|New Jersey pastor has same-gender wedding|
|Written by Leslie Scanlon, Outlook national reporter|
|Monday, 28 December 2009 23:01|
A Presbyterian minister from New Jersey has sent a letter to her congregation and an announcement to her presbytery, telling them that she was married in October in a same-gender wedding in Massachusetts, where such marriages are legal.|
Laurie A. McNeill, pastor of Central Church in Montclair, N.J., informed her session on Oct. 13 and also mailed a letter to members of her congregation that day, and was married on Cape Cod on Oct. 17, her grandmother’s birthday.
On Nov. 14, McNeill stood during the announcements time of a meeting of Newark Presbytery and informed her colleagues in ministry that she had recently married. “Rejoice with me, for I have found a companion with whom to share my life!” she wrote in the letter to the congregation.
It may be the first time that a pastor serving a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation has married someone of the same gender — and done so while working for a denomination that defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman.
In announcing her marriage publicly, McNeill said she knows that someone from her congregation or her presbytery may file action against her in the PC(USA) courts – although she says she doesn’t know exactly what the charges against her might be.
Kevin Yoho, general presbyter of Newark Presbytery, said in an interview that he has received a number of calls of concern regarding McNeill’s marriage, but that as of mid-November no charges had been filed. A member of the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry plans to meet with McNeill soon to discuss the situation, Yoho said.
The constitution of the PC(USA) requires that those called to serve as ministers, elders, or deacons “lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among those standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”
Also, the Directory for Worship — part of the PC(USA) Book of Order — defines marriage this way: “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship.”
Despite that wording, however, some states have come to define civil marriage differently, by permitting marriages between same-gender persons. That reality has presented challenges to Presbyterian ministers in those states, who must decide whether they would perform a same-gender wedding if asked to do so. A special General Assembly Committee to Study Issues of Civil Unions and Christian Marriage is expected to report back to the General Assembly in July 2010.
Unlike some of the other high-profile cases involving gays and lesbians in the PC(USA), McNeill is not seeking to be ordained; she already has been a Presbyterian minister for two decades, is a former moderator of Lehigh Presbytery and has served as a General Assembly commissioner. Up until now, she says, her sexual orientation has not been an issue discussed publicly either as she was considered for ordination or as she was a candidate to be called to pastor a particular congregation.
In December, McNeill, 49, will have been pastor of Central Church for five years. In coming to the congregation — a congregation of about 150 in an upper-middle-class community about 20 miles from New York City — she said she never discussed her sexual orientation, although she never hid it either. “I didn’t come out to my parents until after I had been here,” McNeill said in an interview. “It was not like I was going to come out to the church before I came out to them.”
While she did not discuss her sexual orientation openly, however, McNeill said some in the congregation did perceive that she is a lesbian.
During her first week at Central, she said, a “significant” person in the congregation approached her and said very directly: “We’re kind of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ congregation.”
To McNeill, “it was a very intentional statement. … It sent a message that I received.”
About two years ago, McNeill met Lisa Gollihue, a trial attorney, through an online dating service. Much to her surprise, because McNeill had been skeptical about such things, “it really was love at the beginning. There was a powerful connection that was just ridiculous.”
But McNeill kept her personal life private for the most part, and Gollihue did not become involved with the church. About a year ago, they decided to marry. In the months leading up to the wedding, however, McNeill did not discuss it with her congregation.
“I intentionally held off telling the church because I didn’t know how it would play out,” she said. “If it went badly, I didn’t want anything to taint the wedding day. I didn’t want to risk that, not knowing if someone would file a case, not knowing if someone would immediately pressure for me to be removed from the church.”
A few days before the wedding, McNeill did inform both the session of her congregation and the Committee on Ministry of her impending wedding — and she mailed a letter to members of the congregation as well.
McNeill said she told the session that she was getting married “and there will be no groom at the wedding. There was sort of this look — ‘You are gay. You are gay!’ ”
Later during that meeting, she said, the session voted unanimously to support McNeill in her decision and to affirm her ministry at Central Church. She said one elder on the session remarked that in calling her five years earlier, “all of us probably sensed we were calling a gay minister. None of us ever talked about it. We didn’t know legally if we could ask the question” or if the presbytery would permit it. “We kind of did a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
McNeill and Gollihue were married on Oct. 17 at Christ Church Episcopal in Harwich Port, Mass., on Cape Cod. Earlier, they had approached the governing board of that congregation and asked for permission to marry there, which the vestry did grant.
McNeill said she and Gollihue also attended worship at that church, where, during a welcome time, they introduced themselves and told the congregation “how profoundly grateful we were that they allowed that marriage to take place. There was this sense of ‘Wow, there’s not a Presbyterian church in the state of New Jersey or the state of North Carolina,’” where McNeill grew up, that could do the same.
