Pastor Ann Kansfield is the pastor of Brooklyn’s LGBT-affirming Greenpoint Reformed Church in Cleveland with her two small children and wife Jennifer Aull (also a pastor at the church). The family is attending the general synod of the United Church of Christ, a “mainline” umbrella overseeing more than 5,100 churches and 1.1 million Christian congregants in the United States.
It’s an appropriate place to be on the day that the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to equal marriage under the 14th Amendment.
In 1972, the UCC ordained the first openly gay minister in history, Rev. William Johnson. In 2005, the church passed a marriage equality referendum, and in 2014 the national body became the first church to sue the government for the right to marry same-sex couples.
“It’s been very costly to the mainline church to debate homosexuality over and over again,” Kansfield, who also became the New York Fire Department’s first gay chaplain this year, said of the long history of struggle within UCC.
“A lot of churches left, a lot of people left, a lot of money was declined. it was very similar to the anti-desegregation debates of the 1950’s and 1960’s.”
Many in the church are directly affected by the ruling as well. The synod was essentially put on hold today as the church participated in an impromptu demonstration at Cleveland City Hall and prepared for an onslaught of marriage officiations. But some feelings were more personal, as UCC national officer Rev. J Bennet Guess described.
“Driving into downtown Cleveland, on the first day of General Synod, I told my partner, Jim, that I had a strong feeling that, by the end of this Synod, we would finally be legally married, here in our home state of Ohio,” Guess said. “And, halleluiah, that day has finally arrived. After so many years of telling our stories, refusing to be silent or second-class, and insisting on the moral and legal validity and equality of our relationships, that persistent emotional courage, by so many, has paid off.”
“After so many years of telling our stories, refusing to be silent or second-class, and insisting on the moral and legal validity and equality of our relationships, that persistent emotional courage has paid off.”
The legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide doesn’t necessarily impact Kansfield’s own church. (New York legalized gay marriage in 2011, and Kansfield and Aull themselves married in Massachusetts in 2004.) But the Supreme Court ruling does bring the country a little more in line with her theology.
“As a pastor this is a significant ruling for us,” said Kansfield. “It allows us the freedom to officiate marriages, it gives us the liberty to live out our faith calling.”
One of the most-debated aspects of the marriage equality case was whether it would force clergy to officiate same-sex weddings if they opposed them. As it turns out, the Supreme Court’s opinion today made it crystal clear that the constitutional separation of church and state is still as firmly in place as ever.
It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered. The same is true of those who oppose same-sex marriage for other reasons. In turn, those who believe allowing samesex marriage is proper or indeed essential, whether as a matter of religious conviction or secular belief, may engage those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate. The Constitution, however, does not permit the State to bar same-sex couples from marriage on the same terms as accorded to couples of the opposite sex. [Italics ours]
Brandon Robertson, who writes the blog Revangelical at the theology news site Patheos and sits on the board of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, told the Daily Dot that the spread of misinformation about churches being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies was a “fear tactic.”
“Pastors who disagree with the civil ruling on marriage equality will be free to continue to preach from their pulpit about traditional marriage,” Robertston said. “It’s the separation of the civil and the sacramental. The government has never been in the business of making churches marry people or preventing churches from marrying people. This ruling has no bearing on the theology.”
Although conservative Christian churches will still have the right to abstain from same-sex marriage, and even to speak against it, the tide is turning towards more acceptance of LGBT congregants—even in the evangelical Christian community.
Robertson himself was just ordained as a pastor this May. But the church that ordained him, Seattle’s evangelical megachurch East Lake Community Church, was a surprising choice.
East Lake is one of many churches that have adopted more LGBT-affirming views in recent years. The evangelical community was rattled when Rob Bell, the founding pastor of the often-homophobic Mars Hill Church, came out in support of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.
“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense,” Bell said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in February. “When you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life.”
Bell also coined the phrase “Love Wins” when he published a controversial evangelical book by the title in 2011. The controversy over that book, though, was about Bell’s refusal to believe that Hell exists. Today, #LoveWins is trending on social media as a reference to the Supreme Court ruling.
“In our modern day, the word evangelical has been highjacked by the religious right and those with political agendas,” Robertson said of confusion over whether “evangelical” is equated with the most conservative sects of Christianity. “But anyone who knows the history knows evangelicals came out of orthodox Christianity, and rethinking political, scientific, and social issues. There’s a growing number of us calling it back to its original roots.”
Evangelical, said Robertson, simply means “good news.”
“I think the good news of Jesus is good news for all people,” he said.
And what good news the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling is. Now, same-sex couples can begin applying for marriage licenses immediately—in all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories.
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there,” reads Justice Kennedy’s opinion. “It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
Photo via Dennis Jarver/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed