Since I work on staff for the local presbytery, I spent the last week and a half working at the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which was held here in Minneapolis. It was a good time, but I was worn out at the end of it all.
Of course, number of the issues the commissioners were called to decide revolved around sexuality. On Thursday afternoon the General Assembly voted to allow for the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. While that might sound like a great step forward, that was only part one of the process. In Presbyterian polity, this change to the Book of Order has to be approved by a majority of presbyteries. Related changes that allowed for gay, non-celibate clergy has passed before only to be defeated at the presbytery level.
The next issue that happened to be dealt with on the same day, was a change in the definition of marriage from "a man and a woman" to "two persons." The result there was rather odd: the General Assembly decided to continue talking about the issue and decided to not debate the issue. A number of people who supported the change were stunned by the results. Maybe it was because the discussion took place so late in the day. Maybe people could only handle one revolutionary change at a time. Whatever happened, there was no vote to change the definition of marriage.
Many of those who support same sex marriage were quite upset at General Assembly and there was some justification. Soulforce was present the next day, protesting the decision to not decide.
As someone who is gay and supports same sex marriage, I was disappointed. And yet, I'm not willing to criticize the commissioners and could even at some level understand the hesitation.
I think for those of us who see being gay as a non-issue and same-sex marriage as no big deal, it's very easy to think that everyone should just get over their hangups concerning homosexuality. We forget that for other people, this is still an issue that they are dealing with and trying to come to terms with. I think many of us who are pro-gay forget that changing the definition of marriage is a big deal for many people. This is what I wrote over at my political blog, NeoMugwump late last year:
I think one thing that those of us who support same sex marriage have to admit is that asking that straight America get used to two people of the same sex getting married is a radical shift in how we think about marriage and love. Yeah, I know, getting married is not radical, it's as normal as two hetros getting married. But the fact is, that the thought of two people of the same sex getting married is still something that a lot of Americans can't get their heads around. It's not that they are all closet bigots. They can understand and accept gays in society. They can understand that gay people fall in love. But when we start talking about marriage, it starts to get confusing for them. Think about it for a moment. When the average Joe thinks about marriage, they think about bridal gowns and bachelor parties. But all of this is lost on most of us that support gay marriage.
It's easy to see those who voted to in effect, table the measure as nothing more than bigots, acting on their internalized (or not so internalized) homophobia. For supporters this was about justice. For a number on the floor, this was about trying to make the leap from one definition of marriage to another. As much as we might think the leap is inconsequential, for someone trying to come to wrap their minds around this issue, that leap is a mile wide.
The march towards inclusion of GLBT folks in the church is not something that is revolutionary as much as it is evolutionary. Most people are starting to accept gay people as every day folks because they encounter them everywhere these days. However, it is harder to accept a gay person in your pulpit (believe me, I know) or see them getting married to each other. Why? I don't know, but I tend to think that it's because they haven't seen that as much.
On the whole, American society has become more tolerant and accepting of gays and lesbians. Over time, Americans are become more willing to see gays serve openly in the military and are slowly accepting same sex marriage rights. The thing is, these things have come slowly, not rapidly.
In time, I think churches and churchgoers will come around on same sex marriage as they see more gay couples in their lives and get to hear the struggles they face. But all this takes time. Which is why I think it will be a while for the Presbyterians as well as other denominations to wholeheartedly embrace same sex marriage. It takes time for people to make the leap of logic.
Those of us who support same sex marriage should still press the case, but we have to remember that the average joe in the pews is still coming to terms with all of this. The best thing we can do is to keep working for inclusion and for those of us who are gay, to model what it means to be in a loving relationship with someone of the same sex.
And keep loving our sisters and brothers who who are trying to deal with all of this. They will get there- in time.