Presbyterian Church Assembly Votes to Make Room for Marriage Equality in Their Constitution

Kaci and Holly Clark-Porter met as students at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. When they decided to get married, they grieved at not being able to have their commitment ceremony in the school’s Shelton Chapel. After a landmark vote in the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly Thursday, gay and lesbian couples may now be able to have such ceremonies in Shelton Chapel — and marry there, once Texas legalizes gay marriage.

The assembly voted 429 to 175 to change the denomination’s constitutional definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two persons.” To become church law, a majority of the church’s 172 presbyteries (collections of churches grouped based on geography) have to approve the measure. In the meantime, pastors in equality states are empowered to perform marriages starting tomorrow when the assembly closes.

“It reaffirms the covenant and promises that congregants make to provide for, nurture and support this baptized person throughout their whole life,” Kaci said. “For a lot of people, marriage is a part of that journey. Everything is aligning, and the church can now live more fully into that covenant.”

A similar vote failed narrowly in 2012. Folks like Alex McNeill, the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, have been working tirelessly since then to ensure a different result this time. If presbyteries vote to change the constitution, the denomination would become the largest in the U.S. to affirm same-sex unions.

“I am amazed by the work of the Holy Spirit in the General Assembly this week,” McNeill said. “Many people have thoughtfully discerned where God is calling this denomination and that was evident by how respectfully the conversation on marriage unfolded. I am feeling grateful to my denomination for recognizing what we have long felt from God: that same-sex relationships are blessed to be marriages.”

Folks react to the PCUSA vote on Thursday. Photo by Ray Bagnuolo

Folks react to the PCUSA vote on Thursday. Photo by Ray Bagnuolo

The vote does more than allow marriages. It establishes the PCUSA as a faith home for LGBT people and affirms that we are beloved by God and part of families of faith. It will hopefully empower churches to work on other issues affecting justice for queer people and all oppressed groups and create space for dialogue on queer theology and the role of faith in queer people’s lives.

Although the church as an institution has frequently and viciously rejected queer people, McNeill, who is transgender, said his faith made him feel less alone when he struggled with his gender transition.

“In the Bible, there are so many stories about God completely changing people’s understandings of themselves, even changing people’s names,” he said. “You can be walking down the road one day and have a new identity, a new understanding of who you are – you can go from Saul to Paul, Jacob to Israel.”

The church faces a difficult road ahead. It’s predicted that many members and churches will leave the denomination. Since 2012,  about 140 churches have joined ECO, a Presbyterian denomination created by churches who felt the denomination was becoming too liberal, in part a response to the church’s 2010 decision to ordain gay and lesbian clergy. Even in this moment of celebration, there is grief at what will be a very difficult road for congregations and members whose theology conflicts with the decision. But denomination leaders will work to help the church stay whole and move forward into a new stage of its life.

“The apostle Paul tells us that ours is, in fact, ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ as ‘ambassadors of Christ,’ and he died for us so that we might be reconciled, that we might become reconcilers,” said  Jeff Bridgman, who moderated the Marriage and Civil Unions Committee at the assembly.

For denominations like PCUSA, there’s a lot more to it than just voting to affirm gay marriages, said Alison Amyx, a senior editor at LGBT Christian organization Believe Out Loud.

One of the general challenges is going to be for people to look beyond just opening the doors and to really see what that means, especially for the denominations that are more progressive. Just because you are affirming and welcoming doesn’t mean you know what to do [when] a trans person walks through the door. They have to go deeper. It’s not just a stamp of approval, it should be integrated into the life of the congregation.

So the work of More Light and other groups will continue. Holly and Kaci are in the process of creating Big Gay Church, a national organization based in Delaware that will be a resource for LGBT Christians and those who love them. They both faced challenges as queer Christians — Holly was disowned from her family at one point, and Kaci struggled as a college minister at a less-than-open congregation. Now, they have the opportunity to ease the journey for others in the future.

