I love weddings. All the excitement, hope, love, beauty, romance. The expectations and plans for the future. Two people coming together, building something strong, creating a bond, which will carry them through the years and the unforeseen things those years may bring to them.
I’m well aware of the statistics. I know that half the couples I marry may end up signing divorce papers. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve felt the heartbreak and wept my own tears as I’ve seen the breaking of vows, the dissolution of marriages.
And yet, when a couple comes to me and asks me to marry them, I am delighted. Yes! I say. Absolutely.
And when that couple is gay? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Transgender? What is a clergy person to do?
The Law of the Land
As of this writing, there are still twenty-eight states that define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Slowly, ever so slowly, one state at a time, the laws for marriage equality creep through our land. There are six states, as well as the District of Columbia, which issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Five states allow civil unions, providing state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples. Washington and Maryland each have Marriage Equality bills that have been signed, but have not yet gone into effect.[i] California’s Prop. 8 has been declared unconstitutional and so we await the next step in that state’s legal battle.
Faith communities seem to be as slow, if not slower, to move on this issue than the states. For mainline Christian churches, which tend to be the more progressive Christian bodies, this is still a deeply divisive issue.
In 1985 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ passed a resolution calling on all of their congregations to declare themselves to be “open and affirming,” which means that they are non-discriminatory when it comes to staffing and membership. In 2005, the General Synod went even further, calling for congregations to support legislation for same gender marriage and to be in prayer for equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender.
Many people are aware that the Episcopal Church caused a furor naming openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop in 2003, but few remember that the church broke ground years earlier, in 1977, by ordaining Ellen Barrett, who was also openly homosexual.[ii]
In 1997, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my denomination, urged the enactment of “…legislation on local, state and national levels which will end the denial of civil rights and the violation of civil liberties for reasons of sexual orientation.”[iii]
These actions may seem few and far between, they may seem insignificant in the larger picture of the multitude of denominations in existence, but they are examples of the effort being made throughout the more progressive faith communities to address a difficult issue. Mainline churches, with their make-up of both traditional and progressive members, find themselves struggling with many controversial issues, marriage equality being no exception. Those I’ve mentioned, as well as others, will continue to work through their “discernment” processes as they determine whether or not to become open and affirming congregations (and denominations), just as the states in which they are located will work through the legalities.
The Clergy Response
For some members of the clergy, the issue of whether or not to preside over same gender weddings is a no brainer. If the couple is truly committed to one another, has met the requirements set forth by that particular faith community (e.g. couples’ counseling), and there are no red flags that make the clergy person hold up a stop sign (e.g. an abusive relationship), there may be no reason to turn the couple away.
It may be the Unitarian Universalists who were at the forefront of the equal rights movement for GLBTQs in the community of faith. Their support dates back to 1970, even before the Episcopaleans ordained Ellen Barrett. And UU clergy have been holding religious weddings and holy unions for several decades. They even have a downloadable Unitarian Universalist Same Sex Wedding Guide.
For Reform Jewish rabbis and congregations in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who believe that all human beings are created in the divine image, this has almost been a non-issue since 1993, when they stated, “’committed lesbian and gay couples are denied the benefits routinely accorded to married heterosexual couples’; they resolved that full legal equality for lesbians and gays requires legal recognition of their relationships.” Likewise, members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis have become increasingly more inclusive over the years and in 2000 approved a “Resolution On Same Gender Officiation” giving rabbis the option of presiding at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies if they wish.[iv]
The issue is not as clear for many of the rest of us and the congregations we serve or the denominations in which we were ordained. To be fair, most of us, like the Reformed Jews, believe that all humans are created in the divine image. While we might “forget” or we seem to tweak the belief a bit when it inconveniences us, or when it messes with our other theological beliefs, we do believe that. So, given all this, what do the clergy decide?
There seem to be three groups of clergy addressing the issue of marriage equality:
- Clergy who are against marriage equality and will not perform same gender weddings
- Clergy who are for marriage equality and will not perform same gender weddings
- Clergy who are for marriage equality and will perform same gender weddings
The No & No Group: The first of these groups is fairly self-explanatory. Their Biblical viewpoint teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Therefore, same-gender marriages/unions are wrong. But, before we judge these pastors, assuming that hatred and judgmentalism guide their decisions, we need to take a closer look.
I’m thankful to non-denominational Pastor”¨Kristin Elizabeth Barr of “ŽCollege Station, TX, for reminding us that conservative beliefs do NOT equate with hatred and small-mindedness. With regards to the passages in the Bible condemning homosexuality (you may have heard them referred to as “clobber passages”) and my mention of people carrying God hates f@#s signs in a previous article, Barr writes, “Her theology regarding those passages is very weak (those passages DO condemn same-sex behavior); I am insulted that she lumped all conservatives into the likes of Westboro Baptist. I am conservative, I don’t believe in same-sex marriage, and I would NEVER EVER, EVER carry a sign that says “God hates fags”. I’m tired of people lumping all conservatives into one group. Most conservatives are NOT haters like Westboro is.”
Likewise, Sally, a friend of mine who is a very devout member of the Latter Day Saints, says, “I do not think performing same-sex marriages is the right thing for a Christian minister to do. The Lord is very clear on His views of homosexuality.”
There is no anger in Sally’s words. There is no hatred for people who are not like her. There is only a deep, abiding faith in her understanding of scripture and the God she has walked with and worshipped her entire life.
