New Rules Mean Gay Presbyterian Couples Can Have Church Weddings

LGBT rights have divided Presbyterians before, but marriage equality has been approved by their General Assembly.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 24, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

The 260 worshippers at Arizona’s University Presbyterian Church don't love that their state still outlaws same-sex marriage, but they're elated that their faith now officially embraces it.

After decades of heated debate, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. voted late last week to allow ministers to officiate same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and to change their official definition of marriage, switching the phrasing from “a man and a woman” to “two people.”

That leaves Arizona out of the LGBT nuptials game for now, but prayers are being sent all the time for that to change.

“This is a sign that the tide is turning and people are starting to recognize that monogamous, committed, homosexual relationships are not evil,” said Rev. Eric Ledermann, a pastor at the Tempe church. “It’s [homosexuality] not a lifestyle choice, they are living out their true identity and that’s what we want to bless and we want to honor."

Across the U.S., the Presbyterian Church has about 1.8 million followers—all with a wide range of social and political views. Ledermann’s congregation is in the minority, he said, as one that is extremely open and supportive of gay worshippers and their rights. The church is located near Arizona State University, drawing students, staff, and faculty from the college, and Tempe is an outpost of liberalism in a vastly conservative state, said Ledermann.

Presbyterian gay marriages will be able to go forward in Washington, D.C., and the 19 states that have legalized same-sex marriage. But before the Presbyterian constitution is amended to reflect the new definition of marriage, it must still be approved by a majority of the 172 presbyteries, or regional bodies. Although it’s a promising sign that the amendment passed by wide margins during the General Assembly last week, with 71 percent of voters in favor, the Presbyterian Church has a history of ideological differences that can splinter the group.

In 2008, a pro-gay marriage measure was shot down by the Presbyterian Church with a notable 540 votes against and only 161 in favor. When the issue was revisited a few years later, it was voted down again, but by much narrower margins. Since 2011, when the denomination voted to allow the ordination of openly gay clergy, hundreds of churches have peeled off, opting for more traditional denominations or dissolving altogether. Some called last week’s vote in support of gay marriage an abomination.

“Only declining denominations reject historic Christian standards and in nearly every case that rejection reinforces the decline,” Mark Tooley, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, told the Catholic News Agency.

But some say that by now, same-sex marriage and LGBT equality are topics the Presbyterian community is well-versed in, and the recent pro-gay decision may not be as divisive as it once was. Most of the churches that would leave the denomination over same-sex marriage have probably already done so, said Mike Hoyt, pastor of South Carolina’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, whose worshippers have a wide range of ideological beliefs.

"The decision of the General Assembly will certainly result in many conversations, but they won't be new conversations in the church," Hoyt told Greenville Online.

And for those still wary of the pro-gay changes, the amendment to the Presbyterian resolution maintains a vestige of conservatism. While it defines marriage as a “unique commitment between two people,” it adds that this bond is “traditionally [between] a man and a woman.”

The changes in the Presbyterian Church mirror those of other religious denominations as they move toward a more liberal interpretation of their constitutions.

The Episcopal church began allowing same-sex marriages last year, and just last weekend, an openly transgender Episcopal priest became the first to preach at Washington's National Cathedral. There are currently more than 1,000 registered “Open and Affirming” churches in the U.S., which welcome the LGBT community, and this number is growing. Overall among Catholics and white mainline Protestants, about six in 10 now support gay marriage, according to a 2014 survey by Pew Research.

Ledermann hopes that his church's new stance on gay marriage will bring back some members who may have felt alienated and left the denomination in the past.