Last March, the mainline Protestant denomination Presbyterian Church (USA) finalized changes to its definition of marriage as being between “a man and a woman” to between “two people,” essentially giving local churches across the country the opportunity to accept gay marriages within their congregations for the first time.
Fifteen months after that historic decision, the North Fork’s three Presbyterian churches have grappled with the topic of same-sex marriage in radically different ways: by accepting it, disallowing it or simply not talking about it.
“It’s obvious in our society today that anything related to the topic of homosexuality is an important issue within every person,” said the Rev. Dr. Pat Smith, pastor at Mattituck Presbyterian Church, which recently voted to create a policy against same-sex marriage. “I have a feeling that as long as there have been people there have been discussions about sexuality.”
Same-sex marriage has been legal in New York State since July 2011, when the state Legislature narrowly passed a law permitting it. The law also prevents government agencies from penalizing churches that refuse to perform or provide services for same-sex marriages.
Last year, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized gay marriage across the country. But while same-sex marriage may be legal, the theological debate over whether it should be permitted in Christian churches continues.
“We’re behind in that the society has been changing much faster than church time,” said the Rev. Mark Tammen, general presbyter for the Presbytery of Long Island, which oversees local Presbyterian churches.
Last year’s move by the Presbyterian Church (USA) — the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country — left it up to each congregation to decide whether to set policies permitting gay marriages to be performed in their churches or to continue with the “traditionally” accepted definition of marriage.
Much of the debate comes down to interpretation, according to the Rev. Tammen, since the Bible offers “precious little” relating directly to homosexuality — and even less addressing the idea of a monogamous same-sex relationship.
The Old Testament contains prohibitions on homosexuality, such as in the Book of Leviticus, the Rev. Tammen said. But Jesus doesn’t mention same-sex relationships in the Gospels, he said.
“In the New Testament, our current concept of homosexuality doesn’t really exist in Scripture,” he said. “There is not a ‘Thou shalt not get married to a same-sex person.’ ”
Complicating matters for the local churches, Jesus does condemn divorce and remarriage, both of which are currently allowed by the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Tammen said. This has led to decades of debate over the issue, dating to long before the recent victories by gay rights advocates in the nation’s courts.
Mattituck Presbyterian Church is the latest on the North Fork to reach a decision on the issue. Through a majority vote, it recently established a policy that would not permit gay marriages to take place in the church, the Rev. Tammen said.
He said the discussion in Mattituck extended for more than a year, ever since Presbyterian Church (USA) indicated in 2014 that it would expand its definition of marriage.
“[They’ve done a] good job of having a conversation, whether I agree or disagree with their outcome,” the Rev. Tammen said. “The thing I like about Mattituck is once the change happened, they sat down and talked about it.”
The church’s interim pastor, the Rev. Smith, declined to speak publicly about the church’s decision, saying the church preferred to keep the policy under wraps until it is broached by a member requesting a same-sex marriage.
Unlike other Christian denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterians concentrate decision-making power at the local level within each church’s “session,” a group of elected leaders who decide policy on all types of topics, from theological questions to whether musicians can use church space to hold concerts.
Pastors in Presbyterian churches advise and moderate these discussions but aren’t able to vote, the Rev. Smith said.
The Rev. Smith did say the Mattituck session’s decision was the result of many months of spirited debate over interpretation and that it “wasn’t an easy process.”
“The opportunity we have and the responsibility we have is to read [the Bible] as intended,” the Rev. Smith said. He emphasized that the church — which recently celebrated its 300th anniversary — has long tried to be inclusive and welcoming.
But a gay parishioner who was vocally in favor of allowing same-sex marriage at the church, said he didn’t feel that spirit after hearing the decision.
“I just started to feel like the church was treating me like a second-class citizen as a gay male,” said Edward Marlatt of Mattituck.
Mr. Marlatt, who had campaigned to have same-sex marriage approved at Mattituck Presbyterian Church, said he no longer attends the church frequently but stressed that he is “not here to put down the church.” Instead, Mr. Marlatt hopes to persuade the session to overturn the policy by informing other congregants about the discussion, saying he wants to “enlighten the church.”
“If they consider homosexuality to be a sin, why are they marrying people who were adulterers or fornicators?” he asked.
But the Rev. Smith said a policy forbidding same-sex marriage shouldn’t be interpreted as an attack on gay people or a change to the church’s overall message of inclusion.
“We [as a society] have always recognized that there are limits to behaviors and it doesn’t mean a lack of love,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Mattituck congregation’s neighbors to the east at First Presbyterian Church of Southold also spent more than a year discussing gay marriage — and arrived at the opposite conclusion.
“It really comes down to what’s in your heart and what’s in your conscience and we decided to err on the side of being gracious and inclusive,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. Peter Kelly. “Any two Christians who desire to be married in our church and who are willing to go through the pre-marriage counseling would be able to get married.”
The Southold session’s decision was unanimous, the Rev. Kelly said.
He said his session examined two books on the subject as part of a “formal study” of the issue: one that argued religious reasons to support gay marriage based on Scripture and one that found biblical examples of why gay marriage should not be permitted.
“This really comes down to how you read the Bible,” the Rev. Kelly said. “Jesus is eerily silent on the matter.”
The pastor said he “wouldn’t be opposed” to officiating a same-sex wedding. He stressed that he is more concerned about the strength of a couple’s relationship and faith than their gender.
But the conversation by the Presbyterian Church (USA) has led to fallout. In the wake of the denomination’s General Assembly decision to change the definition of marriage in 2015, dozens of churches in the United States, as well as Peru and Brazil, cut ties with the denomination in protest, according to the Religious News Service.
And the debate among Protestants over same-sex marriage hasn’t been limited to the Presbyterian church. Last month, the top policy-making body of the United Methodist Church decided to review church law relating to sexuality in the hopes of avoiding a similar schism within the church over LGBT rights.
The contentious nature of the debate has led some churches to take a wait-and-see approach, the Rev. Tammen said. Those congregations include Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, which has around 30 regular members.
But Cutchogue’s pastor, the Rev. Richie King, said the church hasn’t actively avoided the issue. Rather, he said, the small congregation hasn’t needed to reach a decision on the subject since the question simply hasn’t come up yet.
“We really have to discuss it, because it could happen anytime,” the Rev. King said. “It’s not required, but you don’t want to be the one caught making a decision on the fly.”
The Rev. King said his personal position on gay rights has “evolved” over the years. He said he understands both sides of the argument, calling it “a very tough issue.”
The pastor also has friends who are gay and “would love to be officially” married in a church, he said. He warned that some parishioners become “really set in a rigid theology.”
“I keep rolling back to ‘Love thy neighbor,’ ” the Rev. King said. “A church has got to be love or there’s no hope.”
Cutchogue’s session was expected to meet Wednesday to discuss various church topics. It was unclear if the session would discuss its stance on same-sex marriage, but the Rev. King said he hopes to introduce the topic for debate.
“We’re all trying,” he said. “I leave it in God’s hands. Through prayer it’ll lead us to the right decision.”