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Gay weddings prompt discussion, dissension in churches

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

After the Supreme Court’s landmark decision upholding marriage equality in all 50 states, many churches are figuring out how — or even if — they will proceed with same-sex weddings.

For the Metropolitan Community Church of Ferndale, “if” hasn’t been an issue. The church, which has a largely gay congregation, has been performing holy union/commitment ceremonies for years, and have segued smoothly into legal marriages.

Metropolitan’s pastor wasn’t available when members Pam Fender and Jackie Ramsey wanted to marry over the July Fourth weekend, so the couple were wed by the Rev. Pam Ancona, who performs religious ceremonies in non-traditional settings.

“A lot of people don’t belong to churches, and I’m willing to go where they want to be married,” Ancona said.

The wedding was a modest affair in the backyard of their lakeside Pontiac home, with champagne and slices of Kroger sheet cake, and Fender’s aunt and uncle as witnesses. “It’s just the fact that we get to do it, it’s right and it’s legal this time,” Fender said.

For years, some Metro Detroit churches — and ministers like Ancona — have been performing commitment ceremonies and were ready for the new customers even before the High Court’s historic June 26 decision. Other Detroit churches are scrambling to figure out how to proceed. Some want to assess how ready their congregations are, while others must adhere to a national ruling body that still opposes gay marriage.

The Unitarian Universalists have been pro-same-sex marriage for years. To celebrate the Supreme Court decision, some of its congregations performed free weddings for same-sex couples recently.

In Southfield, the Rev. Kimi Riegel conducted a free wedding July 11, but most of the same-sex couples she’s talked to are looking to get married in six months to a year.

“There’s not a big hurry for them, and they want to have time to plan,” Riegel said. For the couple she married Saturday, she said there were financial benefits to getting married now in terms of health insurance.

The United Church of Christ came out strongly in favor of gay marriage and endorsed a resolution June 30 at its General Synod against “religious exemption” laws, which would not only limit the access of same-sex couples to marriage services but also allow discrimination in housing, employment, etc.

The Episcopal Church voted to allow religious ceremonies for same-sex couples at its Episcopal General Convention on July 1, just days after the Supreme Court decision. While the vote changes gender-specific language from church laws on marriage, clergy would still be allowed to decline to perform the marriages.

Turbulent year for some

For some of the more traditional denominations, it’s been a turbulent year.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. passed a resolution at its convention in 2014 allowing ministers to conduct same-sex weddings.

The First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham beat its governing body to it, having hosted a commitment ceremony six years ago. For years it was a conservative church in a mostly conservative suburb, but in recent years First Presbyterian has recast itself as “Everybody’s Church,” welcoming “all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.”

“We participate in the Pride Festival, and I think by word of mouth it’s gotten out and about that we are a safe, welcoming and nurturing congregation,” said senior pastor Rev. John Judson. Several gay couples are members, “and we have baptized a number of their children,” Judson said.

There hasn’t been flak over their outreach to the gay community, the pastor said, because most church members who wouldn’t like it have moved on.

“Prior to my arrival, the church was already moving in the direction of being inclusive,” Judson said. “A lot of the people who did not approve (of gay marriage) left and moved to more conservative congregations.”

As for the Catholics, Pope Francis has urged more outreach to gays, signaling a softer stance, but the church still teaches that marriage, one of the seven sacraments, is only to be between a man and a woman. Even going to a gay wedding, for a Catholic, is considered giving “consenting witness” to an improper relationship.

United Methodists’ split

The United Methodist Church’s motto is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but the issue of gay marriage has created a rift between conservative congregations and more progressive churches that refer to themselves as “Reconciling” (a name that has no standing with the national church). In 2013, a Pennsylvania UMC pastor, the Rev. Frank Schaefer, was convicted by a church body and defrocked for officiating at a same-sex wedding — his son’s.

The Rev. Susan Youmans, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Warren, said she will obey the UMC’s Book of Discipline, which forbids its ministers to conduct gay marriages or allow such a ceremony in its churches.

“As ordained clergy, I took a vow to uphold (the Book of Discipline), and the teaching and traditions of the church,” Youmans said. “If I were to participate in a same-sex marriage, I would be charged and brought up on trial.”

After the Supreme Court decision was announced, Youmans received a call.

“Two dear people from my life called me as soon as it was legal and wanted me to celebrate their marriage with them. I had to say no,” the pastor said. “That’s tough, because you want to be a part of that. Personally I am not happy that United Methodist clergy are restricted, and yet I understand there are those who will go ahead with the ceremony.”

For the Warren church, like others, it will be a year of discussions, many of them painful.

“Since we’re a congregation who hasn’t had a conversation about what they’re comfortable with, it hasn’t been an issue up until now,” said Youmans. “Now we have to do our homework.”

In the meantime, “I follow the discipline, until things change. We have our quadriennial gathering, where we look at our Book of Discipline and we wrestle with our theological path.”

Just last week, an openly gay United Methodist pastor married several days after he says he was forced to resign. The Rev. Benjamin Hutchison married Monty Hutchison Friday in Cassopolis outside southwestern Michigan’s historic Cass County Courthouse. Guests included about 30 ministers.

The 31-year-old says he resigned Monday from Cassopolis United Methodist Church. It came after the bishop’s office received a report he had a same-sex partner.

On the other side of the spectrum is Detroit’s Central United Methodist, which has been at the forefront of social and labor issues for more than half a century. The church bills itself as a “peace and justice, reconciling congregation,” and has a rainbow flag on its home page.

“We believe that it’s our pastoral duty to minister to all people, so if it’s something they want to do, and want the blessing of the church, we will marry them, recognizing that I could be brought up on charges in the church and lose my credentials,” said senior pastor Rev. Jill Hardt Zundel, who replaced the retiring Rev. Edwin Rowe last year.

She added that church officials didn’t seem to be going after pastors as much now for conducting same-sex weddings. “That seems to have slowed down,” she said. “I think we have some more progressive bishops who are understanding that the words they have used against homosexual people have brought harm.”

While it may seem that some immutable lines have been drawn, especially among the Methodists and Catholics, many ministers see the personal struggle and pain behind the rhetoric.

“Every single one of us has a different take on it, and we’re all wrestling with it,” said Youmans of Warren’s First United Methodist Church. “Be kind, be gentle,” she told a reporter. “So many people are hurt by these conversations. That’s what breaks my heart.”

Associated Press contributed.