Presbyterian Church (USA) decision expands the meaning and malleability of marriage

Gay couple Andrew Wale (on right) and Neil Allard hold hold each other as they are interviewed by the media after marrying in the first same-sex wedding at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, southern England March 29, 2014. Reuters/Luke MacGregor

My illusions about Christian marriage as a Presbyterian minister were shattered very quickly.

The first marriage I officiated over also involved a justice of the peace because I was serving as a student pastor, not yet ordained. He signed the license, but I was called on a few weeks later when the couple disagreed about how an acting-out stepdaughter was to be disciplined.

There is nothing, I discovered, that guarantees that people who are married by the church (and state) will behave like Christians.

Yet because I and quickly my community of faith were called in through the couple’s family to address the moral issues at hand, I also learned that being married “before God and these witnesses” is a serious thing indeed. It is something to which I would want every believing couple to have access.

Marriage, after all, may start between two people, but neither in law nor in society does it end there.

Presbyterians (USA) redefines marriage

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has just voted through a clear majority of its presbyteries (local governing bodies) to define marriage as being between two persons. The vote will also permit sessions – the ruling bodies of particular congregations – to host same-sex weddings and for the clergy of the church to perform such ceremonies.

Some Presbyterians were quick to argue that this was to break with the model of biblical marriage. I, as a historian, am more inclined to ask “Which model of biblical marriage?” Is it the Old Testament patriarchal polygamous model, the Mosaic monogamous model, the view of an unmarried savior who told us that in heaven “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” or that of the Apostle Paul, who dismissingly said, “It is better to marry than to burn?” Suffice it to say that marriage was, is, and will be a human work in progress on this side of paradise.

Still, as a person of faith living in the 21st century, I think it is a sign of health that people still want to bring all of who they are into the community of faith, including the commitment of a lifetime, and to ask for God’s blessing and the community’s help in making their commitments work.

The larger significance of the church’s action

In recent days my friends outside the church and my students studying for ordination exams inside Vanderbilt Divinity School have asked me about the larger significance of the Presbyterian Church’s action. What was the Presbyterian Church (USA) doing? I interpret the action by a majority of presbyteries of this demographically older, but highly educated and theologically diverse Christian church, to be saying several things at once:

First, where it is legal, we cannot imagine forbidding churches from hosting, and ministers from officiating over same-sex weddings. After all, our denomination made a tense peace with Presbyterian churches that wish to call gay clergy and ordain gay elders to their ministry, so it is only right to afford such leaders and members the means to celebrate their relationships in lifelong commitment.

Furthermore: The vote does not force any particular church’s session to host same-sex weddings, nor is any individual minister required to perform a wedding that offends his or her conscience, any more than is now the case.

So this ought to provide a way for conservative churches to remain within the Presbyterian fold undisturbed, right?

The ‘power of one’ changes hearts and minds

It is on this second point where the logic of the recent action falls apart as it relates to conservative churches and ministers. While it is true that the church’s action does not bind any church’s or minister’s conscience on the matter of same-sex marriage, I will go out on a limb and predict the following three consequences for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for many other mainline churches in the next decade:

First, congregations worried about guilt by association will try to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). Already I am aware of rural churches that understand they and their ministers aren’t bound to perform gay marriages, but are so afraid of being perceived as part of a denomination that tolerates same-sex relationships that they wish to disassociate themselves from that church so their small-town neighbors don’t think the less of them.

Two brides attend their wedding ceremony to each other at the wedding registry office in St. Petersburg November 7, 2014. Reuters/stringer

Second, other larger churches in the Presbyterian fold will use the conscience provisions to maintain the status quo in their local circumstances for five, six or seven years until one of the favorite daughters of the congregation returns home with her intended life partner and asks to be married. The congregation’s knowledge of and love for the young woman, and/or the pastor’s conscience about the same issues will become a crisis of conscience anew about the issue. As so many in the LGBT community have taught us about issues of equality, the “power of one” has the power to change hearts and minds.

This month’s action in the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be the gift that keeps on giving for years to come as the culture continues to change.

Third, and perhaps most surprisingly, even churches that leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) in anger today will find themselves extending grace to gay and lesbian couples in less than 15 years. When I was a child in the early 1960s, being divorced meant there was something wrong with you and you weren’t welcome in church. Think how much that has changed, but also think how much the gospel’s power to break down barriers has surprised us before.

What seems to be a set of seemingly definitive votes is just the beginning of consideration for issues as intimate and malleable as marriage, and as sacred as one’s relationship with God. Even for Presbyterians.

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