As I ponder the ways in which faith matters, I am drawn to the sermon Rev. Anne preached recently at St. Andrews, entitled “Field of Dreams.” In that sermon, she challenged us to some serious visioning, pondering places where the world seems to be going astray, where things are not going the ways in which God wants. Our faith encourages us to seek to see the world through God’s eyes, then work to be Christ’s hands and feet to help bring “what is” into closer alignment with “what should be.”
With our different backgrounds and interests at St. Andrews, we are led in many different directions in our visioning. That is good! God surely grieves about many things happening in His world. The STAMP project is a good example of faith at work to address some of the problems faced by neighbors in our area. It is surely not in accordance with God’s plan for needy people to have to live in homes that are not warm and dry in Michigan winters, homes which are not safe from intruders. We do what we can to try to change that.
One of the visioning questions which has challenged our denomination for years concerns our readiness to welcome gays and lesbians as full members of our church. Since St. Andrews was established more than fifteen years ago, we have been committed to offering full membership to LGBT people, an approach that is now the official policy of our denomination. More recently, the issue facing the denomination has concerned marriage of same-sex couples. A carefully-worded document giving permission for such marriages in places where they are permitted by state laws was approved by the General Assembly in 2014, and has now been affirmed by the majority of the Presbyteries, with 120 Presbyteries voting in favor and 47 opposed. Mackinac Presbytery recently approved that decision by a vote of 38-23. Since such marriages are not currently legal in Michigan, that decision has no immediate impact on us, but will give us such permission if the US Supreme Court decides that marriage is a human right, available to all, including LGBT couples.
The key word here is “permission.” The approved policy of our denomination is one that permits but does not require congregations to undertake such marriages. For such marriages to happen within our sanctuary would require that both the Session and the pastor agree to it. And once again, that would only become a possibility if and when the laws are changed to make such marriages legal in our state.
It is in this context that St. Andrews’s Peace and Justice Ministry Team has requested that our congregation take a principled stand affirming our support for marriage of same sex couples in our church. As a congregation that has long defined itself as an open congregation (“Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Hands”), committed from its start to welcoming all – including gays and lesbians – to full membership in the church (including in the leadership as well as the sacraments of baptism and communion), it is appropriate that we make this affirmation. Such an affirmation would expand our understanding of what it means to be a fully welcoming congregation to include the right of same-sex couples to be considered in the same way as other couples seeking to be married in our church.
I understand that this is a controversial issue. I recognize that a significant minority in the denomination lament the decisions taken in this area which are now official policy of our denomination. The voting results in Presbyteries remind us that a significant number disagree with those policies, but also that these are clearly a minority of the denomination.
Our faith community provides the theological context for working through these differences. In the Reformed tradition, the most important phrase to describe our approach is: “Reformed, always being reformed, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Of course, we must pay central attention to the Bible and to our Book of Confessions, as well as to existing policies and practices of the church; but we also affirm that each of these is subject to interpretation and re-interpretation, reflecting our current understanding of what God is calling on us to do today. I believe that the vision offered to the church by the Peace and Justice Ministry Team is rooted in an understanding of what it means to “let the church to be the church,” based on a belief that loving one another and following Christ’s example must include justice for all, including the right of gay and lesbian people to be married in our sanctuary, following the same rules that apply for all other couples. If this view is shared by others across our church, then I feel that it is appropriate for us to affirm that now as a statement of who we are, what we believe, even as we wait for changes in the legal system that will allow us to put these principles into practice.
For me, not only does faith matter, it really is the heart of the matter, as it leads us to humility in our praying, thinking and acting, wisdom in our discerning, and persistence in all that we do as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ.
Don Mead, Author