An Open Letter to My Church on Same-Sex Marriage and Every Other Kind There Is

Just over a month ago, over 600 Presbyterian Commissioners descended upon Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). There were many actions taken. Some will have far reaching effects and other won’t have much effect on, well… anyone, really. Some were statements in support of this or that. There were some actions taken I heartily disagree with, and some I fully support.

One of the most discussed actions, undoubtedly, will be an approved new authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) constitution affirming pastoral discretion to perform same-sex marriages in jurisdictions where they are legal.

That’s basically a fancy way of saying that PC(USA) pastors are allowed (if they choose) to officiate same-sex weddings in the growing number of states that allow them.

The General Assembly made clear, as part of the language of an additional motion defining marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” that no pastor or church will ever be forced to perform or host a marriage it does not agree with. That has always been the case, but fear mongering wins out sometimes, so it needs to be spelled out again. In the PC(USA) we are allowed to dissent, to have different beliefs, and are commanded to treat each other with mutual forbearance. Our Book of Order says good Christians can disagree on a plethora of issues.

That’s why being Presbyterian is so great. We can disagree, yet we can still believe and affirm that we are good Christians. In the Presbyterian Church, we cannot force anyone to believe the exact way we do. That goes for churches, too. No two churches are exactly the same. We each have our own contexts and stories that influence our beliefs and choices.

I disagree with several things decided at this General Assembly, but that doesn’t make me want to no longer be Presbyterian. It makes me thankful I am a Presbyterian because it is okay for me to disagree. In many other churches I’d have to get on board or get out!

We never say, “Get Out!” at UPC. No matter who you are, what you’ve done, whom you love, what your politics, or what groups you belong to, we want to be in community with you at the foot of the cross and around Christ’s table. We believe God’s kingdom is big enough for all of us, and there’s still room.

We can really embody the spirit of “You Are Always Welcome at UPC,” because the General Assembly has opened a door that has long been shut. Other denominations opened it twenty years ago, but for years many people have knocked on our door with bloody knuckles and that door has remained shut. Faithfully they kept knocking, through the pain, through the rejection, through the name calling, and through the years. The door is finally open. It’s time to welcome people in and bandage the wounds. There are always scars from knocking on locked doors for years.

I would be honored to officiate at a same-sex wedding, just as I am for any couple that asks me to help them covenant together in the sight of God to love each other faithfully. If someone asks to get married at the church I would take it to the Session as I always do. The Session, not the pastor, is responsible for approving all marriages and baptisms. The people you acknowledge as called by God to discern these decisions will continue to make these decisions as they always have.

Some of you might be wondering why I would officiate at a same-sex marriage. The arguments about what the Bible does and does not say about what we call today “same-sex relationships,” have been made far better and more eloquently than I ever could in a multitude of books and articles. The conversation, decades old, doesn’t need my input, but I would be glad to talk with anyone who has concerns. I will share with you the theological and biblical arguments on both sides of the issues so you can make your own informed decision.

I don’t need to tell you about the same-sex relationships I have witnessed and the amazing love, affection, and commitment demonstrated in them. I know many of you have mutually life-giving relationships with friends and family in same-sex relationships.

I want to tell you, instead, what I believe about marriage. I’ve officiated at a lot of different weddings. My first wedding at UPC was for Lane and Alicia Dieckow, whom I met the day before their wedding at the rehearsal. The wedding wasn’t about if I believed they should get married: how could I have known in that amount of time? It’s never about whether the pastor believes these two people should get married. It’s not about the church blessing a marriage it believes is appropriate either.

I’ve officiated all kinds of different weddings. I’ve officiated a wedding for a couple who were over 80. I’ve officiated weddings for people on their second or third marriage. I’ve officiated weddings for people straight out of college, for people already living together, for people who already have kids with each other or with other people. On Saturday, I officiated at a wedding that would have been illegal to perform less than 50 years ago because interracial marriage wasn’t legal until 1967.

At the wedding on Saturday, I wrapped Jennifer's and John’s hands in my stole and spoke to the hope that they would be wrapped in each other’s love and in the love of God from this day forward. This couple came to the church not to receive my blessing, or the church’s blessing, or even God’s blessing. They came to give their relationship to God, because wedding days are not about what we receive.

At a wedding, we give our relationships to God. We each say, “God, take this love that two sinners have for one another, and turn it into something beautiful as only you can. We give it over to you, Lord, because with you all things are possible. You who turned water into wine, who turned the cross into a symbol of hope, who turned me around on the road of life, who turned my future destination from death to resurrection, we trust you can turn this imperfect love and relationship into something beautiful. We give it to you.”

Rev. Nate Phillips, one of my Presbyterian pastor friends, who helped inspire the content of this letter, recently wrote:

We wrap our promises in holy words and we wrap our hands in holy cloth and we offer all of it up as a gift to the heavens—all of ourselves and all we hope to be as a couple—and we pray to God that it comes back to us with something it didn’t have when we let it go.  Something alive and divine.

We give our relationships, and our marriages, not to the pastor, or to our families, or to our church. We give them to God. Couples can do this without a pastor and without a church, but why would we want them to? Here are two people, maybe members, maybe non-members, who want help and guidance on how to give their relationship to God. Isn’t that why we exist, to create and nurture disciples of Christ in a welcoming community, to help people give their whole lives, including their relationships, to God?

I know some of you will be disheartened by the General Assembly's decision. You will be disappointed, and maybe even angry. I am truly sorry, but we are Presbyterian and we can disagree and still come to worship in a love that is big enough for all. We have managed to disagree in the past with mutual forbearance, peace, and love. I have faith that can continue. If you have concerns I hope you will come to me with them and not just harbor anger or resentment. I hope you will not just leave. We have always been a church of diverse opinions, theologies, and experiences. It is what makes us strong.

We cannot let arguments like this divide us. There are too many divisions in this country over ideologies, ideas, and preferences. The church has to show there is a better way. We can be better. We have to be better or there’s no point for the church in the world.

Most of you will find my position no surprise.  You might have assumed this was true of me. Some of you are relieved and supportive as you see it written out, others may be concerned and filled with doubt. Please, come and talk to me either way. I am here to dialogue with you no matter how you feel.

Many of you came to this church because we welcome everyone. You were looking for such a home, and you found one at UPC. Whatever our personal beliefs, we keep no one rapping on the church door with bloody knuckles.

Many of you will be enthusiastic. There are couples in our church right now who have been patiently waiting because they want to get married in a church so they can give their relationship to God. There are fathers and mothers who long to see sons and daughters married in the church but have been afraid it couldn’t happen. There are grandparents who always hoped their pastor might perform their grandchild's wedding.

We cannot fathom the deep and steadfast love of God. We cannot earn God’s welcoming and gracious love. But we can reflect it. We now have one more way.

Yours in Common Calling,

Pastor Stephen