Several hundred Presbyterians in Western Pennsylvania have gained the distinction of being among the few holdouts north of the Mason-Dixon Line voting to forbid ministers of their denomination to officiate at same-sex weddings.
Most other ministers and elders in the Presbyterian Church (USA) — in the South as well as in the North — approved same-sex marriage. They have been voting since last summer in their district governing bodies called “presbyteries.” Presbyteries consist of all of the ministers in a district as well as 1-2 elders sent by each congregation. The voting is done by an equal number of elders and ministers at a presbytery meeting. There are 171 presbyteries. A majority of the presbyteries is needed to change the constitution of the denomination. The tipping point on the gay-marriage vote occurred this evening, with the 86th presbytery to vote “yes.”
The tally so far has been 87 in favor, 41 opposed. The remaining 44 presbyteries will hold their votes at future meetings though the issue has already been decided.
What remains to be seen, however, is how many congregations will now leave the denomination.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the sixth largest Protestant denomination in the country with 1.8 million members. Several hundred congregations out of the 10,000 in the denomination have left in recent years over the issue of gay marriage.
Among the leaders in the movement to leave to denomination have been congregations in the Pittsburgh area.
A little history is needed.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is actually a merger of several denominations. During the Civil War, the Presbyterian Church divided — like the country — North and South — over the issue of slavery. The Southern church was called the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The Northern church consisted of two denominations: one much more conservative than the other. The more liberal was called the Presbyerian Church in the United States of America (PC in the USA). The conservative church was called the United Presbyterian Church of North America. It was called “the U.P. church.” Most of its members lived within 100 miles of Pittsburgh.
The U.P. Church was very conservative — fundamentalist even. It was heavily missions-oriented, dedicated to sending out missionaries to Africa and Asia. (The nationally known New Wilmington Missionary Conference, which is held each July on the campus of Westminster College an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, originated from members of the U.P. church.)
In 1958, the two Northern denominations merged: The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the United Presbyterian Church of North America became the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
The newly banded denomination consisted of 3.1 million members, of which only 300,000 (less than 10%) had belonged to the very conservative U.P. church. But most of those 300,000 lived in Western Pennsylvania. The fundamentalist background of these U.P. congregations is still felt today. The presbyteries in the Pittsburgh area include many of these former U.P. churches. These are the presbyteries that were among the few in the North voting against gay marriage.
Likewise, these had been the same congregations whose elders and ministers opposed the ordination of women years previously. The newly formed denomination of 1958 allowed the ordination of women as ministers. But the fundamentalists in the U.P. branch had been opposed. Some of the former U.P. congregations — even decades later — remained holdouts, refusing to allow women to serve as elders on the church council, let alone hiring any women as ministers.
Hence, there had arisen the saying with a nod towards the recalcitrance of the old U.P. churches which were mostly located in the Pittsburgh area: “Presbyterians are densest in Western Pennsylvania!”
In 1983, the Northern and Southern denominations merged. The Southern church — the Presbyterian Church in the United States — joined with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, forming today’s Presbyterian Church (USA).
But the influence of the old U.P. churches with their biblical literalism and conservative social stances is still felt in the Pittsburgh area. Few Pittsburgh congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are “More Light” congregations, supporting same-sex marriage as well as ordination of gays as ministers and elders. There are only four “More Light” congregations in the Pittsburgh Presbytery, the largest presbytery in the denomination with 150 congregations. By contrast, Baltimore has five “More Light” churches!
The Pittsburgh Presbytery has yet to vote on the amendment to the constitution about gay marriage. But the neighboring presbyteries have–voting “no”: Beaver-Butler, Shenango, Washington, Kiskiminetas and Redstone–which presbyteries encompass all of the counties surrounding Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located. They are the only block of presbyteries north of the Mason-Dixon Line to vote against gay marriage, along with a few, individual presbyteries scattered throughout the North.
Some Southern presbyteries which formerly had voted against gay marriage this time voted in favor (presbyteries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina).