The church of the president of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity made national headlines, announcing that it would not perform any more heterosexual marriage ceremonies until same-sex marriages are also honored by the state and federal government.
But the issue of same sex marriage, and even homosexuality, is still very much a contentious one for the mostly black clergy who make up the Ministers Conference.
“It has been a journey for us,” Ministers Conference President Willard Bass said of Green Street United Methodist Church’s decision to support same-sex marriage in such a bold way. “…The question of not doing marriage at all in the church is a very controversial issue. It’s really profound for a church to go that far.”
Bass is the associate pastor at Green Street, a racially integrated church that is home to about 35 same-sex couples. The church’s stance came just days before the U.S. Supreme Court was slated to hear oral arguments in two highly-publicized gay rights cases.
The Ministers Conference as an organization has not taken a stance, one way or the other, on the legal challenges to California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Last year, the Conference urged voters to vote against Amendment One, which changed the state constitution to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman, though many members, including then-president Rev. Joseph Nance, expressed uneasiness about gay marriage and Biblical objections to homosexuality.
Bass, who believes scriptures that refer to homosexuality have been taken out of context, said championing the rights of the gay community is the Christian thing to do.
“We can’t tell someone how they feel in their bodies … but what we do know is that as Christians, we should be accepting of all people,” Bass said. “…The question is how do we want to act as a faith community? And as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about love.”
Bishop Freddie Marshall, pastor of Greater Church of Deliverance Inc. and a member of the Ministers Conference for more than 20 years, is not on the same page as Bass.
“I am totally against same-sex marriage,” he declared. “Based upon biblical and scriptural mandates … my belief is that the Word is clear and it speaks to marriage being between a man and a woman.”
Marshall, a father of five, rejects the notion that marriage has anything to do with civil rights.
“I do not see it as a civil rights issue because I do not believe that anyone is being prevented from a right that they have been given,” he said. “A civil rights issue speaks to those things that prevent individuals from their God-given or Constitutional rights. This is not as such.”
Bass contends that if homosexuality is in fact a sin, then it should be regarded in the same light as adultery, fornication or any other sin.
“If you’re going to talk about sin, let’s talk about sin, because to me, there is no greater sin, there’s no lesser sin,” he declared. “…I think God is going to have the final say about the issue of our sin and judge us on our sin, and we just need to learn how to love each other and be in community so we can work on issues that are key for us as a whole.”
Rev. Lamonte Williams, pastor of Diggs Memorial United Holy Church, says he believes in giving same sex partners many of the same rights, such as access to company benefits, that heterosexual couples enjoy in the secular world, but he says his religious convictions prohibit him from condoning homosexuality or same-sex marriage.
“It makes no difference who says otherwise; all I can tell you is when I got ordained I was asked publicly, ‘Will you uphold the Bible and the principles that it represents?’ and I said ‘yes,’” he related. “…There is clear-cut Scripture that does not support that (lifestyle).”
Rev. Lawrence Womack, pastor of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, holds a different view. Like his counterparts, Womack, who has led the small congregation, known for its racial and sexual diversity, for two years, also cites Scripture in his stance in favor of gay marriage, pointing to 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
“The issue is the sense of commitment, that we’re committed to God and committed to each other and how that commitment plays out,” he said. “If it’s full and mutual and monogamous and lifelong, then that’s the goal.”
Williams said he believes in letting others live as they please, so long as they extend the same courtesy and respect to his beliefs and convictions.
“I’m diverse enough to respect people’s personal preference. I’m okay with that,” he said. “…The world is big enough for everybody to have their own preference, but at the end of the day, a world without rules and regulations is a world headed for destruction.”
Womack, whose denomination elected its first openly gay bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson, in 2004, believes the church spends too much time worrying about homosexuality, which is only mentioned in a handful of passages in the bible.
“We’re majoring in the minors and leaving out the large portion of what the Gospel is talking about,” he said, referencing mandates such as helping “the least of these” and loving one another. “It’s just part of the bigger discomfort that religion has with sexuality and with love in general, in terms of human interaction… If we say God is love and God’s love is open to all people, doesn’t that mean all? Are we the ones who are supposed to qualify that?”
Marshall said he fears that the high court will side with the growing number of Americans who support same-sex marriage.
“I believe that the courts will more than likely … side with those who are in favor of same-sex unions,” he said, “but it does not by any means change what I know to be clearly the word of God.”