Mainline Protestants and Same-Sex Marriage


TIM O’BRIEN, anchor: The issue of gay marriage is on the agenda as the US Episcopal Church holds its once-every-three-years General Convention in Anaheim, California.  For years, Episcopalians have been deeply divided over homosexuality.  One proposal being debated at this meeting would allow Episcopal churches to conduct same-sex weddings in the six states that have legalized gay marriage.  Currently, most mainline denominations do not officially allow same-sex weddings.  But the changing legal environment is adding new pressure.  Kim Lawton has our report.

KIM LAWTON: Boston’s historic Church of the Covenant has been an important place for Anne Crane and Sarah Perreault. The lesbian couple had their first date there in the late 1970s, and by the time Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage the two had been active members for more than 25 years, so a church wedding seemed the obvious choice.

SARAH PERREAULT: In particular we wanted to be married at our home church with our community and our family and friends.

LAWTON: But it was complicated. Church of the Covenant is dually aligned with two mainline denominations: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA).  And while the UCC has no problem marrying same-sex couples, it’s against national Presbyterian policy.

ANNE CRANE: Well, it’s painful to know that the church that I’ve been a part of all my life does not recognize our relationship and our marriage as being a legitimate marriage.

LAWTON:  Church of the Covenant worked it out so that a retired UCC minister conducted the ceremony, and the Presbyterian side of the church officially stayed out of it.  Crane and Perreault say their wedding was beautiful and meaningful, but not quite everything they would have planned.

PERREAULT:  I felt badly because there were people that we would have liked to include in our ceremony who could not participate because they were ordained Presbyterian clergy. There was a real loss there.

Man at Protest:  “We are a couple…”

LAWTON:  For decades, mainline denominations have been wrestling over issues surrounding homosexuality: whether to ordain gay clergy and whether to recognize–and bless same-sex unions. Now that six states have legalized gay marriage, those battles are taking on a new urgency. Some church members are pushing the denominations to reassess their policies, while others are fighting to hold the line.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group that supports conservative positions within mainline denominations.

MARK TOOLEY:  The church shouldn’t just go along with what the wider society demands of it. But the church is ideally supposed to be faithful to timeless teachings that have been presented to the church through its Scripture and through its traditions.

Minister:  “To have and to hold…”

LAWTON: Currently, while the Unitarians and the UCC conduct gay marriages, mainline Protestant denominations as a rule don’t officially allow it. Clergy who participate in same-sex weddings could face church trials and even risk being defrocked.

Minister:  “I hereby pronounce you husband and husband…”

TOOLEY:  Traditionalists within those churches will strive to help to ensure there is as much fidelity as possible, by the clergy to the official teachings.

LAWTON: In the United Methodist Church, 83-year-old Richard Harding has a long history of activism for gay rights. He helped found Reconciling Retired Clergy, a network of retired pastors willing to perform gay marriages.

REV. RICHARD HARDING: There’s not a whole lot that they can do to we retired clergy, and there’s a whole lot that they can do to active clergy that they can’t do to us. And that’s why we’re stepping in.

LAWTON: Harding says he believes what he’s doing is the right thing, so he’s willing to risk any repercussions.

HARDING: We could be defrocked. I would be now sitting here as Mr. Harding instead of Reverend Harding. And in Massachusetts, a lay person can go for a day to the state house and get permission to officiate at a marriage. So I’d still be able to do it, only I just wouldn’t be a pastor anymore.

LAWTON: At Church of the Covenant, interim minister Jennifer Wegter-McNelly is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. She says her congregation has been put in a difficult position of trying to maintain support for gay members while still respecting the national denomination.

REV. JENNIFER WEGTER-MCNELLY: We have a long history and we’re very active, and so I think there is a lot of really thoughtful hard conversation about how do we be prophetic and remain faithful and connected to the churches that are our larger community?

LAWTON: So far, they’ve been able to do that by keeping same-sex weddings solely under the jurisdiction of the UCC part of their church. Other congregations don’t have that option. Episcopal clergy also can’t conduct gay marriages. In an effort to be even-handed, many Massachusetts Episcopal churches aren’t doing any weddings, gay or straight. Instead, Reverend Pam Werntz at Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church says they provide a blessing for couples who are married by the state.

REV. PAM WERNTZ:  That could happen separately, it could happen at the courthouse and then a couple comes here for the ceremony, or it can happen in the same ceremony where a Justice of the Peace presides over the first part of the service and the priest presides over the blessing and often a Eucharist celebration.

