TIME Religion

What Affirming Same-Sex Marriage Means for the Presbyterian Church

On June 19, the denomination I love and have been privileged to serve as a pastor for eleven years became a more just, inclusive, and Christ-like place. Here's what that change does, and does not, mean

When the results flashed on the screen in the convention center—60% in favor of giving pastors the discretion to perform same-sex weddings in states where it’s legal—I didn’t cry.

When my Facebook feed lit up with celebratory posts and the Presbyterian Church (USA) logo rendered in rainbow colors, I smiled—but still I didn’t cry.

Later that day, I ran into a dear friend, a pastor from Chicago who’s been fighting for this change for years. I hugged him hard and called dibs on his wedding, whenever that blessed time should be. Again the tears didn’t come.

It was only at the end of the week, on the plane bound for home, when the full impact of the General Assembly’s decision hit me. The trigger? A song on the iPod: “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors. Yes, after the intensity of being one of 650 commissioners at our biennial meeting in Detroit and casting a historic vote, it was a bouncy pop anthem—a song with banjo, for heaven’s sake—that finally opened the floodgates.

Thursday, June 19 was not the best day of my life. But it certainly ranks in the top twenty, somewhere between getting my seminary acceptance letter and that perfect October day driving around California wine country with the top down. On that day, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the second largest Christian denomination to affirm same-sex marriage, after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. (The United Church of Christ has led the way on this for almost a decade, but they’re about half our size.)

With Thursday’s vote, the denomination I love and have been privileged to serve as a pastor for eleven years became a more just, inclusive, and Christ-like place. Now, members of our churches can be married by the same pastors who may have baptized and confirmed them, visited them in the hospital, and called on them to teach, to sing in the choir and to count the offering on Sunday morning.

It’s important to know what the change does and doesn’t mean. Last week’s ruling (called an Authoritative Interpretation) gives pastors and churches the latitude to perform same-sex weddings, but doesn’t require anyone to do so. This will be small comfort to some who are convinced the PC(USA) is abandoning its biblical roots and kowtowing to cultural norms. My top-twenty happy day was one of grief for a decent-sized chunk of the church, and it’s a heady thing to cast a vote that will cause pain to others. But we who celebrate this change have not abandoned the Bible. By affirming the right of committed gay couples to make life-long vows to one another, we are seeking to walk in the Way of Jesus, who stood with the outcast and proclaimed their full humanity.

The Assembly took a second action that day—we voted 71%-29% to amend our constitution’s paragraph describing marriage—an amendment that must be ratified by a majority of our regional bodies, called presbyteries, over the next year. In typical Presbyterian style, the language was a compromise: marriage is a civil contract between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” This wording describes the world as it is for a growing number of states, but also nods to historical realities.

The PC(USA) has lost a number of churches in the last few years since clearing the way for LGBT persons to be ordained as pastors, elders and deacons. More will undoubtedly leave, not pacified by six words in a subordinate clause. But we hope the language will give some conservative-minded folks a place to stand. The Presbyterian Church is rarely the first one to the table on matters of justice, but when we do get there, we try to bring as many people as possible with us. Whether we’re successful this time remains to be seen.

There are congregations who’ve been clamoring for these changes. Mine isn’t one of them. I serve a small congregation with folks all over the political and theological spectrum. We’re located in Virginia, a state with one of the most restrictive constitutional amendments in the country. But it’s currently on appeal, and even opponents of marriage equality acknowledge its inevitability. When the time comes for my church to confront this issue personally, we will do so with vigorous conversation, mutual forbearance, and no small measure of humor. I’m proud to be part of a denomination that trusts us to make that decision faithfully for our context.

And when my friend in Chicago ties the knot, I’ll be ready to go, with my clergy robe, Book of Common Worship… and yes, my Bible too.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a pastor, speaker, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs and a forthcoming book, Spirituality for the Smartphone Age. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser