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Religious Tolerance logo

About the Presbyterian Church (USA),
marriage equality and other LGBT topics.

Part 5: 2015-FEB/MAR:
Presbyteries vote on marriage the amendment.
A majority passes the amendment.
Church recognizes same-sex marriages as valid.
Exit of many members & congregations likely.

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The acronym "LGBT" refers to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender
persons & transsexuals. "LGB" refers to lesbians, gays and bisexuals.

The acronym "SSM" refers to same-sex marriage.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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2015: Presbyteries are voting on the amendment to redefine marriage:

In mid-2014, delegates to the denomination's General Assembly had voted 429 to 175 in favor of rewording the Book of Order to change the definition of marriage to include all loving, committed couples -- both opposite-sex and same-sex. This amendment was passed on to each of the Church's 172 presbyteries for discussion and a vote. Each presbytery was asked to finish these tasks sometime during the first five months of 2015. A total of 87 or more presbyteries was required to pass the amendment and implement the change.

Activity by the three presbyteries in the state of Alabama was typical of that seen elsewhere within the country:

  • 2015-FEB-12: The Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley is composed of a group of PC(USA) congregations in central Alabama. During the debate on the revision:
    • The Rev. Ed Hurley, pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church opposed the measure. He said:

      "We really don't need to jump ahead of the Episcopalians on this issue."

    [The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama has taken an intermediate position. They will not allow their congregations to actually marry any same-sex couples. But they will be able to bless same-sex marriages that had been previously solemnized elsewhere.]

    • Rev. Shannon Webster, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham said:

      "I'd just like to be able to do my job and marry couples when the state of Alabama says okay."

    • Rev. Terry Newland, a executive from the Synod who was present at the meeting, said:

      "You can be a faithful Presbyterian on either side of the issue. Churches and ministers have never been required to do gay marriages and they still aren't required to." 1

    Delegates representing all of the congregations within the presbytery voted 75 to 39 in favor of approving the revision to the Book of Order. 1

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  • 2015-FEB-21: The Presbytery of North Alabama includes 30 congregations. Representatives from each congregation met at the First Presbyterian Church in Florence, AL. They discussed and voted upon a series of eight proposed amendments passed by the denomination's General Assembly during 2014, of which the most important to the future of the denomination involved the re-definition of marriage in their Book of Order.

    Representatives to the meeting voted 28 to 24 in favor of ratifying the amendment. This was much narrower margin than the vote taken previously by the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, presumably because the folks in northern Alabama are generally more conservative than those in mid-Alabama. The Presbytery of North Alabama became the 57th presbytery in the denomination to pass the resolution.

    Kay Campbell, writing for AL.com, said:

    "Rev. Tom Lovell, head of the staff at Faith Presbyterian Church in Huntsville and also moderator of the Presbytery meeting, prayed for a unity that goes deeper than those opinions."

    He prayed:

    'We are different minds on this topic, but we pray that we are of the same heart, We pray that we recognize and respect one another's opinions in a way that brings glory to you." 2

  • 2015-FEB-28: Representatives from the laity and clergy in the Presbytery of South Alabama voted 34 to 22 to reject the proposed re-definition of marriage in the denomination's Book of Order. They were the 29th presbytery in the U.S. to have rejected the amendment.

    This vote made the national tally about 64 presbyteries in favor of the measure and 29 opposed. 3 Revising the Book of Order requires a majority of at least 87 of the 172 presbyteries to vote in favor of the change.

    Rev. Buz Wilcoxon, senior pastor of the Springhill Presbyterian Church in Mobile, AL led the group in a prayer before the vote. He said:

    "We give you thanks for the unity that bonds us together. May we be one as you and Christ are one."

    Rev. George R. Sinclair Jr., pastor of Government Street Presbyterian Church in Mobile, AL, presumably favors allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions but not marriage. He said:

    "If this amendment were not changing the definition of marriage, I'd be in favor of it. I agree with the intention to honor the civil liberties of gay and lesbian people, [but] I don't think changing the definition of marriage is the way to do that."

