April 12, 2016
Dear Mt. Bethel Community,
One of the comments regularly voiced about why people love Mt. Bethel is, “We are a family.” Part of it is due to the welcoming spirit so clearly present when we gather, whether in the sanctuary on Sunday, choir practice or handbells on Wednesday, Bible Study at Thursday Theologians, or through community outreach like Urban Ministries. Part of it is due to our size, that we are small enough that we can know one another, if not personally, then certainly by name. And part of it is due to the connectional nature of our polity, that we are one member of a much larger family of congregations known as the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA). Sometimes changes occur within families, and the members need to have important conversations about how they will continue to relate to each other, the community, and world.
In June of 2014, the 221st General Assembly of the PCUSA approved a constitutional amendment to the denomination’s Book of Order that would change the constitutional definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two people, traditionally between a man and a woman” (W-4.9001). The amendment was sent to the presbyteries for approval. Given that the process would take many months, in October of 2014, your session began a conversation about marriage to familiarize ourselves with the issues surrounding the potential change. We read and shared reading materials over the following three months. In January, 2015, session decided to continue the conversation as time allowed, on our monthly session agendas.
New Hope Presbytery, of which Mt. Bethel is a member, voted to affirm the change at its February 28, 2015 meeting. Then on St. Patrick’s Day, a majority of the presbyteries had agreed to approve the amendment, with the final vote being 121-48-2.
The approval by the presbyteries means that each local session chooses what weddings take place in their congregation’s sanctuary, which has always been the case.
While your session continued conversations about marriage, two letters written by members of our congregation were received. One letter spoke in favor of allowing weddings of two people of any gender, and one letter spoke in favor of upholding only the traditional man and woman definition of marriage for weddings in our sanctuary. At our February 16, 2016, meeting, your session decided to gather some additional marriage-related information that would be helpful to the congregation, so that our family could participate in the marriage conversation. At the March 15 meeting, the information was shared, and on April 7, approved for sharing with the congregation.
Today, you are invited to join with us as the session discerns if Mt. Bethel will perform weddings of two people of any gender. Currently, our Wedding Policy only allows weddings of Mt. Bethel members, their families, children and grandchildren. This decision would not change that part of our policy. Marriage of two people in our sanctuary would only pertain to the members, adults, youth, and children that we have baptized and nurtured here, or their family members.
You are invited to locate on our website the resources session will be studying, and join with us as we pray, learn, and discern together. If you do not have access to the internet, several copies of the materials are available in the office to check out. Please call Drexel (919-383-3854) and she will ensure that a copy is available for you to read. You will discover that the resources vary, offering a broad range of viewpoints. Some materials express one particular perspective, while others are more balanced articles that attempt to summarize applicable scholarship. There are articles outlining pertinent Presbyterian polity issues, as well as guidelines for interpreting scripture together. These articles will be discussed at a joint retreat of the elders and deacons on Saturday, May 7.
As we pray, learn and discern together, your session wants to hear from you. Every member of the church is invited and encouraged to write the session, sharing what you feel is important for session’s consideration. You may write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or a letter to Mt. Bethel, c/o “Marriage Conversation,” 3541 Rose of Sharon Road, 27712. You may also request a meeting with Hedge and an elder by using the same addresses shown above, or simply calling the church office. Session will compile all of the letters, emails, and meeting notes, and share, study, and pray over them together. Listening to our congregation’s wisdom, thoughts, as well as any personal stories or narratives is vital to us. Your voice matters. We would like for you to complete this by Tuesday, May 3. As our conversation moves forward, session will communicate with you, providing updates. Session plans to make a decision at our May 17th meeting.
We understand that even in the closest of families like our congregation, we will never be uniform in all of our beliefs and understandings. And that, we believe, is a very good thing, a blessing from God, and one way that we learn and grow from each other. Yet, as those who together profess unity in our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we also believe that our diversity strengthens our family, this particular body of Christ called Mt. Bethel, and that the Holy Spirit breathes a discerning breath upon us, when we gather in prayer, and in Bible study, sharing stories from scripture, and sharing stories from our lives together with God.
Our family is currently led by an amazing group of elders. As marriage conversations have taken place, they have listened to each other’s very diverse opinions with humility and loving hearts, and with great concern for the congregation. They have left each meeting in warmth and friendship, and have been true models of Christian love. Many thanks to them for the immense amount of time, thought, study, and prayer they have and will continue to commit during this season of discernment.
Luke tells of a time when Jesus is praying. A disciple asks him to teach them how to pray. Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, and follows with this teaching about prayer: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11). As we continue to pray and the Holy Spirit continues to pray and move in and through our family, please be in touch with either of us if you have further questions. Session looks forward to the conversations we will share with each other and with you.
Ingram Hedgpeth, Pastor
Kristen Pormann, Clerk of Session