The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 28, 2013

Churches deciding whether to do same-sex weddings

Individual churches making decision whether to officiate ceremonies

By Amanda Dyslin

---- — MANKATO — In the predominately Lutheran community of southern Minnesota, the state's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage is causing many area churches to at least raise the question: If approached by lesbian or gay congregation members, would we perform their marriage ceremony?

More conservative leaning churches, such as those under the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, won't even consider it. The LCMS position is that the Old and New Testaments prohibit homosexual behavior, and in a 2004 resolution, the church called it "contrary to the Creator's design" and "intrinsically sinful."

Churches under the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Synod, however — Minnesota's second-largest denomination with about 800,000 followers — have more leniency in deciding for themselves whether same-sex marriages will be conducted. The ceremonies can start taking place legally Aug. 1.

Christ the King Lutheran Church, with a congregation of about 2,700 people, is the first ELCA church in Mankato to decide that it will.

Changing tides

Pastor Patrick Patterson said during the past few years Christ the King has had a policy that it would only perform state-sanctioned marriages in the congregation. But if pastors felt conscience-bound, they could bless same-gender marriages outside of the church and not as a representative of the church.

Patterson was never approached to do so, which would have required a great deal of deliberation, he said. As an officiant of the church, Patterson said his actions must be in line with the church's positions and policies. Even when he's acting in his own capacity — such as serving on the board of the YMCA, he said as an example — he's still representing Christ the King.

“Thank goodness we didn't have to make that decision,” he said.

With the state legalizing same-sex marriage this year, the 11-member church council of Christ the King took two months to review the ELCA's statement on human sexuality (which became more inclusive of homosexuals in 2009), as well as the church's constitution, mission statement and values. At the June meeting the council voted, and with a two-thirds majority, decided to perform same-gender marriages.

“(The ELCA) left it up to individual congregations to make their own decisions,” Patterson said. “(The council members) all understood that this is an individual church decision, and they approached it very prayerfully and deliberately and came up with a solution that would welcome all people.”

Patterson looked to the Christ the King mission statement when asked if he believes, personally, that performing the ceremonies is the right thing to do.

“We are to be a caring community for all people, not just some people,” he said. “It's not something I'm opposed to at all.”

Also under the ELCA Synod, Grace Lutheran Church in Mankato has yet to make a final determination on the matter and might not until called on to do so, said Pastor Scott Olson.

“We have decided not to decide,” Olson said, adding that members of the congregation have greatly varied opinions regarding same-sex marriage. “We don't see that as something of our ministry and mission here.”

Grace Lutheran has yet to be approached with a request to hold a same-sex marriage ceremony. If that were to occur, Olson said the conversation would certainly begin again regarding whether the church should decide on a policy.

The decision would be the church's as a whole, Olson said, and not made by him as an individual regarding whether he would officiate the ceremonies.

“As pastor of the church, I need to follow the teachings and the policies of the church,” he said. “If this congregation decided not to perform same-sex marriages, then I would not do them. If this congregation decided to do them, then I would perform them.”

Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) also has yet to form a policy regarding same-sex marriages, said Pastor Jay Dahlvang.

“Based upon a recommendation from our bishop, our Church Council is discussing what process we will use here to make a decision regarding our policy,” Dahlvang said via email.

Differing viewpoints

Interim Pastor Bob Iverson of Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Peter, also under the ELCA Synod, said the ELCA has 60 synods nationally and there are six alone in Minnesota. Mankato churches are in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod and St. Peter falls into the Southwestern Minnesota Synod.

Iverson said all synods are handling the matter individually. And no specifics have come down from the Southwestern Synod yet.

“It's simply something we're able to consider,” he said.

Iverson said there's also a question of how pastors and churches should be making their decisions. Some, such as Grace Lutheran in Mankato, see it as a decision the church must make as a whole.

Iverson recently had dinner with colleagues in the Minneapolis Area Synod, in which he spent part of his career, and learned some churches have been encouraged to take a vote among their congregation.

“The pastors I was talking to were saying, 'We're not going to do that,'” Iverson said.

Pastors counsel and provide services for individuals on a variety of private matters, including marrying couples who have been divorced, for example. Some see marrying same-sex couples as being a similar private issue of faith and shouldn't be a public decision.

Pastors will have to decide within their own conscience and beliefs whether to officiate the services. For Iverson, he said — as an interim pastor helping the church through a transitional period — he's not in a place to bring the decision to the St. Peter congregation.

But if approached by a same-sex couple, Iverson would consider officiating the ceremony outside the church environment, he said. So far, neither Iverson nor any of the ELCA churches contacted said a request had come in for a same-gender service yet.

Churches divided

Religious ceremonies are typically not governed by state law, so Catholics and other churches that don’t recognize same-sex marriage are not required to marry gay couples. While gay couples can seek a civil marriage outside of religious venues, others want a legal marriage ceremony in a church.

There are a few churches where they may find pastors to officiate.

The Unitarian Universalist church has embraced the gay and lesbian community since 1973 and will be officiating same-sex weddings. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato already has a wedding scheduled for September, said Board President Jane Schostag.

Some of the more liberal-leaning mainstream Protestant churches recognize same-sex unions and have been performing religious “blessing” ceremonies for gay couples for years. But even within those denominations, there is not always consensus about whether to perform same-sex marriages.

American Baptist Churches USA is leaving it up to individual congregations to decide but affirmed its stance in 2005 that “homosexuality is incompatible with Biblical teaching."

In the Episcopal Church, a 2012 resolution allows, but does not require, faith communities and individuals to bless same-sex unions in their churches. The priest at St. John's Episcopal Church in Mankato is out of the country and couldn't be reached for comment.

United Church of Christ leaders formally supported same-sex marriage in a 2005 resolution. But, "we speak to our local churches, not necessarily for them," said the Rev. Howard Bell, acting conference minister of the Minnesota Conference of the UCC. The lead pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Mankato is away on medical leave and couldn't be reached.

Churches that will not conduct same-sex marriages: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Evangelical Christians; The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod; Orthodox Judaism; Presbyterian Church (USA); Roman Catholic Church; and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Nine same-sex marriage applications have been filed: five in Blue Earth County and four in Nicollet County. No applications have been taken in Brown, Watonwan, Waseca, Faribault, Le Sueur or Sibley counties.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service and Minnesota Public Radio contributed to this report.