LAWTON: The compromise may have helped circumvent some of the denominational difficulties, but Werntz says it was still painful for many members.

WERNTZ:  There were people that left the church in feeling a lot of sorrow and betrayal that the Episcopal Church couldn’t move as fast as I think it needed to move when same-sex marriage was legalized.

LAWTON: UCC minister Reine Abele, who does perform gay weddings, say churches need to be better at addressing social concerns.

REV. REINE ABELE: Churches generally are not the leading edge of cultural change in our society. They are often not the engine but the caboose.

LAWTON: But despite the new activism, mainline clergy continue to be conflicted over the issue, and those who support gay marriages still appear to be in the minority.

LAWTON: According to a recent survey by Public Religion Research, mainline clergy are generally more supportive of gay rights than Americans as a whole. But that doesn’t hold true when it comes to same-sex marriage. Only a third of mainline clergy support gay marriage. That number is just about the same for Americans overall.

TOOLEY: Often people in wider society are very surprised to learn that the mainline churches don’t already accept same sex marriage, because typically these churches, at least for the last 50, 60 years or more have been on the liberal side of social issues. But they have hung back on the marriage issue.

LAWTON: For many, it’s an issue of basic theology.

TOOLEY: Typically for Jews and Christians, marriage is a metaphor for faithfulness between God and his people and once you begin to redefine what marriage is you ultimately start to redefine who God is and that obviously and understandably is difficult for Christians and Jews.

LAWTON: In the Presbyterian Church (USA), Reverend Mary Holder Naegeli is among those urging the denomination to maintain its stand.

REV. MARY HOLDER NAEGELI: Homosexual practice is not God’s design for humanity. Not being God’s design for humanity, having these clear prohibitions in the Scripture make homosexual practice a sin. Homosexual marriage makes permanent a situation that God wants to redeem.

LAWTON: But others advocate a different interpretation of the Bible.

WEGTER-MCNELLY: Our call to be inclusive of all people comes from scripture.  It comes from faithfulness to God, it comes from understanding that all people are made in the image of God and it’s essential to support people in their relationships, to bless them and support them and nurture them.

LAWTON: For Wegter-McNelly, the issue also comes down to her pastoral responsibilities to the people in her pews.

WEGTER-MCNELLY:  Here gay marriage isn’t an abstract issue. It’s not a political issue.  It’s very much an issue of the people of the congregation being in community together. To tell people that this community that is the compass for your life is not going to bless and support you in your intimate relationship is kind of an impossibility.

LAWTON: But supporters of traditional marriage say pastors also have a responsibility to their faith and to the wider church.

HOLDER NAEGELI: Why would I, a representative of God, help people make permanent with a vow, I take marriage vows very seriously, but with a vow to make permanent then, seal something that God wouldn’t agree with?

LAWTON: As they celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, Anne Crane and Sarah Perreault are glad their church wedding worked out.

CRANE: It’s a liberating feeling, and it’s enabled me and us to just, to live our lives honestly and openly, and many people don’t have that opportunity and have to continue living a lie. And that’s the sad thing.

Minister: Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.  Amen.

LAWTON: But given the conflicts within the mainline churches, the situation is not likely to change any time soon.

I’m Kim Lawton in Boston.

  • robroy

    By a recent polling of clergy, the two most liberal denominations with respect to homosexuality, the UCC and the Episcopalians, happen also to be jockeying for the fastest declining ones. The UCC was the fastest declining this year. The TEC was the fastest last year and probably will be again next year (when the exiting of the four dioceses is taken into account). This, of course, is not coincidental. Sacrifice one’s foundation (Holy Scripture) to pander to a small segment of the population, most of whom are not interested in any organized religion will result in obvious disaster. Paul presciently describes these denominations:

    “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

    One can follow the Episcopalian debate going on in California on various blogs. Essentially completely devoid of theology. Rather, we have, “I knew a lesbian couple who were really sweet…”

  • gerry

    All the usual arguments from the usual individuals.
    The same garbage in Canada under a Liberal government. The Democrats are the same. You’re in a major tailspin people. Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.

  • Joe Mustich, Justice of the Peace

    Kudos to New England (sans RI) and Iowa for supporting civil marriage.

    And good luck to the US Episcopal Church.

    Additionally, while I can understand the marriage debate within religious communities, I don’t understand why many of them force their religious views on the rest of us, since we have freedom of and freedom from religion in America.

