Currently in our churches and communities, same-gender couples are living together in loving, committed, monogamous relationships. They are raising children, caring for aging parents, and making positive contributions to their communities. These couples include new and longtime members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Their relationships are equivalent to a marriage in every way but formal recognition by the church and by most states in which they live, though an increasing number of states are recognizing their relationships as marriages and many others recognize civil unions.
By reforming the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship we would recognize committed, lifelong relationships that are already being lived out by our members. We would honor and support the love and commitment they practice in their lives every day. We would bear witness to the love of God as it is expressed between these couples and as we offer that love to them on behalf of the church.
In addition, as the legal recognition of same-gender relationships goes through transitions throughout the country, PC(USA) clergy and sessions are faced with complex decisions regarding ecclesiastical authority and property use. Teaching elders currently can face ecclesiastical charges if they perform marriage ceremonies that may be legal in their state, but do not face similar charges for solemnizing civil unions, even when those unions are intended by the state to create identical legal relationships.
Same-gender couples who are members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can come to their minister and request that minister to prepared them for marriage and solemnize said marriages as an agent of the state, only to be denied that important time of pastoral care and ministry because of the current interpretation of the provisions replaced by this amendment. These marriages create certain privileges and responsibilities for the married couple and their families within the community and the church that cannot be ignored. Among other things, civil marriage bestows a new status on this couple and designates them as a unique social unit; it delineates their family structure and makes the other their next of kin; it establishes parental and societal rights and responsibilities for them; and establishes their rights of inheritance along with creating larger familial relationships.
All of these issues affect this new family and their lives in the church. Broadening the language to reflect a broader, but distinctly reformed and covenant-centered understanding of marriage removes the polity barriers faced by some ministers, sessions, church members, and other Christians while continuing to honor the laws of each state and the individual consciences of every ruling and teaching elder and congregation.
Overtures directly addressing marriage equality in the United States and the Presbyterian Church have come before the last two General Assemblies. The 219th Assembly (2010) completely failed to substantively address the marriage-related overtures that were before it. The 220th Assembly (2012) failed to substantively address Overtures related to Authoritative Interpretation of the marriage provisions at issue in this overture and, by a narrow margin, failed to adopt changes to W-4.9000. Then and now, though in substantially different fashion, the proposed changes to W-4.9000 are intended to recognize: (1) the contemporary reality of civil marriage under the law, (2) the ecclesial reality of marriage equality in the polity of our mainline sisters and brothers in Christ and, most importantly, (3) the theological reality that our longstanding tradition of reforming our understanding of the marital covenant faithfully leads us to now recognizing and solemnizing that covenant regardless of the gender of the parties involved.
In the ecclesial trial of one of the last major cases on marriage equality in the Presbyterian courts, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of the Redwoods (1) gave thanks “for the courageous and heartrending testimonies of the married couples who shared with us their great hurt through the policies of our church … [and] for the joy in marriage they shared with us”; (2) asked “for forgiveness for the harm that has been, and continues to be, done to them in the name of Jesus Christ” and (3) implored the General Assembly “to listen to these testimonies, which are now part of this record, to take them to heart, and to do what needs to be done to move us as a church forward on this journey of reconciliation.” See Decision of the PJC of the Presbytery of the Redwoods, dated August 24, 2010. Similarly, in the GAPJC decision, Southard v. Presbytery of Boston, February 4, 2010, five members of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission expressly recognized that the current language of the Constitution with regard to marriage is at odds with numerous other provisions mandating “the acceptance of our gay, lesbian, and bisexual brothers and sisters into the full fellowship of the church,” and “urged the General Assembly to amend the constitution to allow for the marriage of same-sex couples in the PC(USA) and otherwise welcome gay, lesbian, and bisexual people into the full fellowship of the church.”
