Shaffer

Pullen preacher doesn't want to wed anyone until all can marry

Staff WriterAugust 1, 2011 

Editor's note: A headline on Monday mischaracterized the feelings of the Rev. Nancy Petty about conducting civil marriage ceremonies. Petty, pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, says she doesn't want to legally marry anyone until she can legally wed everyone.

Editor's note: Reader comments have been disabled on this story because of numerous violations of our comment policy.

RALEIGH -- For 20 years, Pastor Nancy Petty joined happy couples with the same pieces of biblical wisdom: Love is a gift. Love is tough. Love confronts injustice.

Straight or gay, everybody got the same blessing.

But all that time, a knot was twisting inside Petty's heart. Straight couples got a marriage license with her signature in ink. Gay couples got a holy blessing and a certificate with no more legal heft than a will scribbled on a bubble gum wrapper.

So a week ago Sunday, Petty told her flock at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church about the burden on her conscience, explaining that she doesn't want to legally marry anyone until she can legally wed everyone.

She'll do the religious blessing at Pullen, but she won't sign a marriage license. If the congregation backs her up, anyone wanting a state-sanctioned marriage will need to see a magistrate first - most likely in the public safety building downtown, where brides in their gown must pass through a metal detector.

"I'm perpetuating what I believe is an unjust law," said Petty, pastor at Pullen since 2002. "I don't sign birth certificates. I don't sign death certificates. I do baptisms. I do funerals. There's no other ritual of the state that I have to sign a document."

Speaking at Pullen, with its long history of social and political activism, Petty could expect support from at least most of the congregation.

This is the same Raleigh church where W.W. Finlator railed for an end to both segregation and the Vietnam War.

As she preached, Petty kept in her mind the fact that 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of her coming to Pullen and the church's decision to bless gay marriages - a decision that got it kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A lesbian herself and Pullen's first female pastor, Petty has performed about 75 marriages and 75 holy unions - a 1-to-1 ratio between gay and straight. If you're gay in North Carolina, you don't have too many options for a church wedding, even one that isn't legally binding.

A chance to lead

"I have people drive here from all over the state," she said.

The first time she "married" a gay couple, they asked, "Is there anything we have to sign?" There wasn't, of course, so Petty made up her own certificate. People want something that at least looks official, something they can file or frame.

For Petty, here's the question at the heart of all this: What does it mean to make a lifelong commitment to another person?

The divorce rate tells her that plenty of people aren't making marriage work under the time-worn parameters. History tells her that only a few decades ago, many in her faith considered interracial marriage an abomination.

She felt the unfairness gnawing for years, but the tipping point came after New York legalized same-sex unions. She realized that she wanted the church to lead, to be an advocate for equal rights rather than lag behind. So she asked Pullen's deacons to relieve her of marriage duties.

The real sticking point for her is the signature. There's hardly a gesture more permanent than inking your name on a document that gets archived in the halls of government. When Petty signs a marriage license, for all intents and purposes, she endorses the rules - fair or not.

Nobody signs anything lightly. Nobody wants to sign something that violates a personal code. Petty admits her decision punishes straight couples who support gay marriage, creating extra work for them, requiring two ceremonies. But she wants to get people thinking and talking, and it's a decision the Pullen congregation will make together.

That process has already started. Supportive members of the congregation have come forward, but she has also heard, "I don't know how I feel about this."

Wrestling with God

The deacons meet this month. Petty doesn't know if the congregation will need to vote, but some kind of statement should be necessary.

Meanwhile, she'll keep preaching.

Sunday's sermon concerned Jacob wrestling with the angel, a topic that connects to her own struggle with marriage duties. You wrestle with God sometimes, she says, and you come out limping.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818