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Ogdensburg Presbyterian minister contends same-sex ‘covenant union’ blessings are allowed; Presbyterian Church USA disagrees

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OGDENSBURG — When the Rev. Laurena M. Wickham Will presides over a same-sex wedding ceremony, she makes sure she doesn’t call the event a marriage.

“It’s very disconcerting to me that I can’t call it a marriage,” said the Rev. Mrs. Will, pastor of the Ogdensburg First Presbyterian Church. “The Presbyterian Church USA does not allow us to perform same-sex marriages. We call them covenant unions.”

The Rev. Mrs. Will said a covenant union ceremony is different from a wedding ceremony, although she said the brides in a ceremony she performed last month at her church called it a wedding. It was the fourth such ceremony at which she has officiated.

“The couple was actually married by the (city) clerk some time ago, but they didn’t consider themselves married until they had a covenant affirmed by God,” she said. “I wish every couple I married took it that seriously.”

The Rev. Mrs. Will is confident that her covenant union ceremonies are not breaking church rules, but a representative of Presbyterian Church USA, Louisville, Ky., disagrees.

The national church organization at its General Assembly in July considered changing its definition of marriage from uniting a “man and a woman” to uniting “two people.” Instead, the denomination decided to study the definition of the word marriage for two years before taking any action.

Presbyterian ministers in the meantime are barred from performing same-sex marriages. Same-sex marriages also are not to be performed on church property, said Joyce Lieberman, Presbyterian Church USA manager for polity guidance and training.

“It is not proper to perform a ceremony that is deemed the same as a same-sex marriage ceremony,” Ms. Lieberman said. “You cannot imply that the ceremony is a marriage. If someone believes that what the minister is doing ‘walks like a duck and talks like a duck,’ they can file a disciplinary case against that minister.”

Noncelibate gays and lesbians are allowed to serve as ministers and church officers following a new denomination rule that took effect last year. But without marriage being permitted for those same people, the denomination’s stance is fundamentally wrong, the Rev. Mrs. Will said.

“I’m frustrated we haven’t changed it already,” she said. “I think it is the most hurtful thing in the world to have an active couple come to their pastor in the church and to be told they have to get married by the city clerk.”

Even if what she is doing is against the denomination’s rules, there are no consequences if no one in the church files a complaint against her, said the Rev. Pieter A. Visscher, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Northern New York.

“It only becomes a problem if someone raises a question about what she is doing,” he said. “If someone were to bring a charge, it would go through a judicial process and a determination would be made. In the Presbytery of Northern New York, there hasn’t been a judicial process in anyone’s memory. There may never have been one.”

The Rev. Mr. Visscher said if a minister were found to be willfully breaking church rules, the consequences could include censure. Punishment would be defined through a judicial trial process. Censure could include a variety of things, he said, including divestment.

“It’s essentially decided by a commission,” he said. “A stated clerk has to remain neutral in these things, so it’s not appropriate for me to say whether she is complying with the rules or not. That would only come out if there were a judicial process.”

The Rev. Mrs. Will said that she does not expect anyone to file a charge against her, and that she believes the church’s definition of marriage will change after the two-year study.

She said the Presbytery of Northern New York supports leaving it up to individual churches to interpret the definition of marriage.

“The congregation and the Presbytery as a whole is very affirmative of the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community,” she said. “The rules are wrong.”

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