The Presbyterian Church (USA) and I go back a long way now. Not that I’ve ever been a member, but one of their institutions gladly accepted four years of my tuition money and tolerated my presence on campus during that same time. I arrived at college a fundamentalist, but, as a religion major who thought through what was presented in class, I soon discovered that literalism was as wrong as sin. This past week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. Talking to someone I still know in my native, conservative western Pennsylvania, I learned that disgruntled heterosexuals I’ve known since I was a child are now denomination shopping because of the change. Ironically, this includes divorced individuals and others who can’t seem to get the hang of this heterosexual relationship thing. Marriage may not work for straights, but we sure don’t want the gays to have a chance at it.
Gay marriage, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg upon which modern Christianity is bearing down. And not just Christianity. Any ancient religion that finds itself surviving in a world that has completely changed since its founding has trouble remaining relevant. This issues of peasants in Palestine under imperial Roman rule are very different from a high-tech, service-industry, desk-job society. One could argue that people never change, but I suspect that society gives the lie to that. Some issues are perennial—we still haven’t figured out how to make sure the poor have enough. We will walk out of church, however, when we see affluent people of the same gender walking down the aisle together. With priorities arranged this way, is it any wonder that the mainline churches have difficulties retaining members? For some, the church has become a place to feel comfortable with their prejudices rather than to try to figure out what a first-century religion means in a twenty-first-century world.
I applaud the Presbyterian Church (USA) for its decision. It will certainly cost the denomination numbers. It is, however, a move to try to introduce justice back onto the agenda. One does wonder whether it was predestined. Far be it from me to speak for a first-century carpenter, but I suspect that a church founder who stressed repeatedly that love, not judgment, was the way to become one of his followers might be a bit sad at the political turn this has all taken. We know, from all that biology tells us, that sex has far more importance to humans than reproduction. It has a pair-bonding social function without which many couples would split up. This seems true regardless of the gender combination involved. Why not acknowledge this fact as truth and get on with the important business of negotiating the twenty-first century? Of course, we will have to find some other way to justify our prejudices.