CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- When Mark Rowe-Barth got married last summer, he scheduled the ceremony outside his church.
Rowe-Barth, 33, is a United Methodist. He also is gay.
Rowe-Barth said that although his pastor at the time supported his relationship, the minister's hands were tied. The United Methodist Church, like many denominations, considers homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teachings, according to church law.
So Rowe-Barth and his fiancé wed at a local Episcopal church. His pastor attended and assisted as a friend of the couple but did not officiate the service.
Most Christian churches do not permit their pastors or priests to perform same-sex marriages, a position attributed to God's word as found in the Bible. But recently, several historic, mainline Protestant denominations have changed or softened apparent opposition to same-sex relationships, particularly as it relates to clergy.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are two recent examples. Both denominations amended or struck language that essentially forbade gay and lesbian ministers from being ordained or fully ministering within the church while in same-sex relationships. Before, gay and lesbian clergy were expected to remain celibate.
Earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which counts 2 million members, garnered enough support to lift a ban on ordaining openly gay, non-celibate clergy.
The change likely won't have any direct impact on many congregations and churches, according to Rev. Dave Wood of First Presbyterian Church in Waterloo. Still, he applauds the move and believes it will send a positive message to people within the church --- and to those watching from outside organized, faith communities.
"A pastor doesn't have to remain in the closet anymore," Wood said. "It's showing the inclusiveness of our denomination."
Some people of faith fear churches are veering off course and some believe more liberal perspectives on homosexuality do not reflect the views of many in the pews.
For Christians who see homosexuality or same-sex marriage as unacceptable in God's eyes, the issue at hand isn't about including others or hospitality. It's about staying true to the Bible.
"And we can't un-sin what Scripture calls sin," said Rev. Ken Kimball, pastor at Old East Paint Creek Church of Waterville and Old West Paint Creek Church of rural Waukon.
Both congregations recently voted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and are now affiliated with the 11-month old North American Lutheran Church.
Faithful or drifting?
In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or, the ELCA, at its annual, church-wide assembly, affirmed that marriage is a unique and distinctive commitment between a man and a woman, according to Bishop Steven Ullestad of the Northeastern Iowa Synod. The Waverly-based synod includes more than 170 churches and 90,000 baptized members.
For more conservative Lutherans, the marriage affirmation wasn't the sticking point.
The ELCA, which counts 4.5 million members, also charted new ground when it voted to allow churches to support, recognize and hold accountable same-sex couples in life-long, monogamous relationships. Precisely what this looks like will be left up to the individual congregations, Ullestad said.
Also, as a result of the assembly, ELCA churches now have the option of ordaining and calling, or hiring, pastors in such relationships.
"The church has the authority to say 'yes' or 'no,'" Ullestad said. "It gives new power and authority to congregations over the call of their pastor."
The ELCA church did not sanction nor does it have a liturgy to bless same-sex relationships, Ullestad added.
The decision leaves room for congregations to disagree, said Ullestad, but some Lutheran clergy interpreted the assembly's actions as just the latest example of a church moving away from its orthodox teachings.
"I think it's just a whole shift, the way Scripture is interpreted," said Rev. Claudia Tessmer of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church of rural Hudson.
Last year, her church split from the ELCA --- one of 18 in the Northeastern Iowa Synod to do so since 2009 --- and joined another denomination. Zion joined up with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, a decade-old organization.
Even though Zion initiated the break, Tessmer said members felt abandoned by their denomination.
"We didn't go anyplace. We didn't leave," Tessmer said. "It was the ELCA that veered and left us."
The denomination's willingness to let churches recognize same-sex relationships was a point of contention for Tessmer and Kimball but it wasn't their only issue.
Kimball said his Allamakee County-churches had a whole list of concerns on doctrinal issues regarding the Trinity, Jesus and Scripture interpretation. The ELCA's stance on homosexuality made the list but it certainly wasn't the most urgent or pressing concern.
"Maybe it was the final straw but it wasn't the strongest straw," Kimball said.
Kimball and Tessmer believe it is possible to be a loving church without approving of same-sex relationships and said people who identify as gay and lesbian individuals are welcome at their churches.
"We don't turn anyone away," Kimball said. "It's not a matter of rejecting anyone."
Kimball and Tessmer said their respective congregations have experienced new vitality and an increase in membership since joining different denominations. Tessmer said many of the new faces are young families who value more traditional teachings about the faith and family and look forward to having more control over managing local affairs.
It's clear Lutherans hold differing views on matters of sexuality, and that is perfectly acceptable, Ullestad said. Since the ELCA leaves some matters up to the personal consciences of individual believers and congregations, differences are likely inevitable.