As of the time this Overture is proposed (October 8, 2013), both the legal and ecclesial landscapes have dramatically changed since those 2010 opinions. Marriage equality is nationally recognized with the invalidation of the Defense of Marriage Act by the United States Supreme Court in 2013 and (as of September 2013) thirteen state governments (those of Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota), along with the District of Columbia, the Coquille Indian Tribe, the Suquamish tribe, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation issue same-sex marriage licenses. Further, court rulings mandating marriage equality are on appeal in New Mexico and New Jersey. Rulings and legislative action are pending in a number of other states, including Illinois. If Illinois adopts marriage equality this year, a proposal supported by a majority of Illinoisans, more than 40 percent of the United States’ citizenry will live in jurisdictions recognizing marriage equality.
For the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the good of loving, monogamous same-gender couples in our church and for the community and for the greater ministry of our clergy, sessions and churches we propose these changes to the Directory for Worship.
Same-gender couples seek to be married in the church for the same reasons as heterosexual couples – and they will continue to marry. The question is whether the Presbyterian Church (USA) will welcome them, or drive them away; celebrate and witness their mutual commitments, or leave them without the support of the faith community for the solemn covenant they are entering.
Current interpretations of the Book of Order, W-4.9000, give the impression that those authorized by their ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to solemnize marriages are not permitted to perform that service for same-gender couples, as they routinely do for heterosexual couples. As legal marriage for same-gender couples becomes a reality in a growing number of countries, U. S. states, and other civil jurisdictions –18 nations, 13 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and several counties and Native American tribes, as of September 2013 – this supposed prohibition requires more and more teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders either to discriminate against some couples, contrary to their conscience, or to risk involving themselves and their congregations in judicial process. Pastors are facing the impossible dilemma of choosing between their ordination promises to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” (W-4.4003h), “love your neighbors and work for the reconciliation of the world” (W-4.4003f), and “try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ (W-4.4003i3), or the promise to “be governed by our church’s polity” (W-4.4003e). The current interpretation unacceptably interferes with pastors’ ability to exercise their discretion in providing pastoral care.
The Directory for Worship repeatedly stresses the importance of worship in the exercise of pastoral care: “The worship of God in the Christian community is the foundation and context for the ministry of pastoral care as well as for the ministry of nurture in the faith.” (W-6.4000) See also, for example, W-6.3010, W-6.3002.
The Preface to the Directory for Worship explicitly states that “this directory also uses language about worship which is simply descriptive.” There are numerous descriptions of usual practice in the directory that are not followed to the letter by pastors and congregations.
The requested Authoritative Interpretation (AI) does not seek to amend W-4.9000; it simply clarifies that conducting a service of worship that does not follow W-4.9000 to the letter is not an offense that should subject a minister to the threat of discipline. The requested Authoritative Interpretation removes a prior AI, issued by the 203rd General Assembly (1991) at a time when there was no possibility of conducting a legal marriage service for a same-gender couple, and subsequent AIs by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) that rely upon it.
