Embrace of Same-Sex Marriage Still Varies Among Arkansas's Protestant Churches

Aug 8, 2016

A year after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, some Arkansas congregations are embracing unions they have traditionally excluded.

In Little Rock, protestant congregations are deciding if and how to allow same-sex couples to marry in the church. 

Senior Pastor David Freeman of Little Rock’s First United Methodist Church is leading a congregation at odds with its national governing body. The church’s national leadership prohibits same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual members, but not all Methodists agree.

“This church voted overwhelmingly to pass resolutions to be sent to General Conference asking General Conference to change the wording in the discipline,” says Freeman.

Though Methodist churches worldwide supported the resolution to be more inclusive, national leadership voted to table the discussion.

“General Conference felt they were at an impasse and that if we continued this discussion there was going to be a fracture in the denomination that could not be repaired,” says Freeman.

While the Methodists will have to wait two to three years for a special commission to produce a report on the issue, the national Episcopal Church legalized same-sex marriage five days after the Supreme Court ruling.

Kate Alexander, Associate Rector at Little Rock’s Christ Episcopal Church, says her congregation embraced the national leadership’s same-sex marriage policy.

“We have been excited about the direction the national church has taken,” says Alexander. “We had already done same sex blessings using a provisional rite. Now we’ll be able to use the marriage rite, we just haven’t had a couple come forward that wants to use that.”

Yet this decision has come at a cost.

“We have lost people because of these decisions,” comments Alexander. “We feel pretty strongly that this is how we are to interpret the gospel. As we’ve made these decisions, more people have come into the church because they hear good news and acceptance for folks who have felt previously excluded.”

Alexander says this trend in her church follows a national exodus as members leave to join the greater Anglican church.

Another denomination on the forefront of the issue is the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. In 2014, PCUSA moved to allow Presbyterian pastors to officiate same-sex weddings, but not on church property. They later gave authority to individual churches to determine their own policies.

In 2009, Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock was the first in the Arkansas Presbytery to elect an openly gay deacon, Michael Upson. Upson married outside the church but wishes otherwise.

“I think it would mean the world to a lot of same-sex couples to be able to be married in a church and surrounded by members of their church who are of the same faith. Marriage is part of our faith journey that we take throughout life. Although I wasn’t married in the church, I would’ve loved to have been,” says Upson.

Second Presbyterian voted to embrace same-sex marriage. While no same-sex couples have gotten married at the church yet, Executive Pastor Steve Hancock says his congregation looks forward to welcoming more into their community.

“This church has long been one committed to welcome and inclusivity, and it feels like this is another step in that direction that’s been going on for twenty-plus years here,” says Hancock.

Despite toils and snares, these local churches are choosing to support populations that were traditionally excluded. For some, this change is unacceptable, and for others, it should have come sooner. But these leaders say such is the cost of actions they consider to be true to their interpretations of Christianity.

Laura Dunnagan is a member of Second Presbyterian Church. 

Audio provided by Christ Episcopal Church and the Second Presbyterian Adult Choir.