In 2014 marriage equality came both in the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the state in which I live, Wisconsin. While my congregation had slowly but surely been talking about marriage and sexuality in one way or another for the previous 12-18 months, this convergence of opinions made the conversation even more important to our context. Now that same sex marriage was legal in Wisconsin, would our congregation be willing to host such weddings on our property?
As I outlined in my previous post, this was not going to be a slam dunk decision for any position in the discussion. Also as I said previously, I realized uniformity of understanding or belief was not the goal toward which we should be working. What we needed to work on was answering the questions – – “Is it a faithful option to remain in congregation where the session has made a decision on marriage that goes against my own belief and interpretation of Scripture?” and “How do I stay with a congregation if I don’t agree with the session’s stance on same-sex marriage?” The reality was that no matter where the session came down, one “side” or another in the congregation was going to wrestle with these questions.
It is my belief that there is room in the PC(USA) and individual congregations for people to disagree on this and many issues. In fact, I believe the foundations of our polity are based on the idea that we will disagree with one another on large and small concerns. Those same foundations also give us ways to live together through our disagreements as we seek to maintain unity in the body of Christ. For this reason I did my best to design a series of small groups, conversations, and classes that grounded us in our rich theological tradition as Presbyterians and gave us opportunities to build relationships with each other across ideological lines through open and honest communication. We set our target date for a session vote in February 2015 (which was late rescheduled for April) and moved forward with prayer and careful conversation.
We began in the fall with five Sunday morning Bible studies held during our usual post-worship education time. The Scriptures used were the seven passages used most commonly to condemn homosexuality: Genesis 18:20–21 and 19:1–29; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Judges 19; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:8–10; Jude 7. There was no agenda to this study other than getting people’s eyes on the actual words and conversations about their own understanding of the text. Although I did my own background study on historical context and original language, I didn’t prepare scripted lessons; we just opened the actual book, and read, and talked.
Next, just before Christmas, I led a three week discussion of the book The Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage by Dr. Mark Achtemeier and the companion video interviews of the author by the Rev. Brian Ellison of the Covenant Network. I realize this is a decidedly “partisan” book. It is also on the “side” with which I identify. However, this book worked as a discussion starter even with our new goal because it is deeply rooted in solid Reformed/Presbyterian theology and practice, it represents the lesser known faith position, it is very accessible reading, and even if you disagree with the author’s conclusion his way of articulating it invites conversation. Conversation was what I was looking for, and conversation is what I got.
The third step in our preparation for a vote included classes held in January. I designed and offered the same 2 hour class three separate times to accommodate a variety of schedules. Continuing with the plan to establish a common base of information and invite conversation I pulled together mostly denominational material on three topics: Presbyterian theology about marriage, the history of official opinions and votes about sexuality, and the historic principles of church order, such as freedom of conscience and mutual forbearance. I planned to present information for about 15-20 minutes in each of four sections of our time together, but had time for us to spend 30 minutes on each topic. What I covered depended in some ways what questions were asked and where the group seemed most interested in going with the conversations.
The final section of our time in each of these January sessions was by far the least familiar and provided the most interesting discussion. It also most directly addressed the goal toward which we were moving – – How could we and how would we live together with a diversity of opinions about same-sex marriage in our congregation? The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity found in the Book of Order, specifically section F-3.00 “Principles of Order and Government,” gave us exactly what we needed for this discussion.
Not surprisingly, most people, save a few of the officers who had been introduced to them at some point, weren’t aware of these historic principles of order and government. This is when I got to get all sorts of geeky-proud of being Presbyterian. This is when I got to confess my love for our church, our theology, and our polity. I love that at our core we are a people who trust that the Holy Spirit really does inspire us. We take this whole “priesthood of all believers” thing so seriously that we’re willing to allow encourage people to read and study Scripture, pray on it and discuss it with others, argue with it and try to understand it as dynamic and relevant. We’re even willing to admit that sometimes people of good faith come to different understandings about important issues. And while we have adopted a method of moving forward in disagreement that relies on the rule of the majority, we never say that the minority has to change their mind to fit in. At our best, we avoid saying, “You’re with us or you’re against us.” Instead we are encouraged to try to find a way forward that binds the individual’s conscience the least.
The last piece of preparation for our vote was a congregational conversation. The session hosted this conversation in our Fellowship Hall during the coffee hour after worship one Sunday in February to give anyone in the congregation the opportunity to speak and be heard. Although I was nervous about the “open mic” format and wondered what kinds of things would be said, overall the experience was a positive one. Those who spoke were mostly in favor of marriage equality at our church, yet some expressed concern over the faithfulness of the decision. We didn’t leave until everyone who wanted to talk was able to talk (only about 30 minutes of discussion actually), and the session offered to continue to listen to members and friends of the church in the 6 weeks leading up to their vote. They explained very clearly their job was not to vote the mind of “constituents,” but to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit, but part of seeking the leading was listening to the body of Christ and the wisdom contained within it.
When we met for the special meeting in mid-April the questions I asked the session to consider were these – – What decision can we make for First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, Wisconsin that will bind the consciences of individual believers the least? What decision will allow the most members of our faith community to live into what they believe the Spirit is calling them to be and do without forcing another to go against their own conscience and understanding of the will of God? The decision the session made unanimously was that we will not to discriminate against same-sex couples who requested marriage on our property. We will consider their requests for marriage the same way we consider any request marriage. Individuals on session have the responsibility to prayerfully vote their conscience, and no consideration of a wedding request will be denied based on sexuality.
There was nothing quick and easy about getting to this place as a congregation. We began discussion on marriage and sexuality almost 2 years ago when no one thought marriage equality would be possible in the state of Wisconsin for some time. We picked up the discussions more purposefully when the General Assembly decisions were made. They intensified again when suddenly same-sex marriages were legal in our community. It felt slow to some of us for whom this issue was long ago decided in our hearts and minds, but I know it felt like we were moving at lightning speed to those for whom this was a difficult subject matter. What I am most joyful over is the grace and compassion with which these conversations occurred, the spirit of generosity and hospitality that hovered over our discussions, and the willingness of all to be led by the Holy Spirit in directions we may never have imagined.
Thanks be to God.
Below I offer some links to resources I created or compiled for our congregation’s conversations. In my first post I lamented how there seemed to be a void among the resources available for churches that were more diverse and seeking a way forward that didn’t immediately alienate their members. I ended up designing my own process to fit my own congregation.
The outline of our January conversations, with links to all of the resources I provided for participants in packets during the class sessions, can be found here.
The sermon I preached the morning after our special session meeting.
The Core Beliefs of First Presbyterian Church of Hudson, WI, including a strong statement on inclusivity.
I am encouraged to hear in the recent video announcement from the Rev. Brian Ellison that the Covenant Network may be taking on the important work of helping congregations figure out how to live and stay together in this new day for marriage equality. I am hopeful that Covenant Network can help in this work.