The GAPJC has itself acknowledged that the current language of the Book of Order is silent as to same-gender marriage, and that it was a split decision of the GAPJC that created an offense where none previously existed:
“We understand the Decision to be an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9001, to mean that officers of the PCUSA who are authorized to perform marriages shall not hereafter perform a same sex union ceremony in which or with respect to which such officer states, implies or represents to be a marriage or the equivalent thereof. While the Commission did not find Spahr guilty as charged herein, in part because her conduct occurred under prior authoritative interpretations, we understand that future noncompliance with the authoritative interpretation of the Decision will be considered to be a disciplinable offense.” [emphasis added] Disciplinary Case 218-12 Concurring Opinion (Spahr 1, (http:// oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/pjc21812withconcurrences.pdf)
The GAPJC reaffirmed that the supposed offense was its own creation, when it determined that Jean Southard did not commit an offense in performing a marriage for two women; if the supposed offense were inherent in the Book of Order, Rev. Southard would have been guilty:
“This Commission concluded in Spahr that prior authoritative interpretations lacked mandatory language. Southard conducted this ceremony two months prior to Spahr. Sensitive to the authoritative interpretation in Spahr, this Commission agrees with the SPJC that Spahr cannot be applied retroactively to the facts of this case. Therefore, Southard did not violate the Book of Order or her ordination vows by erring in her constitutional interpretation. She did not commit an offense because the applicable authoritative interpretation (Spahr) had not yet been promulgated.” [emphasis added] Disciplinary Case 220-02 (Southard, http://oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/pjc22002.pdf)
If the GAPJC has the authority to create an offense by Authoritative Interpretation, the General Assembly – a much larger and more representative body – has the authority to correct that action. (G-6.02)
Ministers whose study of Scripture, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has led them to affirm same-gender marriage, are following their understanding of Jesus Christ, who placed himself on the margins with people others considered unclean, unworthy, and immoral, and lifted up love and compassion. They note that the Bible reflects many patterns and forms of legal, religiously approved marital relationships. They appeal to Presbyterian principles of biblical interpretation, including reading in context, the use of knowledge and experience, the centrality of Jesus Christ, interpretation of Scripture by Scripture, the rule of love, and the rule of faith (Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture, http:// http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/_resolutions/scripture-use.pdf). They believe that turning away same-gender couples harms gay and lesbian persons and their families, creates injustice, hinders evangelism, and violates their understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
These ministers are seeking the freedom of conscience to act on their convictions that is safeguarded in our Historic Principles of Church Order, and the mutual forbearance required for maintaining the unity of the body (F-3.01). The same principles protect those whose study of Scripture leads them to a different conclusion. No minister can ever be required to participate in a marriage service against his or her conscience.
“The 220th General Assembly (2012) acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed, same-gender relationships. Therefore, while holding persons in ordered ministry to high standards of covenant fidelity in the exercise of their sexuality, as in all aspects of life, we acknowledge that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture in this matter. We commit ourselves to continue respectful dialogue with those who hold differing convictions, to welcome one another for God’s glory, and not to vilify those whose convictions we believe to be in error. We call on all Presbyterians to join us in this commitment.” (action of the 220th General Assembly (2012), http://www.pc-biz.org/MeetingPapers/(S(zucvhg5dsx1dkgphysjzeok0))/IOBView.aspx?m=ro&id=4063)
The requested Authoritative Interpretation follows the reasoning of the members of the GAPJC who dissented in the Spahr 2 decision (Disciplinary Case 220-08, February 2012, http://oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/pjc22008.pdf)
We respectfully dissent from this Decision [that declared that Janie Spahr had violated the Book of Order by conducting services that were and are legal marriages]. The majority judges this case primarily in relation to the decisions in Spahr (2008) and Southard (2011) in a conviction that, behind its judicial interpretation, there is in the Constitution an explicit basis against officiating in a same-sex marriage. In fact, this conviction rests upon an assumption rather than explicit constitutional rule. It is grounded principally upon one section, even one sentence, in the Directory of Worship, that is claimed to have clear and obvious legal status. The Commission assumes here and in earlier cases that W-4.9001 presents a legal basis for denying the permissibility and validity of same-sex marriage because it presents a “definition” of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. This assumption is flawed. This provision in the Directory of Worship cannot serve effectively as a judicial criterion.
There are several reasons why W-4.9001 is incapable of bearing the legal significance and weight that the Commission has placed upon it. First, this paragraph emerged decades ago, in a very different time and context. In its language and descriptions, it reflects conventions of a time when same-sex unions presented little, if any, cultural concern or attention… Secondly, W-4.9001 is an introductory narrative for a distinctive, introductory section on marriage, outlining its biblical and theological characteristics as background to provisions of pastoral practice and nurture…To claim that this paragraph is primarily and intentionally legal in nature forces an artificial warp upon its evident narrative purpose. As a fourfold theological outline of Christian marriage in narrative form, in no way is it clear or obvious that it proposes regulatory imperative or legal intention. Certainly, it does not have the kind of language or format that the church has come to expect in definitive juridical statements, the kind of “shall” language that is common to our order in providing regulatory lines for boundaries of action or proscribed behavior.
