The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PC(USA), took two major strides to embrace same-sex couples Thursday afternoon. While convening at their denominational convention in Detroit, Michigan, the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination voted to allow its pastors to officiate same-sex weddings in states where it is legal, and passed another overture that could change official church documents to include a more inclusive definition of marriage.
The two pieces of church legislation embrace marriage equality in different ways. The first is an “Authoritative Interpretation,” or AI, which allows PC(USA) pastors to officiate same-sex marriages in places where it is legal. The AI, which passed with 61 percent of the vote, allows Presbyterian pastors to decide on their own whether or not to perform same-sex weddings, and takes effect immediately.
The second overture, which passed with 71 percent of the vote, initiated a process of changing the denomination’s official language on marriage. The old language defined marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man,” but the overture moves to replace it with language that includes the sentence “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” Although the motion was affirmed by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, it requires approval from the majority of the group’s 173 “presbyteries,” or regional groupings of churches, who will vote on the measure across the country over the next year or so.
Alex McNeill, Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians, an advocacy group that supports LGBT rights within the PC(USA), said that the decision was a pivotal moment for the denomination.
“Today is a historic day in the PC(USA),” McNeil told ThinkProgress. “After study, discernment, conversation and the movement of the Holy Spirit we have affirmed that all loving and committed couples are capable of being married in our church, and ministers can officiate at those wedding ceremonies without fear.”
Brian Ellison, a head of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the denomination’s other major pro-LGBT group, echoed McNeill’s joy, but noted there is still work to be done before LGBT people are fully embraced by the denomination.
“We’re fully committed to the unity of the Church, and we will do everything in our power to facilitate a denomination that truly welcomes all—including those whose views may differ from the decisions reached by the Assembly today,” Ellison wrote in a press release. “We look forward to an ever deeper understanding, not only of marriage but also of our common bonds of faith.”
The Presbyterian vote is part of a larger progressive shift among several Mainline Christian denominations around the issue of homosexuality — especially marriage equality. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the PC(USA) have all passed overtures and resolutions allowing for the ordination of gay priests and pastors in recent years, but until recently, the specific issue of gay marriage has either been tabled or only partially addressed at most denominational conventions. However, as more and more states move to legalize marriage equality, the issue of whether or not pastors can perform same-sex marriages has become a flashpoint for several religious groups, with progressive Christian organizations such as More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network becoming increasingly vocal about the need for pastors to be able to perform same-sex marriages in places where it is legal.
Unsurprisingly, the surge of activism among pro-LGBT Christians has provoked controversy among Christians, leading some denominations to attempt to minimize conflict by adopting policies which, like the overture the PC(USA) just passed, offer a phased approached to marriage equality. The Episcopal Church technically only endorses the blessing of same-sex unions, which is theologically and legally distinct from a religious marriage. But since individual bishops ultimately have the power to allow priests to perform same-sex marriages, Episcopal priests in progressive dioceses — mostly in states where same-sex marriage is legal — have actually been performing same-sex marriages for years. Similarly, the ELCA effectively allowed its ministers to begin performing same-sex marriages in 2009, but the decision to do so is left up to individual pastors and congregations, and the denomination’s official position on same-sex marriage is one of “bound conscience” — that is, they recognize their members hold different positions on homosexuality.
In lieu of formal denominational votes, progressive Christians in the United Methodist Church (UMC) are using creative, activist-minded strategies to push for LGBT equality within their pews. Last year Rev. Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor from Central Pennsylvania, was thrust into the national spotlight when the UMC, which does not formally support marriage equality, reprimanded, suspended, and defrocked him for overseeing his son’s same-sex wedding. But since then, a groundswell of progressive Methodists have shown their support for Schaefer’s cause: a group of more than 50 United Methodist pastors jointly officiated a same-sex marriage to show unity with his ideals, at least two bishops have expressed their support for his actions, and some bishops are now refusing to take up church discipline trials for Methodist pastors who perform marriages for LGBT people. Schaefer is set to appeal the denomination’s decision this weekend, with the possibility of being reinstated as a minister if the UMC Judicial Council rules in his favor.
Even conservative evangelical Christians, who are traditionally staunchly opposed to homosexuality and have publicly opposed same-sex marriage, are beginning to rethink their stance on LGBT issues. Several leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have questioned the denomination’s hardline stance against LGBT people in recent months — including one church pastor who openly espouses a gay-affirming theology — and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is planning to meet in October to discuss “the Gospel, homosexuality, and the future of marriage.” In addition, Matthew Vines, a young evangelical Christian, released a book this spring that provoked outrage and support in the broader evangelical community for making the biblically-based case for accepting homosexuality.