    Mary Burns, an elder at Trinity Presbyterian in Fairhope, AL, said:

    "A lot of us are tired of this because it's pulling the church apart. The church should lead the culture and not be part of the culture. There is a time when the church needs to say no."

    Rev. Steven Kurtz, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Gulf Shores, AL supported the amendment. He said:

    "We have a chance to open the door to people among us who love each other and want to stay together." 4

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2015-MAR-17: A majority of PC(USA) presbyteries vote to redefine marriage within the denomination:

Melody K. Smith, writing for the Presbyterian News Service, reported:

"While the Office of the General Assembly is still awaiting official tallies, it appears that a majority of the 171 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have [sic] approved a change to the current description of marriage in the PC(USA)’s Constitution.

At its meeting on Tuesday, March 17, 2015, Palisades Presbytery [in New Jersey] became the 86th presbytery to approve an amendment to the PC(USA)’s Book of Order.

The new language reads: 

'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. 

In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges'."  5

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Many in the denomination did not expect the definitive 86th vote to be cast until late 2-15-APR or sometime in May.

The amendment is largely symbolic in nature, and will not have any impact on whether an individual pastor or congregation will marry same-sex couples. At their national meeting in 2014-JUN, the delegates had also passed a motion that allows ministers and sessions to decide whether to marry same-sex couples in their church. (A session in Presbyterian denominations is sometimes called a consistory or church board. It is a body of elected elders governing each local congregation.) 6 However, for a denomination to change its definition of marriage has great significance to many of its members.

The amendment will have no impact on pastors and sessions that reject marriage equality for their congregation. They will be free to refuse to marry any and all loving, committed couples of the same sex. The denomination will not require them to marry such couples. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives absolute protection from civil lawsuits to all clergy who refuse to marry couples for any reason.

Back in 2014-JAN, Rev. Dr. Holton Siegling Jr, pastor at Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church in West Knoxville, TN wrote about the vote by the presbyteries. He said that if the majority votes:

"... to affirm the proposed change to the constitution of the PC(USA), thereby reinterpreting the definition of marriage, it will not change how God has defined marriage and will therefore not be binding to the conscience of those who believe differently. ... While our Session has felt called to affirm marriage as [restricted to] a most blessed spiritual as well as physical union between a man and a woman, such a conviction is not binding for those who feel differently, nor is anyone who disagrees any less a member of our church family. We have and continue to be engaged in conversations about important denominational issues and about how we are called to faithfully respond." 7

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been and remains in a difficult position. No resolution to the debate over marriage equality was without pain. Much of their funding comes from older members who are generally opposed to same-sex marriage. Yet large majorities of their older teens and young adults strongly favor marriage equality. They find it difficult to remain in a denomination that has conservative views concerning sexual orientation, gender identity, and science generally. They are leaving in large numbers and few seem to be returning later in life. Now that their denomination has taken this major step, many might be more likely to stay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Greg Garrison, "Presbyterian group in central Alabama votes to approve gay marriage," Alabama Media Group, 2015-FEB-12, at: http://www.al.com/
  2. Kay Campbell, "North Alabama Presbyterians narrowly OK same-sex marriages," Alabama Media Group, 2015-FEB-21, at: http://www.al.com/
  3. "Discernment and engagement: Marriage -- Information and Resources," PC(USA), at: http://oga.pcusa.org/
  4. Carol McPhail, "Presbyterians in south Alabama vote no on same-sex marriage amendment," Alabama Media Group, 2015-FEB-28, at: http://www.al.com/
  5. Melody K. Smith, "Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approves marriage amendment," Presbyterian Church (USA), 2015-MAR-17, at: https://www.pcusa.org/
  6. "Session (Presbyterianism)," Wikipedia, as on 2015-JAN-06, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  7. Becca Habegger, "Presbyterian church denomination to vote on same-sex marriage," WBIR, 2015-JAN-14, at: http://www.wbir.com/

Copyright © 2015 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2015-MAR-25
Last update: 2016-JAN-19
Author: B.A. Robinson
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