    Joe Mustich, Justice of the Peace,
    Washington, Connecticut, USA

    I’m very busy this summer officiating for many couples who are coming to Connecticut to wed from around the country because they aren’t allowed to do so in their own home states just yet. Congrats to all of them!

  • Loren A Olson MD

    I am so proud to live in Iowa-of-all-places and to be a part of the UCC, where my partner of 22 years and I will be married in September. I feel so fortunate to have a home in Iowa and in my church.

  • Andrew

    Gay people need to wake up and realize that RELIGION is the ENEMY. Religion has caused all the hatred and discrimination by making it WRONG.

    Until gay people demand that RELIGION stop making the WRONG – we will never have equality or respect.

    Homosexuals are the Lepers of the 21st Century according to RELIGION.

    Less than 1% of the 330,000 churches in the US “welcome gays and lesbians. The other 99% still have gays as abominations or deviants or sinners.

    I’m not wrong. Gay is not wrong. Religion is.

  • Jeff

    For the record, the UCC, which was formed in 1957, has been in decline since the early 1960s, so the argument that last year’s more dramatic decline was due to God’s wrath over gay marriage seems a bit silly. The UCC is also a big supporter of women’s and civil rights, and peace and justice issues. Maybe God’s a misogynistic racist? Last year the conservative SBC, like every other American Christian denomination, saw a decline in membership numbers. This was no surprise to conservative scholars like Kinnaman and Lyons, who have been sounding the alarm for some time now over a younger generation starting to flee conservative churches due to dissatisfaction with their intolerant, exclusive, “only we get into heaven” theologies.

  • slofty

    That’s quite funny Andrew. A big thing you are missing, is the fact that The Episcopal “Church” has ceased being a church or a religion. So has the UCC.

  • robroy

    Andrew #5 is right. Religion is the problem. Let us ban it. We can all look around and see that the abandonment of 5,000 years of Judaeo-Christian sexual ethic (sexual relations is reserved for marriage and marriage is for men and women) is producing such wonderful effects on society!

    Anyone pointing out the extremely high rate of sexually transmitted disease, the exorbitant cost to society of HIV of MSM who deliberately decided to “go bare”, the very high rate of sexual promiscuity in the homosexual community…Well, those people who point out such things are clearly hateful. We need a law against saying such things.

  • Tim

    As a gay man who goes to a Unitarian-Universalist church, I find it impossible to understand why gay people go to churches that will not allow them to fully participate in that church. If gays cannot be married in the church or the church will not allow gay clergy, WHY do gay people support these organizations with their time, money, and energy?

  • Mary Lee Mills

    It is heartbreaking to see people looking for love in relationships that will never satisfy their true Needs. Any life that is in constant pursuit of satisfying urges, wants, desires, and cravings will remain unfulfilled. The belief in and commitment to following and relying completely on Jesus Christ builds us up from the inside out, and gives us joy that transcends circumstances; Peace that surpasses understanding.
    Pray for and love homosexuals and their struggle.

  • Rev. Mark Hoelter (UU)

    I am not a Christian, but I pay attention to Christians–nominal and committed–as a dominant social and political force in the U.S. What I missed and usually miss in a report like this PBS R&EN report is the following: There is no exploration or pressing for answers to the question, “How is the acceptance of same-sex marriage going to lead to the destruction of marriage in general, and to the destruction of the social fabric? What is the “theory of action” at play? What would validate or invalidate that position and theory of action?” What I also miss is any straight-on (or gayly forward) discussion of the particular scriptural passages involved, whether from Torah, Talmud, Gospesl, Epistles, Qur’an, or Hadith. And then, “What are the differing principles of interpretation being applied?” It would also be lovely to have a debate, a discussion, and then a dialogue (three different kinds of conversation) between proponents of those principles of interpretation. A related question would be, “How have interpretations of passages on other issues changed over the years and what are the implications for interpreting these passages now?” For examples I would point to interpretations, in the cases of Jews and Christians (and to some extent of Muslims) of the act of creation in Genesis, to Joshua’s making the sun stand still, to a person’s being possessed by demons then thrown into a herd of pigs. This of course brings one more set of issues: “What is the role of reason and science, and how do religious interpreters discern when reason or science trumps or revises the interpretation and application of any particular sacred injunction?” (As Martin Luther is said to have proclaimed at the beginning of the Protestant reformation, “Except I be persuaded by scripture or by reason….”). I can think of no outfit better to make the first public approach to these questions than PBS, albeit this sort of approach probably calls for a special edition of Religion & Ethics, or else of Frontline.

