High-profile Baptist church set for historic vote on same-sex marriages

First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon at 511 High Place in Macon.
First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon at 511 High Place in Macon. jvorhees@macon.com

The congregation of Macon’s First Baptist Church of Christ will vote Sunday afternoon on whether to allow same-sex marriages to be performed there.

The vote will follow the regular 11 a.m. Sunday service during a called church conference.

The language of the motion, as reflected in a May letter to members from the church council and board of deacons, is to recommend allowing “same-sex marriage in our church facilities.”

The letter, available on the church’s website, said the leadership passed the motion in a 25-5 vote, bringing it before the entire church.

The Rev. Scott Dickison, First Baptist’s pastor, said in an email to The Telegraph, “Should it pass, this motion would make clear that our ministers are free to perform the wedding of same-sex couples at our church in the same way we do couples of different sex.”

Dickison declined a lengthy interview, but he agreed to respond to some questions in writing by email and referred to documents on the church’s website at http://www.fbcxmacon.org/.

“Given the delicate nature of where we are right now,” he said, “I’m not comfortable doing any interview until after the vote out of respect to the process and (our) members.”

Church documents show the call for the vote led to a series of three August meetings, referred to as “Travelers on a Journey,” to discuss aspects of the decision and invite members “to listen and to add your voice as we travel this road together.”

The meetings, all well attended, included input and topics such as “sexuality and inclusion,” “the role of Scripture in these matters,” testimonies of “LGBTQ members and their families,” and a review and discussion of the “formal motion from the Church Council and Deacons.”

“We have no current policy specifically concerning sexuality and same-sex marriage,” Dickison said in his response to questions. “Our church has a history of openness and inclusivity. We see this process as the most recent example of us grappling with the demands of these convictions. Should this motion pass, it would not be a change as much as a clarification of current policy. Our church’s default posture is one of openness.”

Dickison said the High Place church, which was founded in 1826, has been dealing with the issue since before his arrival as pastor five years ago.

He declined to speculate about the upcoming vote or whether some members might leave if the proposal passes.

The initial 25-5 vote by church leaders and a recent congregational blog by Bonnie Chappell, the chair of deacons, indicate that not all members support such a move.

Still, in her Aug. 23 blog titled “Hopes for Sunday and Beyond,” she said whatever the vote brings, she hopes all members “will continue to do good work.”

She wrote, “Many of us have worried about the potential of a vote on same-sex marriage to divide us. This fear has prevented many churches from having conversations like these at all.”

Some of the support for the proposal has been drawn from the book of Acts, which deals in part with whether Gentiles — non-Jews — should have to conform to every aspect of Jewish practice.

Denominationally, First Baptist Church of Christ is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“CBF is our primary partner in missions and identity,” Dickison said. “But this partnership is completely voluntary. There is no mechanism for CBF to approve or disapprove of this or any other action we may take. We are one of a growing number of CBF congregations who are grappling with this question of inclusion in one way or another.”

Other Macon congregations already perform same-sex ceremonies, including High Street Unitarian Universalist Church and St. Francis Episcopal Church.

High Street’s pastor, the Rev. Cassandra Howe, said her congregation offers ministerial support for union and memorial services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, asexual and pansexual people.

“It’s about love and not about gender or the sex of people committing to such love,” she said. “I hope every religious community can without hesitation celebrate love when it is true.”

The Rev. Ben Wells, the rector at St. Francis Episcopal, confirmed in an email that his church performs such marriages in accordance with the Episcopal Church’s rite for the blessing of same-sex relationships and the bishop of Atlanta’s allowance of same-sex marriages.

“We will and have performed same-sex marriages,” he said. “Each priest may not marry any couple straight or gay if he/she has a pastoral reason not to marry them. All couples married at St. Francis will, with the priest, participate in premarital counseling.”

The first same-sex marriage in Macon-Bibb County was June 26, 2015, in the Bibb County Courthouse. That was the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage.

In his email, Dickison addressed the importance of the process and the step his congregation faces.

“I am grateful for the way our congregation has engaged in the process thus far,” he said. “We have treated each other with gentleness and compassion, even, and especially, when our approach to these questions has been different.

“We have not sought uniformity as much as we have unity.”

Dickison continued by including the church’s description of itself.

“It is my great hope and sincere belief that after Sunday’s vote, our congregation will continue to be a people who, in the words of our vision statement, ‘nurtures authentic faith and belonging, loves and serves courageously and affirms the image of God in all people.’”

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.