Later this month, an estimated 5,000 Presbyterians from all over the country will gather in Detroit for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Among them will be 645 elected commissioners. This year, those commissioners will be voting on marriage equality.
Decisions made at this General Assembly will affect the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) couples in the denomination who want their marriages to be blessed with the same joy and affirmation as the marriages of other couples in the church. Also affected will be the lives of pastors who presently choose to minister to LGBTQ couples — by officiating at their weddings — at the risk of sacrificing an entire career.
As an elder in my local congregation within the Baltimore Presbytery, I am but one of many members nationwide waiting to hear the big news. Will this large, diverse — but united — mainline denomination, to which I have belonged for more than 30 years, change its policies to allow same-sex couples to marry in the church?
It is not such big news anymore that marriage equality is up for deliberation. In state after state, in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, courts have been overturning laws against same-sex marriages in rapid succession. At the same time, it is difficult to keep count of all the states — to date, 17 (including Maryland) and the District of Columbia — that have legalized same-sex marriage.
But when religion is often seen as an obstacle to marriage equality, it is big news that a denomination of over 1.8 million members in the U.S. may well say a clear "I do." And make no mistake: Marriage equality isn't appearing on the docket at this assembly June 14 through 21 merely as an aftershock to the cultural change rolling forward outside the church doors. In fact, Presbyterians have been deliberating over the inclusion of LGBTQ persons for decades.
I would argue that the effects will ripple out from there, and those effects should matter to all of us. What's happening among Presbyterians this year isn't as much about defining marriage, or about the marriage rights of same-sex couples, as it is about discerning what is right with respect to human relationships.
Who among us doesn't know someone who identifies as an LGBTQ person? They are our neighbors, colleagues, siblings, parents, teachers, pastors and friends. When we think about this debate over what is right for the lives of others, suddenly we see human faces — such as the faces of the gay couple up the street and their beautiful children. Suddenly we realize we don't want to treat our neighbors like second-class members of our church. Deliberators in Detroit will see these faces in the assembly around them. They will be reminded that it's not just about the interpretation of certain passages in the Bible. It's also about the harm done to families when couples are not allowed to marry.
And so it is indeed big news when a large Christian denomination wrestles over marriage equality, some saying scripture demands judgment, others saying it demands love and inclusion. When the Presbyterian commissioners gather in Detroit, they will be making decisions that will surely affect the lives of others, but they will also be making a crucial decision about who they really are as a people of faith.
Mind you, there won't be a ruckus — no shouting, no bitter demonstrations. Presbyterians are known for conducting their proceedings with civility. There's a tongue-in-cheek motto (based on a line from a letter of Paul) that sometimes shows up on T-shirts at the General Assembly: "Presbyterians Do It Decently and in Order."
All humor aside, my dictionary defines "decent" as "polite, moral, honest ... showing kindness, seeming to care about the feelings or problems of others." Perhaps those Presbyterian commissioners will be more than decent. Perhaps they will rise to the occasion with great love — which should mean something to all of us, whether or not we are LGBTQ and Presbyterian, whether or not we belong to any church at all.
Madeleine Mysko, a Baltimore writer and retired nurse, is an elder at Towson Presbyterian Church. She serves on the editorial board of More Light Presbyterians. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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