The Yes, but No-Can-Do Group: The second group is a little more confusing. Why would a group of people who believe that all people are made in God’s image, are fully deserving of equal rights, and should be able to build their families in loving and peaceful ways refuse to preside over their weddings or holy unions?
I currently serve a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Two of my colleagues in ministry in that denomination have explained two very different decisions regarding this issue. One is retired, has no fear of retribution, and has joyfully presided over holy unions. She says, “What can they do to me? Take away my standing? So what!” The other is young, just starting out on his ministry, and knows that he could put his ordination at risk, thus jeopardizing his career, if he were to perform such a ceremony. With a young family to support, his fears override any other decisions he might make.
Sadly, for some pastors, it is fear that keeps them from taking action. In the denominations that still hold tight reign on their clergy, it is difficult to raise voices and take a stand that might result in loss of employment, home, and stability for one’s family and future.
The Yes, We’re Absolutely with You Group: And then we have the clergy who believe in marriage equality and will perform the ceremonies. Our situations are all very different. For many of us, our ordination is not at stake.”* Disciples, UCCs, Unitarians, we’re all “safe,” as may be others, when it comes to our ordination and our standing. It will not be stripped away.
The same may not be true of our jobs. Some of our congregations wholeheartedly support marriage equality. Some are not quite there. And so, we weigh the risks and decide in favor of what we believe to be right and just.
But, how do clergy make this decision, when the Bible, our “handbook”, if you will, clearly tells us that homosexuality is wrong?
As I mentioned in a previous article, “How My Gay Brother and His Partner are Destroying My Marriage,” we view the Bible differently. We cannot look at the ancient texts as literal scripts for our daily lives. We do not find absolute infallibility. Within those holy texts we find the spirit of truth. We find beauty. We find God. And we find instructions to love God’s people. All of God’s people.
Lauri Clark Strait, a Disciples pastor in Spokane, WA, says, “I will do same-sex marriages because it is the right thing to do. We are all children of God, despite our differences, and we all deserve the same rights.”
Danny Bradfield, a Disciples pastor in Long Beach, CA says, “the only reason I can think of as to why I have chosen to perform same sex weddings is because I find no valid argument not to. It’s kind of like asking, “why do you choose to baptize people who are lefthanded.”
Maria Tafoya, a Disciples pastor in La Puente, CA explains, “I also perform same-sex marriages”¦. I’ve heard no persuasive argument not to and we are all equally children of God who should therefore enjoy equal human rights.”
And then there are the clergy who have much more personal stories to tell. Kellie Rupard-Schorr who has served as both a Disciples
and a Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Churches pastor, is now working as an HIV/AIDS counselor/spiritual care adviser at a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church in El Paso, TX. Rupard-Schorr writes, “As some one who both performs same-sex weddings, and had a same sex wedding (two, actually – a church wedding in 2000, and a legal one in Canada in 2005) – what I can say is that I perform them for the same reason I perform opposite-sex weddings – because two people standing in the presence of God, each other and friends and committing to love each other body and soul is a beautiful, spiritual, transforming thing and if my care for those two people as their pastor can encourage such strength in a loving union, I am humbled and honored to do my part.”
Taking Stands Beyond the Norm
I love weddings. I’ve already stated as much. But I’m torn. Do I continue to preside over wedding ceremonies when it is still not legal, in my state, to wed same gender couples? Granted, it may soon be legal in Washington State, but it is not at this point in time.
I have colleagues who are refusing to perform any wedding ceremonies whatsoever, until it is legal for all to wed.
There are couples that are refusing to wed until all people are legally allowed to marry.
And, I recently learned of Dallas County Judge Tonya Parker who will no longer marry people because “it is not an equal application of the law.”[v]
I have colleagues who are refusing to sign marriage licenses. They will perform the religious ceremony, but will not sign the legal document until such time as it is legal for all to wed. Rev. Tafoya says, “Because it isn’t lawful at this moment to perform state sanctioned same sex marriages, I choose not to sign marriage licenses. I will do the service of Christian marriage but I won’t sign a license for anyone until I can sign them for everyone. The congregation supports me in this decision.”
Another colleague had the opposite viewpoint, responding, “I look at it this way, it is the government that is stopping the same-sex weddings from being legal. Do we want to give them even more money by sending those couples to a judge?”
I have colleagues who must perform same gender weddings elsewhere, because their own congregations do not support them in their decisions.
Long, long ago, in a land far, far away called “Hollywood”, I officiated at a beautiful ceremony. This couple needed, deserved a new life and a future of happiness. They were lovely and laughing, and so full of joy and hope. Their love for one another was almost palpable. It encompassed us all. The entire day was perfect. (The home at which the wedding took place was rather perfect, too!) And I remember that wedding, almost more than any other I have performed, because of the joy of the occasion. But, unbeknownst to many of the members of my congregation, the ceremony was for two women.
Each in our own way, we are boycotting the buses. We are drinking from the wrong water fountains. And we are doing our best to knock the signs of hate and misperception down around us. As it says in the Unitarian Universalist Same-Sex Wedding Guide, “Marriage is bursting out all over. Love, so far, is winning out.”[vi]
*Point of clarification: I was ordained by and hold my standing in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but am currently working in a Presbyterian Church (USA). Only the Disciples can revoke my standing, should I do anything they deem unethical and we do have a Code of Ethics, which I have signed. Nothing in that code mentions Same Gender weddings. Or weddings of any kind.
[iii] Douglas Allen Foster, “The encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell movement,” Wm. B. Eerdmans, (2005)