Two Protestant denominations, The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), will be debating gay marriage issues in the upcoming week, and any decisions made may have far-reaching consequences.
The Protestant groups share a similar story, as each has around 1.9 million members in America and has been experiencing divisions over the ordination of homosexual clergy and the acceptance of same-sex unions. Congregations have split over the issues, with some insisting that the church should become more gay-affirming, while others have held firm to the traditional definition of marriage.
"The marriage issue, depending how the vote goes, has the potential to be very, very distressing to some of our congregations," expressed the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, which has 148 churches with 37,000 members in Allegheny County.
"It would not surprise me at all if some congregations would see [approval of same-sex relationships] as the straw that broke the camel's back, for them to leave the denomination," he added.
Already, dozens of congregations have left the PC(USA) after it approved gay ordination last year.
In February, a poll among Presbyterian members showed that 51 percent are opposed to same-sex marriage, with 34 percent in favor of changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and the rest saying they are undecided. Presbyterian pastors were just as divided on the issue – 49 percent supported same-sex marriage while 41 percent supported traditional marriage.
The Episcopal Church, which has also seen dozens of congregations leaving over the years for its increasingly liberal theology, has already been blessing gay and lesbian couples for decades, but those wishing to change the legal definition of marriage want to make the commitment vow free of gender and official liturgy.
"The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant," as the Episcopalian proposal is called, would first be used on a three-year trial basis if it passes, and then another decision would have to be made on whether to fully change Episcopalian doctrine to include same-sex couples in the definition of marriage.
"I don't think there is any member of the clergy that stayed [in The Episcopal Church] that didn't know this was going to happen. This is the drift of the culture and, when you have a mass exodus of your conservatives, this is just inevitable," expressed the Rev. James Simons, rector of St. Michael of the Valley in Ligonier.
"This is a service for trial use," he added. "Even if the bishop gives permission, the parish still has to decide if it's something they want to do."
The Episcopal Church in 2009 opened the way for "all individuals" to serve as clergy.
From June 30-July 7, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) will gather to discuss blessings for same-sex couples in church, and about 3,000 Presbyterians are expected to gather in Pittsburgh, Pa., for the debate. From July 5-12, The Episcopal Church will host its triennial General Convention in Indianapolis, Ind.