Religion

Charlotte’s Presbyterian clergy react with restraint to vote approving gay marriage

Restrained.

That appeared to be the local reaction from clergy on both sides Wednesday to news that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had voted to change its definition of marriage to include a “commitment between two people” – words that formally recognize gay marriage.

In Charlotte, Presbyterian pastors who endorsed the change in the denomination’s constitution opted for diplomacy rather than high-fives. And those pastors who wanted to keep language defining marriage as only “between a man and a woman” tended to react with disappointment, not rebellion.

In a Wednesday blog, the Rev. John Cleghorn, pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church, acknowledged that his liberal church “is among those who celebrate” the vote. But he also acknowledged that other, more traditional Presbyterian congregations in town are in pain and asked his flock to “pray for the ongoing ‘peace, unity and purity’ of our national church as we seek a way forward.”

In his blog Wednesday, the Rev. Jim Szeyller, pastor of conservative Carmel Presbyterian Church, called it a “difficult day,” but counseled his members not to give in to angry emotion.

“It’s tempting to rant and rave, to condemn and judge,” he wrote. “It is easy to circle the wagons and trumpet spiritual superiority or take our ball and go home in a fit of self-righteousness. … (But) the outbursts do little to advance the Kingdom.”

The Presbyterians’ new definition of marriage was endorsed last year by the denomination’s General Assembly, or top legislative body. The administrative interpretation gave pastors and churches the OK to marry same-sex couples in states, such as North Carolina, where it’s legal.

But to change the wording in the Book of Order, the denomination’s constitution, required approval from a majority of the 171 regional districts, called presbyteries.

In February, pastor and lay leaders in the Presbytery of Charlotte voted 146-107 to endorse the change. But the vote that really counted came Tuesday night, when the Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey became the 86th to say yes.

Approval was widely expected, partly because so many conservative Presbyterian churches bolted from the denomination after the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted two years ago to approve the ordination of gays and lesbians to the clergy.

The Charlotte Presbytery lost 15 churches. Betty Meadows, the local transitional general presbyter, said “we might lose a church or two” because of what happened Tuesday night.

But she and others were quick to point out that the change does not mandate any of the current 108 Presbyterian churches to marry same-sex couples. It will be up to each pastor to decide whether he or she will officiate at a gay wedding. And each session, or elected lay leadership, will decide whether the sanctuary can be used for such ceremonies.

With 4,800 members, Myers Park Presbyterian is the denomination’s largest church in Charlotte and its fourth biggest in America. Its pastor, the Rev. Steve Eason, released a statement saying the church “will review our current wedding policy in light of these changes, both in NC law and PC (U.S.A.) constitution.”

The Rev. Reggie Tuggle, the visiting minister at First United Presbyterian, said he has already decided he will not officiate at any same-sex weddings.

“I believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman, and I think the Bible supports that,” Tuggle said. “I’m not leaving the denomination. The (new wording) gives flexibility for people to follow their conscience and convictions.”

But the lay leaders at First United Presbyterian, a predominnantly African American church in uptown Charlotte, have taken a different position than Tuggle.

According to session clerk Natalie Beard, the group voted this month to consider requests to hold same-sex weddings in the church’s sanctuary on “a case-by-case basis,” based on the couple’s readiness for marriage. That is the same standard the church uses to consider requests from heretosexual couples, Beard said.

Meanwhile, at Caldwell Presbyterian, there’s no disagreement: Cleghorn, the session and the membership are firm in their decision to go ahead with gay weddings. In fact, since last summer’s OK, the church has performed three.

“These couples, all members, had been together 35, 30 and 28 years,” Cleghorn said on the day the Charlotte Presbytery voted to endorse the wording change. “We celebrate these couples as models of fidelity, loyalty and commitment, through life. For them, the chance to be married in a service of worship, in the eyes of God and their church family, was a dream long-deferred but now realized in profound joy and gratitude.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this online story incorrectly stated the position of the lay leadership, or session, at First United Presbyterian Church regarding holding same-sex weddings in its sanctuary. The session voted this month to consider requests to hold same-sex weddings in the church’s sanctuary on “a case-by-case basis,” based on the couple’s readiness for marriage. That is the same standard the church uses to consider requests from heretosexual couples.

The Associated Press contributed.

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