This is all to say that, in cases such as this one, a determination of offense requires clear demonstration of a violation against Scripture or the Constitution, in which the terms of a mandate are unambiguous and expressly stated. In this case and in the other recent cases, it is strikingly significant to note the absence of arguments upon perceived biblical warrants or directly applicable mandates in our Constitution and the presence of mere definitional bases.
In this case and the other recent decisions, my principal concern is that this Commission has forged a standard upon an extremely fragile provision, employing a strained interpretation that does not provide the necessary legal foundation for resolution of our dilemma or foster pastoral guidance in the life of the church. By relying so heavily on W-4.9001, the Commission has ruled upon convention rather than law. The definitive clarity that the church deserves and expects in this continuing and vexatious dispute awaits deeper foundational judgment as well as more precise legislation.
As of the time this Overture is proposed (October 8, 2013), both the legal and ecclesial landscapes have continued to evolve, constantly increasing the number of clergy and congregations placed in the untenable conflict between current interpretations of this provision and their sense of pastoral call and obligation. Marriage equality is nationally recognized with the invalidation of the Defense of Marriage Act by the United States Supreme Court in 2013 and (as of September 2013) thirteen state governments (those of Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Maryland, Washington, Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota), along with the District of Columbia, the Coquille Indian Tribe, the Suquamish tribe, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation issue same-sex marriage licenses. Further, court rulings mandating marriage equality are on appeal in New Mexico and New Jersey. Rulings and legislative action are pending in a number of other states, including Illinois. If Illinois adopts marriage equality this year, a proposal supported by a majority of Illinoisans, more than 40 percent of the United States’ citizenry will live in jurisdictions recognizing marriage equality.
Presbytery of Genesee Valley: Amending Marriage
At issue is the Presbyterian understanding of the nature of Christian marriage and a pastor’s and session’s responsibility and ability to extend appropriate pastoral care. As more and more states (fourteen at this writing) authorize marriage between same-gender partners, pastors, and sessions trying to be responsible in providing pastoral care to church members by officiating at marriages in the church building find themselves increasingly constrained by the provisions of W-4.9000 of the Directory for Worship as interpreted by the 203rd General Assembly (1991) and subsequent decisions of the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission.
In light of the increased flexibility offered by the new Form of Government for conducting the mission of the church, it is time for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to amend the Directory for Worship to provide comparable flexibility in extending pastoral care to church members in same-gender partnerships.
The report of the Special Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage, which the 219th General Assembly (2010) approved and commended to the church, offers important background to the biblical, theological, historical, cultural, and pastoral issues involved here (Minutes, 2010, Part I, pp. 909ff).
The following brief observations support the amendment requested above:
* The Bible and the Reformed tradition reflect many patterns and forms of legal, religiously approved marital relationships.1 The nostalgically remembered pattern of marriage of 1940s America cannot be taken as normative from a biblical or theological point of view.
* The understanding of marriage has changed through the years and was often geared more to property rights or political advantage than to a mutual, loving relationship.2
* Marriage is a contract regulated and licensed by the state.3 This was recognized in the ancient church and in Protestant churches since the Reformation.4
* There are legitimate differences of interpretation of the passages regarding homosexual relationship in the Bible.5 The present regulation forces Presbyterian elders to act based on one interpretation, with which many disagree as a matter of conscience.
* Jesus in his public ministry broke down the barriers that separated people. He identified with those who were outcasts and marginalized by society. The gays and lesbians are considered outsiders by many today. The church needs to witness to the inclusive love of Jesus for all people.6
* To prohibit clergy and congregations from fulfilling a legitimate request for pastoral care binds the conscience of clergy and prevents them from fulfilling their pastoral responsibilities.