  • M. Wilson

    Thank you for airing this program. As civil society recognizes its civic duty to provide equal civil rights for its citizens more and more churches will find it required of them to work out these questions within their church communities. Their congregants will leave, and their budgets will change. For some churches this will mean loss and for others gain.

    I would like to comment that the Rev. Naegile’s reading of scripture is quite narrow and with deeper study she might find that the bible is not as clear about this topic as she claimed. Also, while she is not willing to validate same-sex marriage because it is not in her view gods plan for humanity, many religious around the world view women’s ministry as invalid an not god’s plan for the church. She might do will to take a larger look with a broader view when claiming to act as a representative of god.

    I question why you did not also interview completely positive gay marriage clergy other than UCC. The Unitarian church was mentioned along side UCC but not interviewed. The interfaith clergy (jewish, christian, buddhist, hindu and other traditions) have made strong positive public statements about their support for same sex marriage as a civil rights issue.
    Thank you

  • Robert E. Leverenz

    If one subjects the reality of marriage equity to the issue of same-gender marriage after subjecting it to what we United Methodist call the quadrilateral (reason, scripture, experience and tradition) to discern “truth”; in my opinion refusal to grant the legitimacy of marriage to same-gender couples cannot be defended…. It is a non issue and in the past I have officiated at same-gender marriage and will continue to do so as a United Methodist Pastor. In all the discussion on this subject I don’t believe I ever hear about the genetic origin of homosexual orientation, and rarely is the critical approach to scripture brought in to the mix. So much of the scripture is time bound and culturally informed in the pre-scientific mindset, pre-medical understanding of human sexuality.
    To the opponents of marriage equity I say in the light of enlightened analysis, history is NOT on your side. Bob Leverenz, United Methodist Pastor

  • Kevin

    Only read this if you consider yourself a Christian and believer in what the Bible says:

    Do you seriously think that God’s standards have changed just because the words were written down thousands of years ago?

    C’mon, all kidding aside, do you really think that no matter how you live your life that God will just “accept you for what you are and how you act”? That somehow you’re saying ‘I was born this way and that’s just the way I am’ somehow resolves you of responsibility?

    Fact: God does not lower his standards to meet yours. Not now, not ever.

    If he did, then he would never have had to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

    If he did, then he would have written the 10 Suggestions; not the 10 Commandments.

    No matter how much we wish the Ford Focus we are driving was actually a Rolls Royce, no matter what we may think, no matter how much ‘outside the box thinking’ we may entertain; your Ford is still a Ford. You cannot change that.

    Likewise, no matter how much you think that gay marriage (or heck, just the gay lifestyle in general) is ok, no matter what your Clergy may tell you or how they ‘reason on the mater’ , no matter how much sympathy you get from your friends; it has always been, and will always be wrong, and you know it.

    How about this for a new Gay Marriage campaign; “We Know it’s wrong, but so what!”

    At the very least you *might* get some respect for your honesty if nothing else.


  • CLP

    I agree with B.Leverenz, any reading of Scripture must be done in context taking into account the writer, the norms and mores of the day, the philosophical teachings of the culture and the level of scientific knowledge.

    For example, Christ was adamently against divorce, but even the Catholic church allows it today. Paul said for slaves to be obedient to their masters, but we are struggling to end slavery across the world. God punished Onan not for spilling his seed on the ground but because he would not honor his commitment to Tamar. If God ordained one man and one woman as marriage, then even the fathers of our faith were critically in the wrong – and even yet God proclaimed them faithful. As thoughtful Christians, we live everyday with these tensions. There are no easy ways to explain why Abraham is considered faithful but not Perrault and Crane. God does not call us to check our intellect at the doors of His Church.

    God’s standards are the same as always – we are to live in a loving relationship with Him and with each other. This is at the heart of Christ’s teachings.

  • Rev. R. Biddle

    Religion and laws regading marriage need to separated. Currently in many states, a minister must be licensed by the state to perform a marriage. This means that a minister is an agent of that state. This is not a separation of church and state.

    Many couples want a church wedding because of the beauty of the setting rather than for religious reasons. In many European countries, marriages are performed by the state and a religious cermony is optional. If that were the case in tHE USA this whole deliema might be put to rest.

    It is the perogative of every church, or clergy person, to perform or not perform any marriage. Making marriage legal for same gender couples would not change that. A minister still would be able to refuse to perfom a marriage of two men or two woman, just as he or she can of a straight couple who does not meet the requirements of that church or clergy person.

