Same-sex marriage dividing churches
State legalization bringing debate to the forefront
CAPITAL REGION Rev. Dan Hahn has performed one same-sex wedding since same-sex marriage was legalized in New York last summer.
He’s willing to perform more.
Hahn serves at Grace Lutheran Church in Niskayuna, a church that supports same-sex marriage. In 2002, after several years of study of issues related to human sexuality, the congregation officially became a “Reconciling in Christ” church — a Lutheran church that welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members. It was the first church in the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to go through this process.
“We accept LGBT people as fellow members in Christ, the same way we would anyone else,” Hahn said. “For many gays and lesbians, church hasn’t always been a friendly word.”
Hahn said he uses the same criteria when deciding whether to perform a wedding for same-sex couples that he would for heterosexual couples. One of his requirements is that the couple have some connection to Christianity. The women he married last summer were not from his church, but had church backgrounds — Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic.
The Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the governing body to which Grace Lutheran Church belongs, permits Hahn to perform same-sex weddings.
But that’s not true of every denomination.
Until fairly recently, few mainline Protestant denominations had ever considered performing same-sex weddings. But as gay rights have come more into the mainstream, more churches have found ways to express their support for gay and lesbian members, often by declaring themselves “welcoming and affirming” to all, regardless of sexual orientation.
Now, with same-sex marriage legal in New York, many of those supportive churches would like to be able to perform such marriages, but it isn’t always allowed by their church leadership, and in some cases would only be permitted after a change in church policy at the national level.
Church leaders said New York’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage prompted many churches to discuss the issue within their congregations and ask questions.
“It’s forced the conversation,” said the Rev. Cass Shaw, who serves as general presbyter for the Albany Presbytery.
In many denominations, the issue of same-sex marriage is divisive. Earlier this month, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Schenectady entered into an unusual arrangement that allows it to break from the spiritual leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany and seek counsel from the more liberal Episcopal Diocese of Central New York. One of the major theological differences between the two dioceses is their view of homosexuality — the Central New York diocese allows same-sex marriages, while the Albany diocese only permits marriage between heterosexual couples.
Under the arrangement, St. George’s must still adhere to the rules of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany, which means the church will still not be able to perform same-sex marriages.
The Rev. Paul Blanch, rector at St. George’s, told the Gazette last week the change was necessary, because it allows the church to align itself with a more like-minded diocese. He said that for the past 15 years, the Diocese of Albany “has taken a very conservative, narrow line on interpretation of Scripture and how you live out that in your daily life, and how your church, as a part of the diocese, should and must function.”
Albany’s bishop, the Right Rev. William Love, said he had no plans to revisit his position on same-sex marriage, despite its legalization in New York.
“We continue to recognize marriage as it has always been recognized by the church and society, as between one man and one woman,” he said. “We understand that the state can recognize marriage in a different way and that in the eyes of the state you can be married.”
Love said “the vast majority of people in the diocese are supportive of the teachings of the church.”
“In every age, there are issues that have been divisive within the church,” Love said. “This is the one our generation is faced with. I’m not critical of folks who have felt they needed to respond in different ways. I’ve tried to respond, as best I can, to what I feel the Lord is calling us to do. I’m very sad the church and society finds itself in the position we’re in. ... In some ways, I long for the days when we were arguing about whether to have candles on the altar.”
The Albany Presbytery, which oversees the churches in upstate New York that belong to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is considered a fairly liberal presbytery. But that doesn’t mean ministers who want to perform same-sex marriages can do so.
Right now, the denomination’s Book of Order, which includes theological guidelines for worship and standards for discipline within the church, defines marriage as “a civil contract between a man and a woman.” Ministers who choose to perform same-sex marriages can be brought up on charges within the church.
There is a push to amend the Book of Order to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages, and members of the Albany Presbytery plan to lobby for this change at the denomination’s biennial national meeting, which will occur this summer in Pittsburgh.
“There are a number of things that can be decided on a local level,” Shaw said. “[Same-sex marriage] is not one of them.”
Shaw said there’s a range of opinion on same-sex marriage within the presbytery. “We’ve got people who are conservative and don’t want it,” she said. “Others are advocating for LGBT rights.”
And other people are OK with civil unions for gays and lesbians, but not marriage. “We’ve got many points of view in our pews,” she said.
The openness toward same-sex marriage and gays and lesbians in general within the Albany Presbytery is prompting some churches to consider whether they want to remain members, Shaw said. But she said most of the churches that are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage have already left, while those that remain might be OK with a rule change that allows ministers to perform same-sex marriages if they want to, but doesn’t force ministers who don’t want to.
