The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is on the brink of a fundamental change. Individual presbyteries, which are the regional governing bodies of the church, are voting on whether to change the church's constitution to redefine marriage from being between a man and a woman to being "between two persons, traditionally a man and a woman."
The Presbytery of Genesee Valley votes on the marriage amendment on Saturday, March 21.
"If our past performance is any indication, we are most likely to vote in the affirmative," says the Rev. Amy Williams Fowler, leader of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley.
There is a significant LGBTQ population in the Genesee Valley presbytery region, Fowler says.
The church's General Assembly, which is its national governing body, approved the amendment at its June 2014 meeting. But the amendment must be ratified by a majority of presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in order to be adopted. The magic number is 86.
As of March 16, the total was 84 presbyteries in favor, 41 opposed, and one tie. There are 171 presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. If the amendment is adopted, it goes into effect on June 21.
No churches or ministers would be forced, however, to marry same-sex couples, Fowler says, or to let church property be used for same-sex marriage ceremonies. The decision would be up to individual churches and ministers, she says.
Little will change in the Genesee Valley region no matter which way the vote goes. Ministers in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal have been permitted to marry gay couples since last June — the end of the last General Assembly meeting.
"Pastors have had the discretion either to do them or not to do them," Fowler says. "They had couples in their churches coming to them and saying, 'Can you marry us?' And according to our constitution, they had to say no."
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) changed its standard on gay clergy and lay leaders in 2011. It used to be that ministers, elders, and deacons had to be either "faithful in marriage or chaste in singleness," Fowler says.
The new standard is that the ordained must live "in radical obedience to Jesus Christ," she says. What does that mean? Fowler says that the interpretation is up to individual presbyteries, and that various presbyteries across the country have ordained gays and lesbians.
"It becomes a matter for conversation and discernment in the ordination process," Fowler says.
The Presbytery of Genesee Valley vote on the marriage amendment is Saturday, March 21, at Bethany Presbyterian Church, 3000 Dewey Avenue.