With this week’s milestone presbytery vote that ratified Amendment 14F, Presbyterian Church U.S.A. takes the next step in its evolution on marriage equality
At 1.8 million members, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is one of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denominations. It is the largest in the Presbyterian denomination. On Tuesday, March 17, it became one of the largest religious denominations yet to recognize same-sex marriages.
In doing so, Presbyterian Church U.S.A. joins other religious denominations in recognizing marriage equality, including the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Friends General Conference (Quakers), the Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches, and the Reform and Conservative movements within Judaism.
But change in the Presbyterian Church did not happen without decades of discussion. Nor did it come without recognition that the church, already seeing a decline in membership, also faces a clear reconciliation process ahead of them.
At its biennial meeting last year, the church’s General Assembly recommended the consideration of Amendment 14F by local governing bodies within the church, known as presbyteries. The amendment describes marriage as “a unique relationship between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” instead of a relationship only between a man and a woman.
Church rules dictate that 87 of 171 presbyteries had to vote in favor of the amendment for it to pass and be enshrined in the denomination’s constitution, known as the Book of Order.
That key 87th vote came from the Presbytery of the Palisades in Fair Lawn, N.J., on Tuesday, securing ratification of the amendment, effective June 21.
Grace Prebsytery, which covers both Dallas and Fort Worth, had already voted in favor of Amendment 14F. Even though ratification is inevitable, 41 presbyteries voted against the Amendment and one is tied.
Per church policy, 84 presbyteries still have the opportunity to vote before the June ratification.
Long time coming
The move was long overdue to the Rev. Fritz Ritsch, pastor of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth. His church, near the Texas Christian University campus, has long been known as an inclusive church. But like many other religious traditions, it has been divided on same-sex marriage.
Ritsch said he remembers the history of the church’s struggle to reconcile with issues of sexual orientation.
In 1991 the church’s Special Committee on Human Sexuality released two “sexuality reports” at its 203rd General Assembly as part of the reconciliation process, Ritsch said. Initially meant to be a comprehensive document, the commissioners couldn’t reach a middle ground; it resulted in two competing studies divided on the topic.
“They were ultimately prepared by so-called liberal and conservative perspectives,” Ritsch said. “The [the special committee’s Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice] lacked a real theological or biblical core. The minority report released by the church’s more traditional members was stronger in its theological and biblical core. But it also acknowledged the church may grow to accept” same-sex marriage.
In 1996, the General Assembly again addressed the issue of sexuality. It passed an amendment limiting sexual activity by ministers, according to a church statement, to happening only “within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.” Otherwise they were expected to maintain “chastity in singleness.”
It was meant to be a step forward in recognizing sexuality while allowing local bodies to decide the specifics. But instead of being helpful, it was confusing.
“Its wording was weird. Any sexual act could disqualify you,” Ritsch said.
Not every church agreed it was vague. As a result of the church’s ongoing reconciliation process, many of the church’s more conservative members left to join other Presbyterian denominations, and not solely because of the church’s evolution on sexuality, For example, the church’s openness to ordaining women angered some.
Losing the more conservative congregants meant less resistance to reconciliation efforts. In 2011, a majority of presbyteries passed an amendment scrapping the language barring the ordination of “sexually active unmarried church officers” — a big leap forward for gay, lesbian and bisexual congregants.
If previous language in the reconciliation process signaled ambiguity, Amendment 14F provides a fresh and clear interpretation of the church’s position. Its broad language indicates the church’s belief that marriage is traditionally between a man and a woman, but leaves the decision not to participate in or host same-sex marriages to local elders and congregations.
Paul Detterman, national director of The Fellowship Community, a network of theological conservatives who have not left the church, opposes the amendment. But he doesn’t think it is an attack on his faith.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘If this is where we are going, then this is where we came from,’” he said. “While I remain biblically opposed to the amendment’s language, it’s phrased in a way that’s honest and generous to my position. Instead of attacking the remaining conservative members within the church, it is written simply as an irrefutable statement of fact.
“One of the great things to come out of this process is reasonable people are able to compassionately engage in dialogue,” Detterman continued, “as opposed to our contemporary culture’s divisive polemic.”
Detterman also wanted to make it clear that that he opposes the amendment, but not the LGBT community. “As a Christian I have no right to condemn,” he said, “nor do I have the right to compromise what Scripture is saying to us.”
LGBT grassroots pivotal to vote
Ritsch credited LGBT-affirming groups like Covenant Network Presbyterians for building grassroots support for the amendment.
In a statement, the Rev. Randy Bush, co-moderator of the Covenant board and pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, praised the move as a new chapter for the church. “With the positive vote on Amendment 14F, our denomination steps forward into a new chapter — one that values our past journeys of faith, respects the importance of pastoral discretion in congregational matters, and yet offers to the world a compelling witness about how God’s grace is active in loving, mutual relationships,” Bush said.
More Light Presbyterians, another group that behind the successful efforts to pass the amendment, also celebrated the move and praised its network for its hard work.
“Today, we can bring our whole selves to church,” Alex McNeill, More Light’s executive director, said in a statement. “Ratification is not the end; it is the continuation of ongoing sacred conversations. This is the next step in our long journey to minister to all of our people. Presbyterians know that love of God and neighbor is, by definition, a call to love and serve people who are different. Faithfulness does not include discrimination in the name of God.”
Progress under the big tent
As times change, so does popular opinion. But that doesn’t mean a tradition shouldn’t go without recognition. Which is why, like Fellowship Community, Covenant acknowledged the need for another type of reconciliation.
In a statement, both the organization and its board of directors acknowledged the decades-long discussion was “difficult and that some will feel a deep sense of pain over this decision.”
But the difficult dialogue will not stop More Light from engaging in compassionate conversation on other issues.
“We have not ‘won’ a battle by ratifying 14F; we are simply taking the next step on this amazing journey with our beloved family we call the church,” McNeill, its executive director, wrote on the LGBT-affirming Christian blog Believe out Loud, “We are walking in grace.”
Presbyterian Church U.S.A. information and resources
• Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
• Covenant Network of Presbyterians
• More Light Presbyterians
Local affirming Presbyterian churches:
• St. Stephen Presbyterian
2600 Merida, Fort Worth
• Ridglea Presbyterian
6201 Camp Bowie Blvd, Fort Worth
• Bethany Presbyterian Church
4523 Cedar Springs Rd.
• Westminster Presbyterian
8200 Devonshire Dr.
• Trinity Presbyterian
2200 N Bell Ave., Denton
• St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church
1220 W Belt Line Rd., Richardson
• Corinth Presbyterian Church
5609 E Parker Rd., Allen
For more information: Gaychurch.org/find_a_church/
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 20, 2015.