The Albany Presbytery recently created study materials for churches to use as a resource when discussing same-sex marriage and civil unions. The materials include case studies, including one that presents the following scenario: “A man in our congregation knows that our church holds a traditional view of marriage. He believes the state was right in ratifying same-sex marriage. How should our relationship proceed?”
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted last year to allow the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers in 2011.
Argyle Presbyterian Church in Washington County left the Albany Presbytery about two years ago. The Rev. Steve McLean, who serves as the church’s pastor, said that differences over the place of gays and lesbians in the church played a role in his congregation’s decision, but deeper theological issues were involved.
“Our issue is what does the Bible say, and how do we interpret the Bible?” McLean said. “It’s not just about sexuality. It’s about what we understand about salvation. It’s about trying to understand what the Bible says and apply it to our everyday lives. It’s about what the Bible has to say about how we relate to God.”
Same-sex marriage, he said, is “a fairly small issue, but because it’s the big cultural issue, the elephant in the room, everyone wants to talk about it.”
Argyle Presbyterian Church is now a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a more conservative Presbyterian denomination. “Now we’re with people who are much more like-minded,” McLean said.
The debate over same-sex marriage and the role of gays and lesbians in the church “is frustrating for people like me, because we’re often portrayed as anti-gay and lesbian, and that’s not true at all,” McLean said. “We are not anti-gay or anti-lesbian, although I’m sure if you’re gay or lesbian it’s hard to see it that way.”
McLean said he would not be willing to perform a same-sex wedding. “My understanding is that that’s not God’s intention for his children,” he said.
The United Methodist Church is another denomination where ministers who wish to perform same-sex marriage will only be able to do so when there’s a change in policy at the national level. Right now, that church’s Book of Discipline states that “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
The Rev. Maidstone Malenga, director of communications for the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes the United Methodist churches in the Capital Region, noted that clergy in that church take vows to abide by church polity as written in the Book of Discipline and could be brought up on charges within the church and lose their ministerial credentials if they participate in a same-sex wedding.
The question of same-sex marriages will be debated at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference, which is held every four years and begins next month in Tampa, Fla.
In an email, Malenga wrote, “Upper New York Area Resident Bishop Marcus Matthews has urged all clergy to abide by the policy of the church and to refrain from doing anything that would compromise their credentials. Bishop Matthews is also asking all United Methodists to keep the issue in prayer and to ask that God provides discernment on the issue.”
He said the Upper New York Annual Conference has passed a resolution asking the General Conference to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage.
The legalization of same-sex marriage “has definitely sparked a discussion about it in churches,” Malenga said. “It’s also sparked the anti part of it, too. It’s working both ways.”
One Methodist pastor who is willing to perform a same-sex marriage and risk being brought up on charges is the Rev. Nina Nichols at Christ United Methodist Church in Troy. “I’ve signed a statement saying that I’m willing to do it,” Nichols said. “And I would do it.”
Nichols is active with the Upper New York Methodist Federation for Social Action, a group that supports progressive initiatives within the United Methodist Church. In 2010, Christ Church became a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a network of Methodist churches, individuals and campus ministries that support lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
Nichols said Reconciling congregations need to be explicit about the fact that LGBT worshippers are welcome. She said she’s hoping for a rule change regarding same-sex marriage at the General Conference in Tampa.
In August, the Rev. Marie Jerge, who serves as bishop of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, sent a letter to pastors outlining her position on same-sex weddings — an issue, she said, that she received numerous requests for information about after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York last summer. People have two main questions: whether pastors can perform same-gender weddings, and whether she can offer any advice for starting a conversation about the topic within a congregation.
Jerge notes that while that church’s social statement on human sexuality defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, it also allows its pastors to recognize same-gender marriages, if they choose to do so.
She then goes on to say that “it is awkward (some bishops would probably put it more strongly) for ELCA pastors to preside at same-gender marriages, but I take local pastoral authority seriously and therefore encourage pastors to act on the basis of their convictions (or bound conscience). I am not planning to discipline any pastor who chooses to preside or congregation that chooses to host when recognizing a same-gender marriage. I will likewise not discipline any pastor or congregation who refuses to consider it. As we continue to live in a time where there remains disagreement, I would hope that we can be in dialogue across congregational lines and that we will be both tolerant and forgiving of one another.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America comprises 65 synods; the Upstate New York Synod includes the Capital Region. In 2009, the group’s Churchwide Assembly voted to open the ministry to gay and lesbian pastors and other employees living in committed relationships.
Hahn said he believes Lutheran churches will continue to evolve on the issue of same-sex marriage, noting that today the church ordains women, even though a passage in First Corinthians of the New Testament says women should be silent in church.