* In 2010, the presbyteries approved Amendment A, allowing persons in same-sex relationships to be ordained. These church members should be allowed to be married if the state issues them a marriage license and their teaching elder determines that their marriage is advisable.
* The statement restricting marriage to “one man and one woman”7 addresses polygamy in 17th century England.8 The statement that marriage is “between a man and a woman”9 reflects conventions of the mid-20th century and is descriptive, not prescriptive. This overture is necessary to clarify those ambiguities and antiquated statements contained in W-4.9000.
* This amendment is also necessary to align our Directory for Worship with the principles of justice and equitable Foundations of Presbytery Polity (F-1.0403) that states “… In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. …”
In light of the above we believe positive action on this overture is warranted.
- Report of the Special Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage, pp. 1–2 and 25–27.
- Ibid., pp. 3 and 27.
- Book of Order, Directory for Worship, W-4.9000 “Marriage is a civil contract . …”
- Report of the Special Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage, pp. 3–4 and 27–28
- Ibid., pp. 11, 13 (item 3), and 20–21
- Book of Confessions, The Confession of 1967, 9.44 and 9.47; Book of Order, Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-1.0302c, F-1.0404, and F-1.0405.
- Book of Confessions, The Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.131.
- Book of Confessions, Directory for Worship, W-4.9000.
- Book of Confessions Study Edition, Geneva 1996, p. 200, footnote q.
Presbytery of the Cascades: Amending Marriage
The PC(USA) has a long history of working for social justice and equal rights for all people.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches throughout the denomination are seeking to be inclusive, welcoming communities of Christian faith and are committed to honoring diversity and promoting peace, health, and justice in personal relationship, church, community, and the world.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches throughout the denomination also have a long history of struggling with issues of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) equality; working within the structure and standards of the PC(USA) and also taking actions of ecclesiastical defiance when their conscience leads them to believe the teachings of Jesus require such actions.
As requested by the 220th General Assembly (2012), many churches have been studying the issue of marriage equality both in the pulpit and through adult education classes.
The Presbytery of the Cascades stands with those in the PC(USA) who believe that the teachings of Jesus call for radical inclusion of all people and that the actions of Jesus, passed down in Scripture, showed unconditional love and equality for all people. We believe that God created each of us with many differences, including sexual preferences, and that those differences are to be celebrated as part of the creative plan of God.
Support of marriage equality is consistent with our faith tradition. The covenant of marriage requires love and commitment; qualities that are in no way gender specific.
Failing to allow for marriage equality continues to have negative consequences for the Body of Christ, the Church, in that it gives some of our members fewer rights than others, treating them as second-class members. This is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Valuing the worth, health, and happiness of our children and youth, requires that they are allowed to grow wholly and holy in a church that embraces them and their visions of their future loving relationships. To deny marriage to the GLBT community will continue the discrimination they already experience and increase the level of stress and mental health issues that make this community more susceptible to substance abuse, depression, and suicide.
Marriage equality, on the other hand, will reduce the numbers of young people who find banning gay marriage to be hypocritical, unfair, and not the act of a caring Christian congregation.
The Book of Order of the PC(USA) should be amended to allow marriage between “two people” rather than limiting marriage to “between one man and one woman” and to allow PC(USA) church officials to perform marriage ceremonies between same-sex couples.
Presbytery of Maumee Valley: Authoritative Interpretation
When a couple seeks to be married in the church, rather than in a civil setting, they want the support of the people of God for their pledge of lifelong commitment. Will we continue to withhold this support, or will we welcome them fully and give a blessing to the gift of love that God has placed in their hearts? Will we encourage them to fully participate in the life of the church and to raise children in the body of Christ? There is no stated “biblical definition” of marriage. Indeed, much of what the Bible describes as marriage or intimate relationships—bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, socioeconomic bridal negotiations, levirate marriage—is no longer part of Christian matrimony. Where do we go from here, then?