  • Fred

    In response to Kevin #14: If your argument was followed to it’s logical conclusion, then the Levitical laws regarding not eating shellfish (as much of an “abomination” as homosexuality, so no more clams, lobster and scallops for you), not wearing clothes with two different kinds of fabrics (cotton and polyester blends are clearly a no no!) and how to treat your slaves (the Scripture clearly says it’s okay to have them, so do you own any?) would still be in force. Oh, and polygamy and marriages between close siblings (remember how Abraham married his half-sister) would be allowed. Are you for that? Jesus was the fullest manifestation of God and God’s will for the world, and Jesus clearly said we are not to judge others and need to take the beam out of our own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.

  • omd

    Jesus did tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yes, even homosexual humans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They should not be subjected to physical violence. ALL people should have a resonable expectation of the same. We are all sinners and the Bible teaches that the “wages of sin is death”. There are no secret escape plans outlined in the Bible. There is only one way. “No one comes tho the Father except through me” is what Jesus. “I am the way, the truth and the life” Jesus also says.

    Jesus did not tell us to affirm sin. Jesus did not affirm a sinners sin. After encounters with sinners Jesus would tell them to “go and sin no more”

    We all have the ability to change. When we come to Jesus and ask Him to enter our lives we are taught that we “Become new creatures in Christ.”

    Homosexual sexual behavior is a sin and the Christian church should not be affirming that behavior.

  • Darlene Wilcox

    Au contraire, Kevin sweetie, (#14) I KNOW my lesbian marriage is right, and it’s a basic civil right. As a voting American to love anyone I pick is also fundamental to my persuit of happiness. I know the bible as well. Most especially Jesus would not throw a stone at our love, or tell me I’d be better off in the kitchen with Martha instead of listening to his words like Mary M. did. Love God, he said, and I do, and I’m happier and challenged for it. Jesus would have us clothe and feed the poor, minister to the sick and wash each other’s feet…rather than judge each other. We’ve got so much to do to bring heaven here on earth. Maybe as my neighbor you think you’re following the golden rule by sharing your honest opinion…and I thank you for the part of what you say that is a sincere desirean honest exchange. But dude, get with the new testament! The old laws forbid all sorts of things I bet you judges way less harshly…and I guarentee you yourself nor I follow most of them, which is just fine. But remember God is still speaking and we (my right lesbian christian self as well as your straight conservative self) are made in god’s image.

  • Charles Winkelman

    Darlene (#19), this New Testament? Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
    26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. 29 They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.

  • Daniel Kennedy


    So you’re attributing the declining membership in the UCC due to the inclusion of GLBTs? Or that the UCC is accepting GLBTs into their church to “save” the church from obscurity? Both stances mean absolutely nothing in regards as to what is expected of we Christians.

    In fact, one might look at a church’s popularity (or lack thereof) as a barometer to the adherence of the teachings of Jesus, for:

    Matthew 7:13,14

    “13 Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

    Accepting GLBTs into full membership into the church is hardly taking the popular route – take a good look around.

    You may twist Pauline theology anyway you wish, but Jesus Christ has made his commands for us quite clear.

    Matthew 7:12

    “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

    Verses take from the NIV.

  • Erik

    Darlene(#19), marriage is a privilege, not a right. There are plenty of heterosexual people that are single that haven’t been married, so don’t claim marriage as a right. It is not.

  • Angela

    I want to marry my partner of twnety years ,we will like to be marriied in Iowa. Hwo di I find a pastor to marry us in Iowa?

  • John Benham

    The issue for the Churches is different from the issue facing the rest of society. The Church cannot really change something as basic as marriage without departing from its most fundamental teaching, which is that homosexual acts are contrary to God’s plan. We may not agree with this – we may not even like it – but it is there, in Scripture, and unless we are going to throw out the Bible we have a huge problem. Te Church has always had this ambiguous moral mess to deal with, ever since it seperated from Judaism at the end of the First Century. Are Christians bound by Torah? Some of it? All of it? Or none of it? The old argument goes: If Christians can eat a bacon sandwich then why can’t Gay Christians get married? The simple fact however is that gay marriage will become normative eventually, whatever the church leaderships decide to do, and it is really a matter of recognizing as real what has always been going on. Two people of the same sex sharing theur lives – and their beds. Hardly new. Ultimately it diesn’t matter much what we say in these endless debates. The die is already cast.