By Matt Stroud
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - Two Protestant churches are set to review policies on same-sex marriages, as popular opinion moves toward favoring such unions and the growing number of states allowing them creates a dilemma for church leaders.
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. opened its General Assembly on Friday, a biennial gathering to review church policy, and next week church leaders are expected to consider their response to the establishment of civil gay marriage in six U.S. states.
Several days later, the Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is due to hold its triennial General Convention during which it will consider establishing a ritual for blessing gay relationships.
"The landscape in the U.S. has changed radically even since our last assembly two years ago," said Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a national gay rights group. "The conversation has moved from the statehouse to the church. There's a great awakening."
Adee said he expects an "uphill climb" at the convention this week, which is being held at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New York, along with the District of Columbia, have extended marriage rights to gay couples. Nearly 30 states ban such marriages.
Legislatures in Maryland, Washington state and New Jersey have passed same-sex marriage bills, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed it and there are challenges to the new laws in Maryland and Washington.
Legalization of civil marriage has created a quandary for some churches. While gay parishioners have pushed for churches to sanctify their marriages, other parishioners have said marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, set aside her ordination in protest last year after the denomination approved gay ordination. She is in Pittsburgh to lobby against any pro-gay measure.
"This would be a gross departure from the worldwide church," she said. "The growing movement is a secular movement. Shall we follow the culture, or shall we follow the Bible? That is the dividing line."
A church survey conducted in February found that 51 percent of church members oppose same-sex marriage.
In a Presbytery Outlook magazine survey about how the church's approach to same-sex marriage has affected individual churches, Presbyterian leaders claimed that about seven percent of their congregants had left the church since January 2011.
CONSENSUS ON CHURCH POLICY
In 1984, the Unitarian Universalist Association became the first major Protestant church to approve allowing religious blessings for gay unions.
While some Protestant clergy have elected to officiate at gay weddings, for the most part churches have been unable to reach a consensus on church policy regarding gay unions.
Efforts by some denominations to liberalize church policy, including ordaining gay clergy, have led to an exodus of churches to more conservative denominations.
The Presbyterian Church allows ministers to bless same-sex unions but prohibits them from solemnizing legal homosexual marriages.
Leading up to the assembly, several Presbyterian churches proposed a change to the Book of Order, the church's official governing document, to describe marriage not as a civil contract between "a woman and a man" but between "two people."
A less radical shift, seen as more likely to meet approval when it is taken up next week, is also up for consideration: allowing pastors to officiate at gay-marriage ceremonies in states where it is legal. This would change the church's interpretation of the Book of Order without altering its language.
Both measures would allow ministers to officiate at gay and lesbian weddings, but neither would compel pastors to perform the ceremonies.
Just as the Presbyterian assembly is wrapping up, the Episcopalian Church will convene for eight days in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The U.S. church's convention, which occurs once every three years, will take up a proposal by the church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to extend a policy, begun in 2009, that gives bishops the latitude to allow clergy to officiate at marriages or civil unions of same-gender couple in states where those unions are legal.
At present, when church members ask for a blessing for their same-gender unions, they rely on their bishop for approval of liturgy, whether it is for a purely religious ceremony or for solemnizing a marriage.
"The liturgy has been on a diocese-by-diocese basis," said Catherine Waynick, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis.
(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen in San Fransisco and David Dawson in Indianapolis; Writing by Edith Honan)