But it's also true, said Ullestad, that historically, churches' positions and attitudes regarding same-sex relationships have, at times, contributed to gays and lesbians being and feeling oppressed, depressed and suicidal. Lutheran congregations and bishops with concerns about that were pressing for change, he said.
"When someone is told 'You are going to hell for having these feelings,' that is a misuse of the Christian faith," Ullestad said.
Ullestad said the ELCA values the Scriptures as God's word. For Lutherans, the tension comes from discerning which laws are contextual and how to balance the law with a biblical call for grace.
And not all with disagreements are leaving.
Members of Nazareth Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, the synod's largest congregation, decided against voting on whether to leave its denomination, at least at this time, according to the church's senior pastor, the Rev. Brian King. The congregation also overwhelmingly passed statements clarifying its position on matters of sexuality and marriage and outlined where these beliefs differ from the conclusions of the ELCA's 2009 national assembly. Nazareth also passed a bylaw to preclude the congregation from adopting the assembly's actions regarding gay or lesbian clergy in same-gender relationships.
The 12-page document, "Speaking the Truth in Love," states that, according to the Bible, a "full sexual relationship belongs only inside the boundaries of a marriage between one man and one woman" and that such boundaries are "good and intended for our safety and well-being in relationship to God and others." The document, among other things, also speaks out against the oppression of all people regardless of their sexual orientation and the biblical theme for unity within the church.
The Northeastern Iowa Synod did experience a downturn in giving toward missions as a combined result of recent conflict and departures but also a struggling economy. Ullestad said the Synod is taking the opportunity to restructure to be more nimble and effective. Overall, he said there is an air of excitement about the future.
Ullestad's hope is that the church would stand together in unity for the sake of the Gospel and many Lutherans are ready to do that.
"We have done the studies. We have had conversations. Now it is time to refocus and recommit ourselves to the primary mission of the church," Ullestad said.
For the Episcopal Church, questions about homosexuality and same-gender relationships came to a head with the election of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson. In a controversial move in 2003, Robinson made history as the first openly gay priest to become a bishop in his church.
"It was like a lightning bolt hitting in the middle of the living room," said Rev. Maureen Doherty, an Episcopal priest and a campus minister at the University of Northern Iowa.
Since then, a lot has changed in her church and in her state. After Iowa removed barriers in 2009 that had kept same-sex couples from marrying, Doherty, a lesbian, wed her partner. Doherty now has permission from her bishop to wed other same-sex couples whereas before, she was limited to offering a blessing.
"We don't have to do this but we may," Doherty said. "I've been doing them since."
The former nun who left the Roman Catholic Church because of concerns about limitations on women in leadership, Doherty is well acquainted with how matters of gender and sexuality can divide the faith community.
She encourages Christians to keep talking and to exercise forgiveness.
"It's much broader than a homosexuality discussion," Doherty said. "It's a human sexuality and human gender issue."
She also frames the topics not as a political issue but one that is profoundly personal.
"This is about people's life, people's love, people's relationships with each other, people's relationship with God," Doherty said.
In college, Rowe-Barth realized that officially, the church of his childhood did not view homosexuality as acceptable. Unwilling to compromise, he either avoided church altogether or attended large congregations where he could blend in and avoid personal questions. Ultimately, he took a 13-year absence from actively participating in a faith community.
A couple years ago, Rowe-Barth started attending St. Timothys United Methodist Church in Cedar Falls. The church is a member of the Reconciling Ministry Network, which works to mobilize United Methodists to more fully include in church life people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
For Rowe-Barth, coming back to church filled a void.
"There are so many things about United Methodists that I love and value," Rowe-Barth said. "I always say for me, it's like home."
His pastor, the Rev. Linda Butler, is also working to change church law.
"The core DNA of Methodists and United Methodists � is the whole process of grace," Butler said. "It's a journey."
The journey appears to be far from over. United Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans say their churches have been discussing issues pertaining to homosexuality for decades and will likely continue to do so.
Related issues are expected to surface again next year at the United Methodist Church's General Conference, its largest lawmaking body. A very small percentage of its clergy, about 2 percent, according to the United Methodist News Service, have signed petitions expressing a willingness to defy church law and bless same-sex unions and are trying to gain more support for their convictions.
At St. Timothys, members aren't waiting on changes in the Book of Discipline to act on their beliefs. At Christmas-time, the church asks a couple with a young child to represent the Holy Family in a nativity scene. This time, the starring roles went to a lesbian couple and their child, Butler said.
Although the topic of sexuality and marriage can invoke strong emotions, many clergy and church-goers who find themselves on different sides of the aisle want to avoid being defined by these issues.
"We are reconciling but we are a whole lot of other things, too," Butler said.