Culture versus conscience: Minister struggles with church's gay marriage vote

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Friday, June 20, 2014

JANESVILLE—The Rev. Bruce Jones doesn't have a problem with same-sex marriages at the courthouse.

But if he were asked, he'd decline to perform such a marriage in his sanctuary at the First Presbyterian Church, Janesville.

On Thursday, the Presbyterian Church USA voted to allow clergy to preside over same-sex marriages in states where they are legal and to change its definition of marriage to a covenant between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” The vote took place at the church's biennial general assembly in Detroit.

“My personal feeling is that the stance of the Presbyterian Church USA on this issue is against the scriptural witness on moral values,” Jones said Friday.

The provision to allow gay marriage passed by 61 percent. The vote to change the definition in the church's Book of Order passed by 71 percent. 

Jones, a commissioner to the assembly, voted against the measures, calling it “a sad day.”

“For many of us, our understanding of scripture is that God created marriage between man and woman.”

Jones said he didn't have an issue with same-sex marriages taking place at the courthouse or at other churches.

“If the UCC (United Church of Christ) wants to do it, that's fine with me,” Jones said.

So what is the differences between the courthouse and the sanctuary?

“It's the foundational principals of the separation of church and state,” Jones said. “The church cannot legislate morality, and the state should not dictate what happens in the eyes of God.”

A U.S. District Court recently ruled that Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. About a week later, the court put the ruling on hold, pending an appeal from state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

Denomination officials said no minister or congregation would be required to marry gay or lesbian couples.

Each church's session, its governing body, can vote to allow or disallow such marriages.

Because the session has charge over church property, it can exercise such power over traditional marriages, as well.

Jones and others at the Detroit meeting worried that the vote would accelerate the exodus of Presbyterian Church USA congregations to more conservative branches.

In 2010, the denomination approved the ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships. Since that time, more than 400 congregations have left, according to the Associated Press.

Last year alone, 148 congregations left for other denominations, according to Christianity Today.

“My plan is to stay for now,” Jones said.

He stressed that his session—or any congregation's session—could choose a different path.

If a session votes to leave, the pastor would help them through that process. At the end of the process, the pastor could decide to stay with the congregation in its new, more conservative branch of the church or look for another post.

“This is very difficult for me,” Jones said. “This is not the church that I was baptized in, confirmed in or ordained in.” 

The Rev. Jamie Swenson, of Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church, Janesville, declined to comment on the issue at this time.

Material from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was used in this story.

Last updated: 3:28 pm Friday, June 20, 2014

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