“It really was a bittersweet thing for me,” she said, with both a “profound gratitude” for the Episcopal congregation and “this wishfulness that it could have happened somewhere else.”
The minister who officiated at the wedding was Caroline Johnson Patterson, a United Church of Christ hospital chaplain from Rhode Island, who as a teenager grew up in the same Presbyterian congregation in Aberdeen, N.C., as McNeill did — Bethesda Church, a congregation of about 150, from which five of the teenagers in the youth group at that time later became ordained ministers, including Patterson and McNeill. “It was the next best thing to having the minister from my childhood and his wife,” both of whom have died, McNeill said. “That made it very special.”
Also participating in the service, but not saying the vows or signing the marriage license, were an Episcopal priest from New Hampshire, who is the rector of Gollihue’s parents’ congregation, and the rector from Christ Church Episcopal, where the wedding took place. The Episcopal church “blessed” the marriage, but did not perform it, McNeill said.
Since then, McNeill said the reaction, both from her congregation and the presbytery, has been generally supportive but with some expressing concern. One person from the congregation, for example, told McNeill she felt deceived.
“I said, ‘What’s the deception?’ I never said I was straight. I’ve never had a man on my arm,” and anytime someone suggested that they knew a nice man and would be willing to fix them up on a date, she turned them down.
After the wedding, McNeill went to visit an elderly woman from the congregation. She said the woman told her: “I knew the first day I saw you walk in that you were like that,” that she was lesbian. “That was no surprise.”
Some in the presbytery, however, believe that it does violate the PC(USA)’s constitution to have a minister married to a person of the same gender. And they will be watching closely to see what the Committee on Ministry and the presbytery decide what to do.
McNeill has taken “contradictory vows,” in her ordination vows and her marriage vows, said Paul Leggett, pastor of Grace Church in Montclair and a former member of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Coalition, an evangelical group.
In marrying someone of the same gender, “you’re doing something that’s in direct violation of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which you took a vow to uphold,” Leggett said. And marriage vows are “serious vows. Those vows are contradictory. I don’t know where that leaves her.”
Leggett also said he does not think, given the circumstances, that McNeill can continue as pastor of Central Church. “The question comes back to this: Is the constitution of the Presbyterian church optional, or is it mandatory? … Unfortunately, she’s put herself in an untenable position. Probably what she needs to do is think about moving to a denomination where this is acceptable.”
McNeill’s marriage “created kind of a dilemma for the presbytery and a dilemma for Laurie,” Leggett said. “To me, this is really quite extreme. (It’s like) you’re saying the Pledge of Allegiance while renouncing American citizenship — what do you do with that? It raises questions about the character of the person. … There has to be some kind of appropriate exit strategy … .”
Yoho, the general presbyter, said the Committee on Ministry “will do sort of a low-level inquiry with (the) Rev. McNeill” to assess the situation, and will report back.
While some at the presbytery meeting applauded when McNeill made her announcement, not all did — and it’s not clear whether those who applauded did so because they understood that she had married a woman and approved, or just because she said she had recently married.
Yoho said some have expressed discomfort that McNeill did not discuss the matter ahead of time with her congregation, so “there was no way of getting feedback, no way of engaging the congregation in this part of her new life.”
One minister asked about the ordination vows that McNeill took, Yoho said, saying that “when one takes that oath and then by their behavior does something contrary to the body to which you pledge an oath, doesn’t that constitute some sort of integrity issue if not a breach of that oath?”
As a general presbyter, “I care very much about every member of the presbytery, and I want each member to be able to operate with a high degree of wellness and effectiveness,” he said. So he expects the Committee on Ministry to ask McNeill what impact her marriage has had on her congregation, which he described as moderate theologically, and its ministry.
As for whether the marriage itself violates the PC(USA) constitution, “there’s not a whole lot of case law about that, or even ‘best practices’ in presbyteries,” Yoho said. “I’ve reached out to many colleagues. … None of them had personal experience of this kind of thing happening.”
As for McNeill, she is not sure what will come next.
What she does know is that, at age 49, she has married for the first time, and is thrilled.
While the PC(USA) constitution requires those being ordained to practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single, “I do have fidelity in my marriage,” McNeill said. And “I believe that my relationship with Lisa is chaste. I believe it was chaste when we were single and it is chaste now that we are married. … I think of that as purity and a holiness. I believe we have that in our relationship.”
Asked whether she intended her marriage as an act of advocacy, McNeill answered that she was married in a relatively small ceremony, with 75 family members and close friends present, and no media.
“Lisa asked me to marry her, and I said ‘Yes.’ The fact that it’s an issue in the church, the fact that it’s an issue in the state, that’s not my issue. I got married just like anyone else. … I want to spend the rest of my life with this person in a covenanted relationship. If it ends up as a big test case, there will be advocacy involved in it. If not, I’ll just be living my life. … Maybe charges will be filed. But I’m a happily married woman.”