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Same-sex ruling shakes up Charlotte churches

Last month’s federal court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in North Carolina is causing ripples and waves in houses of worship across the state.

Among recent developments in a North Carolina faith community that remains divided on whether to sanction gay and lesbian weddings:

• Episcopal bishops in Raleigh and Asheville have given their diocesan priests the green light to effectively marry same-sex couples in their churches – including those in Charlotte. But for now, the rite to be used, called “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” is different from the one for marriages of heterosexual couples.

• In a letter last week, United Methodist Bishop Larry Goodpaster reminded clergy in the Western North Carolina Conference that the denomination remains opposed to “same-gender marriage.” Ministers can attend such services, he said. But he added, using denominational language, that any who preside at a same-sex marriage or sign such a marriage certificate could face possible reprimand or even a church trial.

• The Roman Catholic bishops in Charlotte and Raleigh criticized the Oct. 10 court ruling as “unjust.” And in an interview published in last week’s Catholic News Herald, the Rev. John Putnam – judicial vicar of the Charlotte diocese – advised Catholics to refuse invitations to same-sex weddings. To attend, he added, “would be at least tacitly approving sin.”

All this change and resistance to change have spawned a host of reactions in Charlotte-area houses of worship, including acceptance, uncertainty and defiance.

Speaking about the new guidelines for Episcopal churches, the Rev. Jim Pritchett offered words that could apply to the broader reality for many in the state’s faith community.

“This is a period of transition,” said Pritchett, the bishop’s assistant in the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. “So there is going to be some confusion and awkwardness.”

And some frustration – at least for those churches that disagree with their denomination’s stand on this still-controversial issue.

‘That really stings’

Take First United Methodist Church in uptown Charlotte. Its pastor and most of his flock are not happy with the denomination’s ban on gay and lesbian weddings in their and other Methodist sanctuaries.

The Rev. Jonathan Coppedge-Henley, pastor at First United Methodist, said he’s been approached by two gay couples from his church and from friends at another church about marrying them.

“I had to tell them all, ‘No. I can participate in the service, but I can’t preside,’ ” the pastor said. “I mean, that really stings.”

Two days after same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina, First United Methodist voted overwhelmingly – 94 percent – to adopt the church’s first-ever “Welcome Statement.” It says the church believes that the Kingdom of God includes people of all sexual orientations and that “every child of God is welcome in this congregation and we do not discriminate against any group in our midst.”

First United Methodist has also become the first Charlotte church to join “Reconciling Ministries Network,” a national coalition of United Methodist groups that advocate for “persons pushed to the margins,” Coppedge-Henley said, “in particular LGBTQ because they are left out of most church literature.”

The Rev. Patrick Hamrick, one of the associate pastors at First United Methodist, recently met near Greensboro with other “Reconciling” members from North Carolina. “This is a matter of human rights, first,” he said, “And it’s part of my religious tradition to stand with the oppressed.”

In Bishop Goodpaster’s letter to United Methodist clergy, he said he could not permit “actions counter to the Book of Discipline,” the denomination’s rule book, which now sanctions only marriage between a man and a woman.

This Book of Discipline can’t be changed until the denomination’s next General Conference in May 2016. And though the United Methodist Church remains divided, the issue “is expected to come up for discussion then,” said Michael Rich, communications manager for the Western North Carolina Conference.

Different rites

In the Episcopal Church, the next big denominational meeting, the General Convention, will come in 2015. Only then could there be a move to revise The Book of Common Prayer. That’s where Episcopalians “find (their) theology,” Pritchett said, and it still defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

The 2012 General Convention said a bishop in states where same-sex civil marriage is legal may authorize the use of a different rite or service. This provisional “Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” uses names instead of “husband and wife.” And priests in North Carolina who choose to preside at such ceremonies will say this: “In the presence of God and the Church, I now pronounce that they are bound to one another in a holy covenant, as long as they both shall live and united in marriage according to the laws of the state of North Carolina. Amen.”

Pritchett said he thinks The Book of Common Prayer – last revised in 1979 – will likely be amended to account for same-sex marriage, though it could take up to six years to do so.

Until then, the Rev. Ollie Rencher, rector at St. Peter Episcopal Church in uptown Charlotte, said he already has same-sex liturgies scheduled over the next few months.

And though a different rite for gay and lesbian weddings may rankle some, Rencher said he finds the words in the rite “incredibly beautiful and thorough.”