The session of the church I get to serve, First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, Wisconsin, met for a special meeting on Saturday morning, April 11, and something wonderful happened. About half way through a Spirit-filled 2 hour meeting the session voted unanimously that “At First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, WI requests for Session consideration of marriage will not be denied based upon sexual orientation.”
It wasn’t wonderful because we are the first church to take such a position. It wasn’t wonderful because we are the only church to have a unanimous vote. It was wonderful because we somehow got to this place in April that back in August none of us ever would have imagined. The whole session, even those who personally don’t believe that same sex marriage is part of God’s intention for creation, ultimately agree that same sex weddings could happen on our church property. We would not categorically prevent same sex couples from requesting a wedding, and most likely, looking at the make up of at least our current session, if a wedding was requested we would vote to allow it.
What made the unanimity of this vote such a surprise and blessing is that our congregation is not an “activist” congregation. This was in no way a slam dunk. We don’t have predictable opinions on the hot topics of the day. We definitely don’t advocate for any political or theological stances as a whole congregation. This is in part because we are true to our Upper Midwestern style of addressing differences. Which is to say, we don’t go looking for them; we definitely don’t highlight them. You might even say we consider avoidance a spiritual gift. It is also because the congregation I serve is a theologically diverse congregation with a theologically diverse session.
Of course, every congregation is in some sense theologically diverse, but for some that spectrum of diversity ranges from the moderate to an extreme, or maybe somewhat left of center to somewhat right. In our congregation of approximately 220 members the theological spectrum ranges from people who believe in dispensationalist views of the end times (think of the Left Behind series of books and movies) to people who are able to openly express questions about the veracity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways we have stayed together, for better or for worse, is by not spending too much time on issues that might divide us.
But avoidance for any reason was not going to work on marriage equality. Shifts in church and culture were bringing the discussion of marriage equality closer to home. Even two years before marriage equality came to Wisconsin or the PC(USA) I began to look for resources that would help me lead this larger discussion. I was completely underwhelmed. None of the resources I found fit our reality. While I assumed we couldn’t possibly be the only church out there that wasn’t completely “pro” or “con,” in many ways it felt like we were alone as we moved through a season of discernment about same-sex marriage and our worship and ministry.
Most resources had a clear bias. They all seemed to argue for a particular outcome, either to help convince someone to change his or her mind or bolster an opinion already held. This didn’t seem helpful for a couple of reasons. First, I have rarely found it effective to try to teach someone into a new opinion with books, studies, or lectures. Second, I had became more and more certain as we had been having conversations about marriage and sexuality in our church for at least a year that our goal didn’t need to be getting everyone to agree; our goal needed to be to determine how we would live and behave as the church when we all don’t agree. My goal shifted from trying to get as close to unanimity as possibly to trying to nurture a culture in our church where participants are encouraged to faithfully interpret Scripture according to their understanding of the guidance of the Holy Spirit and live according to their faith-filled interpretation even when that interpretation differs from the interpretation of the person sitting next to them in the pew.
This shift was crucial for what ended up being a unanimous vote that will allow all marriage requests to be considered without discrimination, while also honoring the responsibility of individual session members to vote according to their discernment of the Spirit and will of God.
How I planned and carried out studies and discussions that moved us toward this vote will be shared in my next post.