Presbyterians approve same-sex marriage amendment

By Ellen Kobe

The largest Presbyterian Church denomination, PC(USA), approved an amendment to its Book of Order that recognizes same-sex marriage in the church Tuesday. As approvals needed to vote in favor of the 14-F Amendment steadily increased this winter, those in the Chicago Presbyterian community reflected on what this change means for the Presbytery of Chicago, churches in the city and individuals who identify as LGBTQ.

“The biggest change is that our talk is now matching our walk,” said the Rev. Michael Kirby, pastor at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Garfield Ridge. “Our constitution [will] provide support and legitimacy for same-sex couples that was arguably not there before.”

The “walk” Kirby refers to is an authoritative interpretation of the church’s Book of Order that its General Assembly passed in June 2014. The assembly, which comprises representatives of teaching elders and laypeople from the all of the nation’s presbyteries, voted to give pastors permission to conduct same-sex marriages at their own discretion. This move effectively removed the ban on pastors to perform same-sex marriages but did not require them to do so.

Although PC(USA) churches have been allowed to host same-sex marriages for nearly a year, over half of the country’s 171 presbyteries were required to vote in favor of the 14-F Amendment in order for the technical language to change in the denomination’s Book of Order.

The Presbytery of Chicago, which comprises 100 PC(USA) churches, is one of the 86 presbyteries in the nation that voted in favor of the amendment — enough for its approval. At a meeting at First Presbyterian Evanston last month, 179 voted in support of the amendment, 60 voted in opposition and eight abstained.

The language supporting same-sex marriage in the Book of Order will take effect in June, one year after the assembly approved the authoritative interpretation.

Tricia Dykers Koenig, national organizer at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians — a Kansas-City-based  organization that works for a fully inclusive church — said that the Chicago PC(USA) community has been relatively progressive about policies related to LGBTQ rights in the past.

Kirby said that his church community has joined the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, the largest religious group that marches in the Chicago Annual Pride Parade. The church has also hosted fundraisers for The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, and Kirby has advocated for marriage equality at the Illinois State House.

“As more and more of the religious communities become not simply tolerant but actively accepting, that can only be a good thing,” Kirby said.

But churches in Chicago are also active in other ways. Shawna Bowman, pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Norwood Park, said that her congregation specifically focuses on the kind of language that is used in liturgy. Since much of the scripture revolves around phrases like, “man and woman,” she tries to alter the words to be more inclusive of all sexual orientations.

Bowman identifies as a queer and is married to a woman. She said that some points of view expressed within the Presbytery of Chicago about 14-F Amendment have upset her in the past.

“To have colleagues stand up and say really mean things about who I am and my family feels really terrible, and it makes me feel angry,” Bowman said. “It feels really hateful to me and really personal, even if they don’t mean it that way.”

The main difference between those who support the 14-F Amendment and those who oppose the change is theological; they interpret the scripture differently.

In Bowman’s perspective, God’s message to love others is inclusive of everyone, no matter their sexual orientation.

“The rule for Christian living is to love God and love your neighbor and to care for your neighbor without limitation,” Bowman said. “There are so many texts in the Bible about being nonjudgmental.”

But the Rev. Dr. Ray Hylton, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Evanston, said that his disagreement with the 14-F Amendment does not come from a place of hate, but from his understanding of the liturgy.

“When you read the scriptures carefully, there is no where we find any support for the decision we made or are making of the 14-F Amendment,” Hylton said.

Regardless, Hylton recognizes that the majority of the Presbytery of Chicago supported the amendment and appreciates that there is language that allows pastors to decline requests to conduct same-sex marriages.

“This amendment is permissive, but it’s not coercive,” Dykers Koenig said. “There’s room for people who disagree in it. It does not establish any mandate. It just allows people who wish to do it, to do it.”

Hylton said that if a same-sex couple asked him to perform their marriage, he would decline the request because of his theological understanding of the scripture.

But he noted that he has declined a few heterosexual marriages before, citing problems with the couples’ motivations to marry or incompatibility with each another.

Bowman said she will continue to perform same-sex marriages as she has done so in the past. And as a general member of the faith community, she said that she is glad that her marriage will be officially recognized by PC(USA).

“It will feel really affirming that there’s no barrier between me and my family and my family and the church,” Bowman said.

Dykers Koenig said that although she believes passing the 14-F Amendment in the PC(USA) is a large achievement for the Presbyterian community, her organization will still have work to do in promoting inclusiveness throughout the denomination.

“Just because you change the law, doesn’t mean you change prejudice,” Dykers Koenig said.

Photo top: Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church is one of the 100 PC(USA) churches in the Presbytery of Chicago. (Ellen Kobe/Medill)