The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced on Tuesday that a change in its Book or Order will allow ministers and “teaching elders” to perform same-sex marriages.
Amendment 14-F was proposed and approved by delegates at last year’s 221st General Assembly, and as of Tuesday night the national governing body had received 87 yes votes, resulting in the majority required to confirm the decision made by the church’s commissioners last year. The change in the group’s Book of Order will take effect on June 21.
“This is something we have been studying, praying about and trying to discern for a long time,” said the Rev. Donna Elia of the First United Presbyterian Church of Hoosick Falls and also Moderator of the Albany Presbytery, which serves 11 counties in upstate New York and one in Vermont. “For people who have supported this amendment, it’s a long time coming. This issue and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people is something the denomination has been working on for 30 years.”
The wording in the church’s Book of Order, which had restricted marriage to male and female unions only, was struck and replaced with the following:
“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. 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. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.”
According to Elia, the new amendment gives ministers the opportunity to either perform a same-sex ceremony or to decline.
“While I am in support of the amendment, it does allow ministers the discretion to decide when to and when not to officiate at a wedding,” said Elia. “Taking away the gender of the couple, ministers have always had the freedom to discern when and when not to officiate, and this doesn’t change that. It honors the conscience of those who agree with the amendment and those who don’t, and in that way it strikes a real balance, which is very much keeping with the Presbyterian tradition.”
The Albany Presbytery, the regional governing body for Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), includes congregations from Albany, Columbia, Fulton, Greene, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Warren and Washington counties in New York and Rutland County in Vermont. Elder H. Daniel Rogers, stated clerk of the Albany Presbyterian, said the upstate New York group was one of 17 Presbyteries nationwide that proposed Amendment 14-F last June.
Kathy Gorman-Coombs of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Glenville was happy to see the amendment become part of the Book of Order.
“What happened last June was procedural, and now we have this much more definitive change in the definition of marriage within our constitution,” she said. “The new wording defines marriage according to the unique nature of the commitment, not the gender of the participants. It’s about the genuine holiness of love, not someone’s gender.”
Gorman-Coombs, who has performed just one same-sex wedding ceremony — in Vermont last October — conceded that not every churchgoing Presbyterian will be pleased to see the change in the Book of Order.
“It’s been an issue for several decades in our church, and in recent years there’s been a lot of work done to address commonality and work past the divisiveness,” she said. “It’s great to see that the reconciling work has been done, and while I’m not speaking for everyone in our denomination or our congregation, I think it’s very good news.”
The Albany Presbytery voted in January to support the amendment, 66 to eight, with one abstention. Pastor Michael Burkley at the Rockwell Falls Presbyterian Church in Lake Luzerne was one of those voting no. He said his church has already lost several families due to the amendment’s proposal last year.
“My final authority is scripture, and I do not see where the scripture allows or blesses same-sex relationships,” said Burkley. “I know other people see it differently and will suggest that scripture encourages and demands our approval of people in genuine, committed relationships. I’ve heard those arguments and they are valid, but none are sufficiently strong enough to convince me of that.”
Burkley is hopeful his congregation doesn’t lose any more members because of the new ruling.
“Our group here at Rockwell Falls has very wide viewpoints on many issues and that’s why I love the Presbyterian Church,” he said. “We can disagree about things and still love each other. Some of us will be glad about the amendment, and there will be some who will be sad. But we’re all called to love everyone, and I’m certainly not going to condemn anyone who disagrees with me.”
Rogers said that as of Wednesday afternoon, the vote to approve the amendment was 87 in favor and 42 against. There are 171 individual Presbyteries making up The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and each group has until June to cast its vote.