People listen to a session of the 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Thursday, July 5, 2012, in Pittsburgh.
It’s safe to say most mothers of sons look forward to dancing at their boy’s wedding. This is thematic fodder for many a storyline in romantic comedies, not the least of which is Debbie Reynolds’ plea to Kevin Kline in Paul Rudnick’s 1997 film In and Out: “We love you no matter what… as long as you get married. I need this wedding. I need some music, and some beauty, and some place cards before I die.”
The Rev. Melody Young wants to do much more than dance at her son Nathan’s as yet unscheduled and unplanned wedding – she’s looking forward to the day when she performs the ceremony. As a teaching elder (our term for minister) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Melody is licensed to perform weddings in her home state of Washington, and authorized by our Book of Order to preside over worship and legally solemnize marriages.
Unless she wants to marry Nathan off to some charming future son-in-law.
Nathan is a technical communications whiz and a brilliant pianist and music director who has shared those skills with the church at local and national levels, including our recently concluded General Assembly, June 30- July 7, in Pittsburgh. General Assembly is our biennial legislative body, where equal numbers of clergy and lay commissioners, as well as smaller numbers of theological students, young adult, ecumenical and missionary advisory delegates meet in committees and plenary sessions to listen to each other, discern the will of God together, and set policy for our 1.9 million-member denomination.
During a nearly five-hour debate about same gender marriage, Melody, a clergy commissioner from Olympia presbytery, stood in front of a sea of Presbyterians in the convention hall and many thousands more watching the live stream around the world, and offered these words of witness and testimony:
“We firmly expect that my state—Washington—will ratify a marriage equality law this November. So this is a personal issue to me as a pastor. It is also personal because one of the greatest joys for a pastor is to take part in the sacred moments of their own family members—baptism, confirmation, and perhaps especially to celebrate the depth of human love by the blessing of a marriage. One day I hope to do this for my own son. Unfortunately, without an authoritative interpretation to protect me from prosecution in our courts, his wedding will cost the church tens of thousands of dollars. For this, I apologize in advance.”
Nathan came out to Melody as a gay man several years back. Later, he was part of the Seattle Men’s Chorus when they gave a concert with the theme “Scared Faithless” – about the experience of gay men in a wide range of religious traditions. Members asked religious leaders to write letters that would be read during the concert. Nathan asked his mom to write, and in the concert he read from her letter:
My dearest Nathan,
“It was a hard time for both of us when you told me you were gay. You described your struggle to come to terms with that fact and how you had reached a place of peace with God about it. I had to revise my expectations of my son establishing a wonderful but conventional family. My love for you was never in question, but some of my dreams had to change. Now I am convinced that you are exactly who God created you to be and I celebrate that with my whole heart. We walk a journey together that I had not planned nor expected, but would not trade for anything.”
Our polity currently allows clergy to perform same gender holy union ceremonies as long as they are not equated with marriage – a relic from the days before 2004, when Massachusetts set the ball rolling for legal same gender marriage. Our clergy have since been in an unconscionable bind – obey their ordination vows to teach the faith, care for people, and show the love and justice of Jesus Christ, or deny some loving couples the blessing of the church and of God on their legal civil marriage. Several church court cases, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, have not definitively resolved the issue. In the same debate on the floor of GA last week, at least two clergy commissioners declared that they had performed these weddings and would continue to, not as an act of ecclesial disobedience, but in conscientious obedience to their ordination vows.
In the PCUSA, it took nearly 40 years for assemblies and presbyteries to remove the barriers for the ordination of LGBT people as clergy and in the lay offices of ruling elder and deacon. This took effect one year ago, and we are still living into this new reality. This Pittsburgh assembly was the first time the plenary body has discussed amending our constitution to change “a man and a woman” to “two people” and although the amendment ultimately did not pass, it was by a very slim 52-48% margin. Among the theological student and young adult advisory delegates, (declared by Presbyterians of all stripes to be the future of the church) levels of support were 82% and 75%, respectively. It’s truly only a matter of time, or to quote Dr. King’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
By the time the Presbyterians gather again in Detroit in 2014, Washington will likely be on board, and perhaps the church will have listened and wisely discerned that arc. Let’s not put pressure on Nathan about his love life or his mom’s desire for grandchildren some day. But ready or not, PCUSA, Melody stands ready to do the electric slide, sing along to ABBA and even take a few turns around the dance floor to Lady Gaga, but not before she stands in her robe and stole, with arms uplifted and smile beaming, and declares Nathan and his beloved to be married in the eyes of the law, the church, and most importantly, his Creator. Better cue up the “Macarena.”