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Congregation comes out to support gay marriage

“Well, it’s about time.”

That, says Rev. Richard Gantenbein, is how the majority of his 300-member congregation has responded since Sunday morning, Aug. 14. That’s when Gantenbein – head pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church since 1982 – took the pulpit to affirm, publically, his personal support for marriage equality. He took the moment to proclaim St. Andrew as a safe haven for LGBTQ Christians, and for those believers struggling as their family members come out as gay or transgender.

“It’s what I’ve believed for a while now, after years of careful study of the scripture and a lot of serious reflection,” says Gantenbein. “I’ve just been waiting for the right opportunity to say it clearly and openly.”

Gantenbein’s view on same-sex marriage is now shared by a majority of American Presbyterian congregations, which voted in March of 2015 to amend the church constitution to define marriage as a covenant “between two people.” The decision freed Presbyterian ministers to conduct same-sex weddings, previously prohibited, regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. In spite of the church-wide vote, the issue continues to generate vigorous debate among many Presbyterians, including opponents suggesting the denomination has caved in to cultural pressures, abandoning centuries of church tradition.

“We’re a fairly conservative congregation,” admits Gantenbein, describing himself as “a don’t-rock-the-boat kind of guy.” Though he says he is prepared for a certain amount of “heightened church conversation” in the wake of the Aug. 14 sermon, he does not anticipate much in the way of negative reaction. “I think the church is ready to step a little outside its comfort zone,” he says. “This is just another step in an ongoing discussion that began within the Presbyterian denomination back in the 1970s.”

Gantenbein says the conversation was raised to a new level when Michael Weiss and his partner, Brian, began attending services at St. Andrew in 2000. The couple, together now for 27 years, are the owners of Vintage Kennel Club in Sonoma. According to Weiss, when they first began exploring Sonoma with the idea of moving to the Valley, they found themselves dropping in on an Easter service at St. Andrew.

“I was raised Roman Catholic, and he was raised Lutheran,” says Weiss. “Brian wanted to go to church, so we went, we worshipped, and we left.”

After officially moving to Sonoma, they began attending services more regularly.

“We were pretty low-key,” Weiss recalls. “We’d just walk in, have our church time and leave. As far as we were concerned, we were just living our lives as people of faith. One Sunday, a woman walked up, nervously, and said to us, ‘I just think it’s so courageous of you both that you’re here.’ We looked at each other and said, ‘What is she talking about? We’re just coming to church.’”

“Michael and Brian were the first openly gay couple I’d ever met, that I know of,” Gantenbein allows. “When they started attending, I’d go out and have sandwiches with them, and say, ‘I admit it. I don’t know anything about gay people. Help me wrap my head around this.’ And I think we’ve all been on a journey together ever since.”

That journey, he suggests, includes the congregation at St. Andrew, and the Presbyterian denomination as a whole. After a number of church constitutional amendments over the years, the church has gradually shifted to a wider acceptance of LGBTQ members, always with the emphasis on properly interpreting Jesus’s message of tolerance and love. The shift has not been without controversy. In the wake of last year’s vote recognizing the sanctity of same-sex marriages, some Presbyterian churches withdrew from the denomination.

“My husband and I moved to Sonoma 13 years ago,” says Ron Moser, now retired, who grew up in the Congregational Church in Portland, Oregon. “When we moved here, our next door neighbor had been going to St. Andrew for a while, and through him we got to know Rich (Gantenbein). But we really only attended St. Andrew at Christmas and Easter. When Dan and I got married in 2008, we wanted Rich to officiate at our wedding ceremony – except he couldn’t. At that time, the Presbyterian Church would not allow it.”

Since then, largely through his friendship with Gantenbein and other members of the congregation, Moser and his husband have become active members at St. Andrew.

“We’ve found the congregation to be very welcoming,’ says Moser. “We wanted to go to a church that was not just open and accepting itself, but that belonged to a denomination that was open and accepting.”

Gradually, that is becoming the case.

“Now, when we eventually get our vows renewed in two more years,” he says, “Rich will be able to do the ceremony.”

Last January, Moser and Weiss accompanied Gantenbein to Houston, where they attended the annual conference of the Gay Christian Network. Founded in 2001, the GCN – headquartered in Columbus, Ohio – is an international network of Christians dedicated to reverse the attitudes of churches that view the very idea of “gay and transgender Christians” as an oxymoron.

“It was a remarkable place of people coming together, as Christians,” says Gantenbein, who was especially moved by stories of young Christians forced from churches they loved after confessing they were gay. Some parents told stories of their children committing suicide after being ousted from their spiritual homes.

“Twenty percent of the stories were about people coming out to their churches, and being loved and accepted,” he says. Eighty percent of the stories were horrendous. One of the things the church, as a whole, has to stand up and take the blame for is having been an accomplice to a system of bigotry and hatred that is causing gay kids to be at least twice as likely to kill themselves as straight kids. Those are horrendous statistics. If we don’t do something to help knock this off, we’re only contributing to that.”

It was during the trip to Houston that Gantenbein decided he needed to speak to the congregation about his own journey toward acceptance. In the sermon, he talks about things he’s said that he regrets, certain they caused unnecessary pain to struggling people. Moser and Weiss each spoke during the message, describing their own observations from the GCN conference.

“People say to me, ‘Everybody knows what the Bible says about this,’ and yeah, I know what the Bible says,” Gantenbein remarks. “But I think what’s being talked about in the Bible is not Ron and Dan, or Mike and Brian. I think the Bible’s talking about promiscuity. I think it’s talking about sex for the sake of sex, outside of a covenant relationship. When I get to Heaven, if I find out that I read the scripture wrong, well, I’d rather risk that, than risk being on the side of those who stand against being loving and accepting – which I believe the Bible very clearly calls us to do.”

Asked if he’s performed a same-sex wedding yet at St. Andrew, Gantenbein says he has yet to be approached, but is open to it.

“We’re coming out of our closet, too, in a way,’ he says of St. Andrew. “We’re just saying, ‘Here we are, whoever you are. We’re here for you. Christ’s love is here for you. And I believe, as a congregation, we’re ready for whatever the next steps are.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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