Local Presbyterians react to gay-marriage vote

Julie Lewis | The Daily StarThe First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Oneonta is seen on Wednesday.

Votes by the regional governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. have made it possible for same-sex marriages at local churches beginning June 21, a local pastor said Wednesday.

Of the several area residents interviewed on the subject Wednesday, one disagreed with the decision to change the national church’s constitution while a local activist in the gay community applauded the change.

The church’s highest governing body in 2014 approved an amendment that permits pastors and sessions (the local church governing bodies) in states where same-sex marriage is legal to conduct such ceremonies, according to a church media release. The final decision is up to the local pastors and their churches.

Enough of the church districts — presbyteries — appeared to have approved Amendment 14-F to change the PC(USA)’s Book of Order, according to a Tuesday press release.

It says in part that “marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” Previously it said that marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman, an official said.

It does not require a pastor to perform such a ceremony, or a session to authorize “if it would violate their conscience”, according to a letter from a local church on the issue.

Oneonta First Presbyterian Church Rev. Mark Montfort said it is important that the elders decide the matter in each church. He has had that conversation with the session in his church and they are in favor of it. “I am proud today to be a member of the PC-USA because of this action,” he said.

The issue for him is now the same as it is for a heterosexual couple. They would both have to demonstrate “a sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and a commitment to living their lives together according to its values,” he said.

Motfort said the issues surrounding the subject are deep and may cause some a lot of anguish but many will celebrate it, and he is sensitive to both sides. But the change is “the right move and a faithful move,” he said.

“The God we meet in the Bible is a God of inclusion love and compassion," he said.

Opposed to the decision was Walton United Presbyterian Church Rev. Lisa Ruth Mays. “While love trumps everything,” she said she is opposed to the change because it contradicts her interpretation of scriptures as defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, she said.

“It is a matter of conscience," she said. If she had a same-sex marriage request, she would bring it to the session and if they approved it she would have to find a minister to perform the ceremony. She doesn’t know how the church elders would decide, she said.

“It’s great news,” said Jim Koury, editor of “Diversity Rules” a publication geared towards the gay and lesbian population.

“It’s very refreshing to see a mainstream religious organization recognize that love between two people is more important than man-made dogma and divisive religious politics," Koury said.

In Oneonta, First United Presbyterian Rev. Cynthia Walton-Leavitt, said “it’s an important positive move.” If she has the approval of the church's governing body, “it would be an opportunity to honor the commitments between same-sex couples.”

Before she conducted such a ceremony, she would seek the blessing of the session so there is a common understanding, whether it is in the church building or not, she said. While some may be fearful the church would lose members as a result, it could attract members who want to be part of something so open, she said.

In Delhi, First Presbyterian Church Rev. Sarah Hooker said she would perform such a ceremony if she felt that the couple had gone through sufficient preparation and thoughtfulness into what it means to enter into the covenant of marriage.

“Our denomination has done a good job of handling the issue,” she said. Especially recently, “we have done a very good job of communicating with each other with love and respect.”

It is important that the change maintains the sacredness of the covenant of marriage, she said.

In a letter she sent to the congregation Wednesday, she said it is important to remember that the pastor and the session always have the discretion to deny any wedding in the church. The conversations, votes and division regarding questions of sexuality “have been a part of the life of our denomination for over 30 years,” she wrote. “Know that myself and other leaders in our presbytery remain deeply committed to unity, forbearance and care for all.” 

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