Holy Matrimony

The most important gay marriage battles will be fought in the pews.

Buried on Page 195 of Jonathan Rauch’s new book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, is this insight into why the government’s stamp of approval isn’t actually the one that matters most in the battle over gay marriage: “The full social benefits of gay marriage will come when religions as well as governments customarily bless it: when women marry women in big church ceremonies as parents weep and ministers, solemnly smiling, intone the vows,” observes Rauch, a writer in residence at the Brookings Institution. In other words, forget courthouses and city halls; the fight for legitimacy for gay couples will be won under a roof topped by a cross and a steeple. About three-quarters of Americans choose to be married by a member of the clergy. When it comes to weddings, if not regular worship, we remain a country of steadfast churchgoers. It’s a point grasped by both proponents and opponents of same-sex unions: Marriage is a threshold, a life-changing event because of its distinct combination of legal, social, and religious significance. For many of us, the importance of the institution is rooted more deeply in joint blessings than in joint tax returns.

Which is why, in the long run, a bigger victory for gay rights than the decisions to award civil marriage licenses by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the mayor of San Francisco may be the recent acquittal of the Rev. Karen Dammann by the Pacific Northwest conference of the United Methodist Church. Dammann came out three years ago in a letter to her bishop, confessing that she was raising a son in a committed lesbian relationship and needed to be truthful for her family’s sake. Last month, she was tried before a jury of 13 Methodist ministers for violating a tenet of church law that does not allow “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to serve as clergy. Given the straightforward facts of the case—an out lesbian pastor was being charged with being an out lesbian pastor—a guilty verdict seemed like a no-brainer.

Or so thought conservative Methodists. Yet not one of the 13 clergy members on the jury was willing to convict Dammann. Instead, they concluded that she’d done nothing “incompatible with Christian teachings”—the formal charge against her. According to this explanation of the case on the church’s Web site, this charge flowed from one of the “Social Principles” set forth in the Methodist Book of Discipline, or collection of laws, which states that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But a bishop testifying on Dammann’s behalf argued to the jurors that the Social Principles—which address everything from gambling and pollution to war—aren’t meant to have the force of law. In secular legal terms, these principles are supposed to be advisory rather than binding. So the jurors could read them against other passages in the Book of Discipline that affirm gays and lesbians as people “of sacred worth” and that support “equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.” The latter principle offers more legitimacy for gay rights than any federal or state constitution, by the way, and shows that the Methodist Church has moved a long way from the literalist reading of the Bible that treats homosexual acts as forbidden. The jury in Dammann’s case ran with it. Faced with a choice between the church’s strictures against gay clergy and its broader commitment to loving and accepting its gay members, the 13 ministers went with love.

Dammann’s acquittal doesn’t actually change Methodist law; it’s a decision by one regional ecclesiastical court, not the church body as a whole. Still, the case moves the nation’s third-largest congregation (after Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists) one step closer to embracing gay ordination and, arguably, gay marriage. The Book of Discipline continues to single out the sanctity of marriage based on “shared fidelity between a man and a woman,” and four years ago, a Methodist pastor was defrocked for celebrating a gay union in North Carolina. Now a complaint has been filed against the Rev. Karen Oliveto for performing in San Francisco what she says is the first gay marriage inside a Methodist church. But this time, the jurors who will hear her case will have the Dammann verdict to draw on if they want to find some basis for avoiding censuring Oliveto. And since they will come from the California-Nevada conference of the church—which has been generally sympathetic to gay rights—they very well might.

Ecclesiastical rulings in favor of gay rights are chipping away at traditional doctrine in other mainstream Christian denominations as well. Last summer, the general convention of the Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The church also recognized same-sex “blessing ceremonies” as acceptable practice, and individual dioceses are following up by drafting rites that parallel those of traditional marriage. In February, a Presbyterian ecclesiastical court reinstated a Cincinnati minister who’d been disciplined for blessing gay marriages and ordaining gays as deacons and elders. The Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken won’t get his pulpit back since he signed an $80,000 severance agreement with his former congregation last summer. But he said his victory on appeal would help him wage a battle to change the church’s national constitution.

To be sure, the embrace of gay rights by these churches has been partial and largely regional. The Episcopalians have been threatened by schism ever since Robinson’s ordination, with traditionalist congregations moving to form their own national network. In the wake of the Dammann verdict, some Methodists are warning about a similar risk of division. The United Methodist * Church as a whole will take up questions about gay ordination and gay marriage later this spring at its quadrennial general conference, as will the Presbyterians at their general assembly this summer. These discussions are expected to be contentious, as they repeatedly have been over the past 20 years.

But whatever happens in the short term at the national level, the recent rulings have forced Methodists (8.5 million nationally), Presbyterians (2.3 million), and Episcopalians (also 2.3 million) to a serious reckoning from within about questions of gay status raised by members of their own clergies. That’s more than 13 million Christians doing some very hard thinking. If you’re wondering about the Jews, the Reform movement currently allows rabbis to bless same-sex relationships and to decide for themselves the religious significance of the ceremonies. Conservative Judaism has stopped short of a similar endorsement, but rabbis who have gone ahead anyway have not been sanctioned.

With an eye toward avoiding rifts, Methodist leaders have called for more “conversation” about the church’s positions on homosexuality and have put out written materials designed to help congregations talk through deep-seated disagreement. Church doctrine in some ways reinforces the split: In one breath, the Book of Discipline says “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality,” but also “we affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends.” Yet there’s a reason such internal contradiction has long been a feature of many major religions. By assuring those with strong feelings on both sides that their beliefs are grounded in faith and principle, the doctrine opens the door to discussions that are relatively free of self-censorship. People feel freer to talk to each other when they’re grappling with questions that don’t have a single, church-dictated answer. At the same time, members are always urged to remember, in the words of one Methodist pastor, “that those to whom and about whom we speak are all children of God.” More than any single court order or mayoral decree, that is the sort of teaching, and these are the sorts of conversations, that may, over time, move hearts and minds.

Correction, April 7, 2004: This article originally said the Episcopal Church would consider gay ordination and gay marriage this summer. In fact, the United Methodists will take up these questions at their general conference. (Return to the corrected sentence.)