Kaci and Holly Clark-Porter

Kaci and Holly Clark-Porter

“I’ve got this grant, I’m paid to do something interesting,” Holly said. Originally, she didn’t plan to use the grant from 1,001 Worshipping Communities to create an LGBT based project, but Kaci helped her realize that’s where her call was. “We like to think of ourselves as pastors who just happen to be gay, but that’s what people want to talk to us about, and that’s who seeks us for pastoral care.”

As more people, congregations and denominations are acknowledging that Christian and queer are not mutually exclusive identities, such work will become even more necessary.

As we work to update our Book of Order in the coming year, we will also work to help our congregations think deeply about what welcome feels like within their congregations and how they as people of faith can make a difference for LGBTQ people in the communities where they live,” said McNeill.

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Audrey is a Texan living in Managua, Nicaragua. She loves journalism, country dancing and talking to strangers. Follow her on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

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12 Comments

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    I cried a bit when I heard this news. I’m no longer in the PCUSA after the 2010 vote to ordain glb clergy made it clear I wasn’t welcome in my old church, but the Presbyterian Church has a special place in my heart as the denomination I grew up in. I’m looking forward to see how this shakes out in the churches.

    Also, nice write up! And thank you for linking to all these glbt Christian groups.

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      I teared up, too! I left the PCUSA slightly earlier than that, but for similar reasons. I still know many in my ‘church of origin’ who are profoundly affected by this long process, and for those who have hung on through it, I am beyond happy.

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    This is great new, but growing up PCUSA (and now not spiritual at all) I’m not too surprised. I grew up thinking all protestants were as liberal as the leaders in my church seemed but did I learn I was wrong when we went on a youth mission trip with some people from another denomination who did not take to kindly to my budding queerity. One of the Presbyterian preachers came and talked to me about it and I knew that it was more important to be kind and companionate, than to be hate and dogma filled in that church (versus the other church bunking with us). But keep in mind that this is just one branch of Pres, the others are pretty hardline conservative

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    I’m glad that the PCUSA now allows the affirming congregations within it to perform marriages. It’s a strangely worded Authoritative Interpretation though. It only allows marriages where it’s legal. What if you get married in a marriage equality state and then want to have a religious ceremony in your home church in a non-marriage equality state? I’ve not seen any commentary on that and the way it’s worded, I can’t tell if everyone’s avoiding that or what.

    I also thing it’s worth noting that the PCUSA really runs the gamut. I grew up in the conservative side (this may push that church to leave) and came back in my late 30s for another 10 year stint before leaving for good (it wasn’t all that different from the church I grew up in, I just didn’t know any better). You really need to kick the tires on them and don’t assume every PCUSA church is welcoming and will marry you. What finally pushed my wife and I out was when we were getting married and had to rent someone else’s church. I don’t think the situation would be any different after this vote in that church.

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    I grew up in a smaller, more conservative Presbyterian denomination, and I saw a lot of posts on Facebook after this news came out that made my heart kinda sad. “don’t worry, it’s not our denomination that did this!!” type stuff.

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    A while ago, I worked at the denominational HQ. my heart goes out to the staff there who will have to deal with the vituperative email and phone calls that will flood in over the next few weeks.

    That said, I’m pleasantly surprised by how quickly the PC(USA) has moved on this.

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    Thanks for the article! I don’t know much about the Presbyterian church hierarchy, though I attended the Presbyterian church down the street with my family throughout my childhood. I was never baptized nor became an official member, but I worked in the church nursery for several years and attend services a number of times each year.

    When my wife and I were looking to hold a public celebration of our marriage after going out of the area for the legal part, we invited the minister and his wife over for dinner. We talked about our interest in holding the reception in the church fellowship hall. He was quite open to the idea. Our plan was to have our pagan ceremony at a park down the street and then the reception at the church. When the weather became snowy and icy the minister insisted that we have the ceremony at the church. So we held it in the fellowship hall in our state that doesn’t allow gay marriage this spring. It was a bit odd, knowing that the church as a whole did not support our union, but still being able to and wanting to have our reception there.

    A few years ago PFLAG started meeting in the church. Some members were upset and ultimately the group had to find a different church in town. At least there is some positive change towards increased kindness.

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