There is debate over what the Book of Order intends to say in W-4.9000. Is it descriptive of one particular marriage scenario, or is it prescriptive of the only marriage scenario? The Directory for Worship repeatedly stresses the importance of worship in the exercise of pastoral care: “The worship of God in the Christian community is the foundation and context for the ministry of pastoral care as well as for the ministry of nurture in the faith” (W-6.4000). The Preface to the Directory for Worship explicitly states that “this directory … uses language about worship which is simply descriptive” (Preface, b). There are numerous descriptions of usual practice in the directory that are not followed to the letter by pastors and congregations. This is within the Reformed tradition of “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” blessing neither preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake. The church is not the agent of its own reformation; God is the agent of reformation, and the church is the object of God’s reforming work. This is what Pastor John Robinson had in mind in 1620, when in his final sermon to the Pilgrims departing for the New World, he reminded them that God does not reveal God’s whole truth to any one person at any one point in history: “… I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth [and light] yet to break forth from His Holy Word” (http://www.newtestamentpattern.net/christian-articles/sundry-thoughts/the-words-of-john-robinson_mayflower/).
We must continually be open to hearing the new things God is saying to us through the Word. It was this ever-renewed, ever-revealing light that led us away from the scriptural interpretations once used to keep slavery in place, to justify anti-Semitism, to limit the role of women in society and in our denomination, to justify the despoilment of the environment, to authorize physical punishment of children at home and school, and to rationalize homophobia, for example. In fact, the Book of Order is designed to be very fluid, constantly open to amendment, change, and reform. Procedures for modifications are understood as a means to faithfulness as God leads us in discernment. For example, it was this openness to new paths revealed to us by God that led to the 2011 Book of Order amendment (10-A) that removed the issue of sexual orientation from the ordination process for deacons, elders, and ministers.
The authoritative interpretation being sought will confirm the long-standing role of teaching elders and ruling elders in exercising non-judgmental inquiry, as they seek to understand and live out the Scriptures and their ordination vows. The polity maneuvers of recent years have impinged on the fulfillment of those vows taken by our congregational officers and most especially by our clergy. Current interpretations of the Book of Order, W-4.9000, give the impression that those authorized by their ordination in the PC(USA) to solemnize marriages are not permitted to perform that service for same-gender couples, as they routinely do for heterosexual couples. As legal marriage for same-gender couples becomes a reality in a growing number of venues*, this supposed prohibition requires more and more teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders either to discriminate against some couples, contrary to their conscience, or to risk involving themselves and their congregations in judicial process. Pastors are facing the impossible dilemma of choosing between, on the one hand, their ordination promises to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” (W-4.4003h), to “love your neighbors and work for the reconciliation of the world” (W-4.4003f), and to “try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ (W4.4003i(3)), all up against, on the other hand, the promise to “be governed by our church’s polity” (W-4.4003e). The current interpretation painfully interferes with pastors’ ability to exercise their discretion in providing pastoral care. Resolution of this conflictual situation need not remain impossible for a denomination that has traditionally drawn strength from its capacity for mutual forbearance. A pastor in the PC(USA) is not under any compulsion to perform a marriage that s/he deems inappropriate. It is also the long-standing practice of Reformed faith to allow freedom of conscience in all nonessential matters, and homosexuality was not considered an essential in the past. Same-gender marriage was scarcely on the radar as recently as a generation ago.
What happened in the relatively recent Presbyterian past has been at times a convoluted journey through our polity. The requested authoritative interpretation (AI) does not seek to amend W-4.9000; rather, it clarifies that conducting a service of worship that does not follow W-4.9000 to the letter is not an offense that should subject a minister to the threat of discipline. The requested authoritative interpretation removes a prior AI, issued by the 203rd General Assembly (1991) at a time when there was no possibility in this country of conducting a legal marriage service, civil or religious, for a same-gender couple. The requested AI also removes the subsequent AIs by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) that rely upon that 1991 AI.
