Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from the resident bishop of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference.
Leaders of a United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem, N.C., have decided not to hold weddings in the church building until the denomination lifts its ban on same-sex marriage.
Green Street Church announced publicly March 17 that its 18-member leadership council also has asked its pastors to refrain from signing marriage licenses until the State of North Carolina recognizes same-sex marriage.
"I do not see it as an act of exclusion for straight couples, but an invitation for all people to be in solidarity with those who are excluded," said the Rev. Kelly P. Carpenter, the church's senior pastor, in a pastoral letter. "Some may think it to be a sacrifice made by straight couples, but I think a better way to see it is the creation of a level playing field in one sacred space."
In its public statement on weddings, the church said its pastors still will offer premarital counseling for "all couples, regardless of orientation." Pastors, at their discretion, also will perform a service of relationship blessing for couples. Such a service would not include vows, exchange of rings, a pronouncement of marriage or covenant-making language.
"We've taken the legalese out of marriage," says Tim Sturgis, a leadership council member, "and brought it back to a holy place where it's two people professing their blessing to each other and making that relationship a blessing to this church regardless of whether they are gay or straight."
Carpenter is quick to point out that Green Street Church, which has an average weekly attendance of 200, is not the first United Methodist congregation to forego weddings in protest of the denomination's position on same-sex unions.
No United Methodist group has an exact tally, but Green Street leadership examined similar policies adopted by United Methodist churches in California, Illinois and New York before making its decision.
A Baptist church in Raleigh, N.C., also has a similar policy. But Green Street Church leaders know of no other United Methodist church in North Carolina that has taken the same action.
Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster is the resident bishop of Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference that includes Green Street Church. He issued a response Tuesday, March 19, to the church's decision.
"They are not the first church in our denomination to make such a statement, and in doing so, they have not in any way violated the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church," Goodpaster's statement said. "They have chosen to practice what is written in the Book of Discipline by seeking 'to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons' (Paragraph 161.F, page 111, The Book of Discipline)."
Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, agreed with Goodpaster that the congregation's action is in keeping with church law.
"The congregation has made its decision to send a strong sign of its hospitality to all God's people," Wenner told United Methodist News Service. "This example and the various reactions remind us that we, the people in The United Methodist Church, have to continue our journey to seek for unity to the call of making disciples and topractice what we say in the Preamble of the Social Principles: '...We commit ourselves to stand united in declaring our faith that God's grace is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In that confidence, we pledge to continue to be in respectful dialogue with those with whom we disagree, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons, and to tell the truth about our divisions as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things.'"
Church teachings and marriage
The congregation took its stance after North Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a ban against same-sex marriages, partnerships and civil unions in May 2012.
A number of church members had campaigned unsuccessfully against the state constitutional amendment, and gay and lesbian couples approached Carpenter asking if he would officiate at their weddings.
"I said, 'I am in covenant with the United Methodist denomination. I am in covenant with a church with which I disagree, and I am not alone in that,'" Carpenter told United Methodist News Service. "But is there a way that we can stand in a public way for equality?"
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, since 1972 has proclaimed the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." The book prohibits United Methodist churches from hosting and clergy from performing "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions."
The 2012 General Conference, when it met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., rejected efforts to change that language, including a proposal to say the church was in disagreement about homosexuality. General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking assembly, will next convene in 2016.
Sturgis, who is gay, said Green Street took its stand after careful and prayerful deliberation. A number of Green Street members expressed concerns the church was taking away an important rite for straight couples.
"My stance is - and I think the leadership council came around to the same view - that we really aren't taking away anything because heterosexual couples still have the same rights they always do," Sturgis said. "But our sanctuary is a sacred place for the entire church family ... and we will not let the sins of inequality happen in that space."
The decision followed two congregation-wide meetings after worship as well as lengthy conversations among council members. The leadership council's vote was unanimous. Carpenter, with the leadership council's support, still plans to officiate at a wedding in the church scheduled before the change in policy.
Carpenter said he talked to retired clergy in the hope that the church's new policy does not violate the Book of Discipline.
But the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the vice president and general manager of the unofficial evangelical caucus Good News, said he thinks it is possible Green Street may still run afoul of church law even though he is uncertain whether the point of law has been litigated. Lambrecht has argued cases before the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination's top court.
"If the blessings could be construed as celebrating homosexual unions, then that is a chargeable offense," Lambrecht said. "But I don't know if that issue has been litigated."
Marriages and church vitality
Lambrecht said he sees Green Street Church's gesture as ineffectual.
"I think all they are doing is hurting their ministry and outreach to straight couples," he said. "It's not going to change anything."
Carpenter, however, said the church's policy has the potential to make its ministry more vital.
The church, which is now 110 years old, had dwindled to 15 members by the late 1990s when the remnant made the decision to open its doors to all and focused on becoming a multi-ethnic church. Today, the church has seen increases in younger members and children as well as more ethnic diversity, Carpenter says.
"We are getting not just LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) members coming to the church because they are looking for a congregation that is welcoming," he said. "We are also receiving straight couples that are raising children that want to be involved in a church that is active in saying discrimination is wrong."
Like other pastors, Carpenter says, he has been approached in previous years by couples that want to be married in a church but have no strong connection to the church.
The new policy will return the focus to the couple's relationship and their relationship to the Christian community, he said.
"It's not a perfect approach, but it seems a faithful one given the context of this church," he said, "and I find that is pretty moving."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].