Oct 12, 2015 - News

WWJD: A year after gay marriage became legal, Charlotte churches take sides

The legal battle over gay marriage is over. The theological one, however, continues in Charlotte.

One year after a court decision granted same-sex couples in North Carolina the same legal rights as straight ones, churches across the city are struggling to figure out how they’ll respond.

Churches who have long affirmed LGBT members are celebrating more marriages in their sanctuaries and chapels. Churches opposed to gay marriage have become even more staunch in their viewpoints.

But a large subset of churches – among Charlotte’s most influential – fall in the middle. Once content to sit out the debate on Sundays, they’re now having to take sides.

“It’s forced congregations to make a decision,” said Pastor Nancy Kraft, leader of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Plaza Midwood, who has performed about 20 same-sex weddings in the past year. “In the past they were on the sidelines.”

At some churches, you get the sense that they wish they could remain there. Many of these congregations remain deeply divided internally.

“That’s probably true in just about every church in Charlotte,” said Myers Park United Methodist Church Senior Pastor James Howell. “One of my goals is, ‘How do I keep these people talking to each other? How do you love them?'”

At least a half-dozen churches have made the decision to support same-sex marriage just in the past few weeks, including the large and influential congregations of Myers Park Presbyterian Church and Covenant Presbyterian Church.

Leaders of churches like these have been treading carefully on the subject, fearful of alienating their congregations. But the overall trend has been toward opening their doors to gay weddings.

“We have seen churches become more open,” said Matt Comer, a LGBT activist and former editor of QNotes. He added that the number of faith organizations marching in Charlotte’s Pride Parade grew from 11 to 16 this year. “I do think it’s encouraging that churches are having the discussion.”

For Charlotte, historically known as the “City of Churches,” this is deeply important. Though many members of the gay community have been pushed away from the church by harmful experiences, there is a large population who want their partnerships blessed by their faith. Comer said he personally grew up Baptist and still attends church regularly at St. John’s in Elizabeth.

“It would be very important to me when I find a partner and am ready to enter marriage that we’d be able to have our marriage ceremony in a church,” Comer said. “I have a lot of friends who feel the exact same way.”

Carefully deliberating, then navigating the fall-out

It took Myers Park Presbyterian Church more than a year to make a decision.

The court decision that made same-sex marriage legal in North Carolina came only four months after the Presbyterian Church USA decided to change its definition of marriage to include gay couples – but give individual churches the ability to opt out. Then-Pastor Steve Eason decided to tackle the issue as a congregation before being asked by a gay couple among its membership to be married, which would have made the discussion more personal and emotional.

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A committee formed. Beginning in April, the church held four classes on the subject (Example: April 19 – Interpreting eight biblical passages on homosexuality). On September 15, Myers Park Presbyterian brought in pastors on both sides of the issue to lecture for 90 minutes before the congregation. And on September 28, the leadership group – called the church session – came together to vote.

“The debate was one of deep respect,” said interim Pastor Pete Peery. Elders of the church spoke for and against. But ultimately, the vote came down in favor of extending marriage services to same-sex couples. Peery had already drafted letters to the congregation with both results.

“We believe we can most faithfully extend the fellowship of Christ when we attempt to treat all our members equally,” read the letter that went out September 29.

The response wasn’t all positive, though it was “calmer than you might imagine,” Peery said. In the week and a half since the decision, about 10 families have said they’re leaving the church.

“There is no implication here that everyone is called to agree to this decision,” Peery said. “We’re going to strive to learn how to live together.”

That process has been typical for Charlotte’s moderate congregations.

Quick pronouncements have been few. Decisions have taken a year or more and a half-dozen meetings.

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“You’re in a lot of trouble if you go out on a limb and do that without the support of your congregation,” said Kraft, of Holy Trinity Lutheran. “That’s suicidal, so there’s no point in doing that.”

Christ Church, an Episcopal congregation on Providence Road, spent months deliberating before Pastor Chip Edens told his 5,500-member congregation the church had decided to authorize the clergy to perform same-sex weddings at their discretion for church members, effective immediately.

Covenant Presbyterian also recently made the decision to sponsor same-sex weddings. A church committee first recommended that they adopt a pro-same-sex marriage stance last October. In January, the church held a series of five workshops and brought in experts such as a psychology professor from UNC Charlotte to talk about gender identity, and a Duke divinity professor about how sexuality appears in the New Testament.

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First Presbyterian Church uptown is taking a similar approach and will make a decision in the next few months. Pastor Pen Peery (who also happens to be Pete Peery’s son) said he’s tried to stress that as emotional as this issue can be, it’s not the most important one for a faith community.

“What’s more important than that is our identity in Christ,” he said. “Who we belong to is more important than what we believe about a particular issue.”

Park Road Baptist Church went through the process earlier than most. Sixty-five years ago, the church was born as part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but its founding pastor soon began to become more progressive in his theology. Park Road Baptist sponsored a gay men’s choir by the 1980s and eventually split from the Southern Baptist fold.

Still, church leaders tread carefully when they were asked to consider hosting gay union ceremonies in the mid-2000s. In the largest church conference meeting in Park Road Baptist’s history, the congregation voted in November 2006 to approve a policy expanding all the services of the church to gay members.

“I think this is an issue that you have to be patient with,” Pastor Russ Dean said. “People are in different places, and we have to give them time and be deliberate and intentional about our study.”

The largest churches are still in opposition.

Still, the climate has grown even more unfriendly toward the LGBT community at many of Charlotte’s churches as the events of the past year have pushed the issue to the fore. Many of the largest churches in Charlotte are unapologetically opposed to same-sex unions.

The Catholic diocese of Charlotte – with several mega churches in the city – has been outspoken against gay marriage. Carmel Baptist Church and Mecklenburg Community Church have both preached sermons stating that homosexuality is a sin in the past year.

“We will not perform same-sex marriages at Carmel Baptist Church,” according to Pastor Alex Kennedy’s sermon notes. “We believe that marriage and sexuality was created by God and therefore can only be defined by Him…not the State.”

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Nations Ford Community Church has put it explicitly on its website that same-sex couples are not welcome to dedicate their children in a church ceremony.

Walking the fence

Even a year out, the debate is far from over.

The worldwide United Methodist Church is formally in opposition to same-sex marriage, leaving more liberal American pastors in a bit of a bind. The price of civil disobedience on the issue can mean losing your position as senior pastor. At Myers Park United Methodist, that means the issue has been in a sort of limbo.

Senior Pastor James Howell said he has been thrust into a prominent role in the debate internationally, and very difficult conversations will be had before the next Methodist gathering in 2016.

“We have gay members asking to be married here,” Howell said. “Some of them are super involved in the church. God really matters to them. And then we marry straight people and we barely know them.”

So what is Myers Park United Methodist going to do?

“We’re continuing to be in conversation about that,” Howell said. “We’ve not said no. And we’ve not said yes. You can’t stay there forever, can you?”

(Photo credit: Header photo was shot by photographer Mitch Roof of the wedding of Jim Wolf and Mark Propst, officiated by Holy Trinity Lutheran Pastor Nancy Kraft. The Myers Park Methodist photo comes from the church’s Facebook page. )

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