Episcopal churches to decide on same-sex marriage ceremonies

Published: Jul. 2, 2015 at 4:57 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 1, 2015 at 5:00 PM EDT
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ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Episcopalians have voted to allow religious weddings for same sex couples, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Individual churches will still have the ability to choose if they want to perform such ceremonies.

CBS News reported that the vote came Wednesday in Salt Lake City at the denomination's national assembly. The measure passed by an overwhelming margin in the House of Deputies, the voting body of clergy and lay people at the meeting. The day before, the House of Bishops had approved the resolution, 129-26 with five abstaining.

"Rapid changes in civil law concerning marriage in the United States, along with the responses received as part of the SCLM church-wide consultation process, indicate a need for equivalent proper liturgies in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal," a statement on the church's website said.

"Further, the SCLM consultation process indicated a pastoral need for equivalent marriage rights that could be used by any couple."

Robert Black is Rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Salisbury. He says that members there are now in a discernment process to determine if same sex marriages should take place.

"There is a mutual discernment process," Black told WBTV.  "Actually St. Luke's is in the midst of that discernment process right now and we will hopefully conclude it by the end of the month."

"I do think that certainly with all of the national news that the Episcopal Church is getting from this that there might be an influx of people that the Church has not been historically able to serve, and we welcome them," Black added. "All are welcome at St. Luke's and by all we really do mean all are welcome, but we still view marriage as a sacrament and as a sacrament we treat it seriously and if anyone is interested in marriage at St. Luke's, regardless of their gender and the gender of their partner, there is a process that they must go through in order to be married in the Episcopal Church."

The new rule eliminates gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so that same-sex couples could have religious weddings. Instead of "husband" and "wife," for example, the new church law will refer to "the couple." Under the new rules, clergy can decline to perform the ceremonies.

"In North Carolina what our bishop has done, actually Bishop Michael Curry was just elected to be the next presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church nationally, but what he has told congregations that are interested in doing this ministry of having same sex marriages is that they need to go through a discernment process," Black added.  "So that this is not the ministry of a congregation of a priest that is not on board with this, but it also means that a priest who is more on the liberal side of things can't come into a conservative parish and force anything on them."

The Episcopal Church, with nearly 1.9 million members, has included many of the Founding Fathers and presidents.

Among mainline Protestant groups, only the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), both of which are smaller than the Episcopal Church, allow same-sex weddings in all their congregations.

The 3.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lets its congregations decide for themselves, and many of them host gay weddings.

The United Methodist Church, by far the largest mainline Protestant church with 12.8 million members, bars gay marriage, although many of its clergy have been officiating at same-sex weddings recently in protest.

There is opposition to opening churches to same sex marriage, based mostly on what many say are Biblical prohibitions to homosexual activity.

"I cannot and will not violate the creative order of God or His Word in the establishment of Marriage; which is one man and one woman. I will not re-define something that God has already determined in His Word, nor will I assign to someone the term "marriage" when it is counter to God's character and nature," wrote Jay Stewart, Lead Pastor of The Refuge Church of Salisbury and Kannapolis.

Reverend Stewart posted a statement related to same sex marriage on the church web site and social media pages.

"We will not perform, acknowledge, nor adhere to any unbiblical demand that may be created by the Same Sex Marriage ruling by the Supreme Court. We live from a Higher Court that is Supreme over all the opinions of mankind. We will continue to love and reach out to the LGBT Community with the Love of Jesus, as we always have," Stewart wrote.

The St. Luke's rector said translations of scripture are not so clear when it comes to issue of homosexuality.

"So of course translating scripture across time and cultures is a difficult thing to do and it's something that we certainly struggle with and scripture is very important to us in the Episcopal Church as it is to all Christians," Black told WBTV. "But when issues of translation are difficult and when we're not absolutely certain that we know God's will, we want to be cautious when it comes to judging others so instead we tend to focus on Jesus more than we do words on a page.  We worship Jesus, we don't worship the Bible, though we look to the Bible to tell us about Jesus. In Jesus we saw a radical message of love.  There is a great hymn that says where true love is, God himself is there and we believe that the world needs more love and so we are happy to support relationships of love."

Chris Shelton, pastor of Life Church, an interdenominational church in Salisbury, says that while his church will not be hosting same sex marriages, everyone is welcome.

"We do believe that homosexuality is sinful but we don't isolate it as being greater than or less than any other sin. We reserve the right as a church right now to not acknowledge, not perform same sex marriage because we believe that marriage relationship is between man and woman based on our interpretation of what we believe God has made abundantly clear," Shelton told WBTV. "We also want to make it abundantly clear that the church is open and welcome to anyone."

"We believe that Jesus clearly preached that He did not come into the world to judge the world but to save the world, our message is not one of condemnation, our message is one of salvation and hope, reconciliation and healing and God's plan for the best life here on earth leading to eternal life hereafter," Shelton added.

Copyright 2015 WBTV. All rights reserved. CBS News contributed to this story.