.

More decisively, the 7.9 million (in the U.S.) United Methodist Church has consistently voted to prohibit same sex unions and sexually active homosexual clergy, while affirming sex only within traditional marriage. Its General Conference last year reaffirmed these stances, but thanks to votes by delegates from Africa, where there are 3 million United Methodists. Virtually unique among U.S. Mainline denominations, over a third of United Methodism's members are outside the U.S. If current demographic trends continue, the denomination will have a majority overseas in the near future.

Liberal United Methodists, most of them from declining churches, realize they will never persuade conservative Africans. So liberal bishops and others have proposed partly separating the U.S. church from the Africans with a new U.S. only "regional conference" to decide U.S. church business without African interference. This Spring, local United Methodist conferences in the U.S. and around the world are voting on this plan. Approval by two thirds of all individual votes is required, and so far, the "global segregation plan" is falling short. If it fails, United Methodism seems dead set against accommodation of same-sex unions.

Moving in the opposite direction, the 1.1 million United Church of Christ (UCC) became the only major U.S. denomination formally to endorse "equal marriage rights for all" at its General Synod in 2005. It urged local churches "to consider adopting Wedding Policies that do not discriminate against couples based on gender." But the loosely confederated denomination cannot enforce its policy on member congregations, and probably most local UCC churches do not celebrate same-sex unions. After the vote, the UCC's more traditional Puerto Rican synod voted to withdraw from the UCC, as did over 250 local churches, helping to make the UCC one of America's fastest declining denominations. 

Seemingly, if acceptance of same-sex unions is the wave of the future, then so too is the demographic demise of Christianity. But history is unpredictable, and traditional Christianity, so frequently eulogized, is perennially resilient.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.