Presbyterian Church Changes Definition of Marriage to Include Same-Sex Couples

March 18, 2015 | Religion
Presbyterian Church USA has broadened its definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

By David Cruz

It was a technicality, but the vote last night by the Presbytery of the Palisades was the one that officially ratified the change approved by the church’s General Assembly last June. It was one small change in the language of the church’s constitution but one giant leap for the church’s LGBT members.

“State organizations, or Presbyteries as we call them, throughout the country voted yesterday considering an amendment that would change the constitution of the presbyterian church to describe marriage as between two persons, as opposed to between a man and a woman,” said Presbyterian Church at Tenafly Pastor Eileen Lindner.

The change means that Presbyterian clergy will be able to perform same-sex marriages without penalty, but will not be compelled to do so. Congregations will also be allowed to determine whether they will permit same-sex marriages in their sanctuaries.

“It’s been a long process and a very, very difficult one for the church. Many congregations have left the denomination as these decisions have been taken. It has been a test of the church’s ability to continue to be the church, even in the face of really sharp disagreement about an important issue,” Lindner said.

Members of New Jersey’s LGBT community applauded the action. Andrea Bowen is executive director of Garden State Equality.

“It was really exciting. I always see sort of two stories in the LGBT community. One of people who feel they’ve been abandoned by religion, and then this group of people who have really stuck with making sure that different congregations and different denominations are doing right by the LGBT population. It’s a very positive thing,” she said.

Municipal officials across New Jersey have been performing same-sex marriages since 2013, but churches have been slow to embrace the change. For 1.8 million Presbyterians — the largest denomination being the Presbyterian Church USA — last night’s vote was the culmination of three decades of struggle to expand the church’s role in what some members consider to be a cultural, more than a theological, shift. Still, will one church accepting same-sex marriages lead to a rush of new nuptials?

“I don’t expect the floodgates to open,” said Nassau Presbyterian Church Pastor David Davis. “The truth is most of us are doing fewer weddings than we did a decade ago and I don’t expect that to change.”

Clearly not every congregation agreed with the church’s decision. Those that have left will likely not return but the hope here is that one church’s groundbreaking action might inspire similar actions from others.