Marriage in the PC(USA)
That’s my daughter there, with the rainbow face paint and the “Love who you are” sign. We were downtown in Richmond, VA, standing with same-sex couples who have asked Virginia to recognize their marriages. Ours is one of the states that currently ban same-sex marriage. Last February a federal judge ruled Virginia’s ban unconstitutional; her decision was promptly appealed.
My daughter and I didn’t think about what signs we’d carry to the courthouse until the night before. She had read Leviticus and was planning to go the “Are your clothes 100% cotton?” and “What about the shrimp you ate for lunch?” route. I encouraged her instead to state something positively – something she believes and wants for our gay and lesbian friends. “Love who you are” is what she chose, remembering bumper stickers produced by a local organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) youth. “Love who you are,” is what those youth need to hear again and again and again, having heard too often that they aren’t right, aren’t good, aren’t loveable.
I am convinced of this: with my gay and lesbian friends I have witnessed love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, but everything the scriptures recommend.
As I’ve thought about the reasons I stand for marriage equality, I’ve realized that for me, supporting people’s right to marry whomever they love is closely tied to supporting them, as beloved children of God. A few years ago my congregation, after a time of discernment and self-study, stated its purpose: “to nurture love of God, neighbor, and self.” The self part is something Christ seems to have assumed in his Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God…and love your neighbor as yourself.” But for many of God’s LGBTQ children, a healthy self-love cannot be assumed. They struggle to love themselves, in part because they’ve been bullied by peers and browbeaten by folks carrying signs like “GAY = God Abhors You,” and “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah.” In a thousand different ways, they’ve been told that they don’t belong…that they should change or go home. Christians have told them that. Assuring them otherwise has been an important part of my ministry.
Question 1. Who are you?
I am a child of God.
Question 2. What does it mean to be a child of God?
That I belong to God who loves me.
Question 3. What makes you a child of God?
Grace – God’s free gift of love that I do not deserve and cannot earn.
Question 4. Don’t you have to be good for God to love you?
No. God loves me in spite of all I do wrong.
To me, this speaks of full-on acceptance. We – all of us – are children of God, beloved by God freely and without condition. God made us (the catechism goes on to say) in the image of God, able to reflect God’s goodness, wisdom, and love.
The catechism also speaks of sin – what breaks our relationship with God and confuses our relationships with others. Of course, some Christians believe that same-sex sex is always a manifestation of human sin. That’s at the root of our disagreement. While I know, as Paul says, that we all see in a mirror, dimly, and are fully capable of deceiving ourselves, I am convinced of this: with my gay and lesbian friends I have witnessed love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, but everything the scriptures recommend. With them I’ve been reminded how people are called to love, blessed to love, and sometimes moved to sanctify love with promises to love. I firmly believe that what’s important is not the gender of the people in love; there’s nothing magic about that. What’s magic – even miraculous – is any couple’s commitment to love, determination to build a life together, and desire to live lives characterized by fidelity and trust.
I think that redefining marriage is a part of that work – part of hearing the voices of people long silenced, part of working for justice.
The gay men I’ve known and the lesbians who’ve asked me to bless their covenants knew they were created for love. They embraced it. They chose it. Some did so naturally and comfortably, but more often it was hard-won. They fought to marry the ones they loved. It meant a lot to them to hear me say, “Of course I’ll pray for you as you make promises to each other. I can see what courage it takes. I’m rooting for you, and I think God is rooting for you, too.”
I haven’t broken any rules. Since Virginia doesn’t allow same-sex marriage, I’ve been blessing covenants, not officiating at weddings. But if Virginia’s law changes, as I very much hope it will, I pray the church’s polity won’t give me reason to hesitate. My colleagues in Washington, DC, and in states that allow same-sex marriage have already faced this quandary: whether to extend to gay and lesbian couples the same pastoral care and support we give to straight couples (by blessing their marriages), or to mind our current polity and its definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
Judge Arenda Wright Allen, who ruled against Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, found that allowing same-sex marriage, like abolishing slavery and extending suffrage to women, was part of America’s ongoing expansion of constitutional rights to people who’d been ignored and unjustly excluded. She said,
Our nation’s uneven but dogged journey toward truer and more meaningful freedoms for our citizens has brought us continually to a deeper understanding of the first three words in our Constitution: We the people. “We the People” have become a broader, more diverse family than once imagined . . . Almost one hundred and fifty four years ago, as Abraham Lincoln approached the cataclysmic rending of our nation over a struggle for other freedoms, a rending that would take his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, he wrote these words: “It can not have failed to strike you that these men ask for just . . . the same thing—fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.”
“We ask for fairness, and fairness only,” is the sign I carried at the courthouse last month. It’s what I want and what I pray for as I think about LGBTQ members of the church, which is, thanks be to God, a broader and more diverse family than once imagined. These members want what all God’s children want – to be seen, understood, and appreciated. To love and be loved. To be able to marry the people they love.
We say in the Brief Statement of Faith that God’s Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of people long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. I think that redefining marriage is a part of that work – part of hearing the voices of people long silenced, part of working for justice. I pray God’s Spirit will give us courage, compassion, and love to approach that work and to do that work together.
AUTHOR BIO: Carla Pratt Keyes is pastor of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA, and a member of the Presbytery of the James.
Click here to read the items of business on the agenda of the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee at General Assembly this summer.
Read more articles from The Road to Detroit: Issues of Social Justice Before the 221st General Assembly!