The GAPJC has itself acknowledged that the current language of the Book of Order is silent as to same-gender marriage and that it was a split decision of the GAPJC that created an offense where none previously existed:
We understand the Decision to be an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9001, to mean that officers of the PC(USA) who are authorized to perform marriages shall not hereafter perform a same sex union ceremony in which or with respect to which such officer states, implies or represents to be a marriage or the equivalent thereof. While the Commission did not find Spahr guilty as charged herein, in part because her conduct occurred under prior authoritative interpretations, we understand that future noncompliance with the authoritative interpretation of the Decision will be considered to be a disciplinable offense. ([emphasis added] Disciplinary Case 218-12, Concurring Opinion [Spahr 1, http://oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/pjc21812withcon currences.pdf]).
The GAPJC reaffirmed that the supposed offense was its own creation, when it determined that Jean Southard did not commit an offense in performing a marriage for two women; if the supposed offense were inherent in the Book of Order, Rev. Southard would have been guilty:
“This Commission concluded in Spahr that prior authoritative interpretations lacked mandatory language. Southard conducted this ceremony two months prior to Spahr. Sensitive to the authoritative interpretation in Spahr, this Commission agrees with the SPJC that Spahr cannot be applied retroactively to the facts of this case. Therefore, Southard did not violate the Book of Order or her ordination vows by erring in her constitutional interpretation. She did not commit an offense because the applicable authoritative interpretation (Spahr) had not yet been promulgated.” ([emphasis added] Disciplinary Case 220-02 [Southard, http://oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/pjc 22002.pdf])
If the GAPJC has the authority to create an offense by authoritative interpretation, the General Assembly—a much larger and more representative body—has the same authority as the GAPJC to correct that action (G-6.02). The Book of Order does not address same-gender marriage. The Directory for Worship was written before same-gender marriage seemed like a possibility. To pass an AI that allows sessions and pastors discretion to do, or not to do, same-gender marriages merely addresses a situation that is not explicitly covered in the Book of Order. If the current section on marriage were intentional in its exclusion, it would explicitly say, “Marriage is to be (or ‘shall be’) between a man and a woman.” Section W-4.9001 does not say that, and previous attempts to make it say that have failed. Notwithstanding, no PC(USA) minister can ever be required to participate in a marriage service against his or her conscience. In cases such as this one, a determination of offense requires clear demonstration of a violation against Scripture or the Constitution, in which the terms of a mandate are unambiguous and expressly stated. In this case and in the other recent cases related to it, it is strikingly significant to note the absence of arguments upon perceived biblical warrants or directly applicable mandates in our Constitution and the presence of simple descriptive, not prescriptive, bases. The authoritative interpretation of these sections (W-4.9000–4.9006) by the 203rd General Assembly (1991) is no longer factually correct and does not adequately prioritize the discretion granted to teaching elders and sessions in both providing pastoral care and overseeing services of worship.
In this case and the other recent decisions, the principal concern is that the GAPJC has forged a standard upon an extremely fragile provision, employing a strained interpretation that does not provide the necessary legal foundation for resolution of our dilemma and does not foster pastoral guidance in the life of the church. It does not take into account the changes in the understanding of marriage, especially by persons of faith in Jesus Christ. Will we welcome all couples to participate fully in the life of the church? Will we encourage all families to raise children as members of the body of Christ? By relying so heavily on W-4.9001, the GAPJC has ruled upon convention rather than church law. The definitive clarity that the church deserves and expects in this continuing and vexatious dispute awaits deeper foundational judgment as well as more precise legislation.
*COUNTRIES: Argentina, Australia (by end of 2013), Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Mexico (Mexico City, Quintana Roo), Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom (England, Wales), Uruguay.
U.S. STATES: California, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico (6 counties), New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington (state), six Native American tribes.
U.S. RELIGIOUS GROUPS: Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, Judaism (Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform).
Presbytery of Hudson River: Amending Marriage
For decades the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been struggling with how to be truly welcoming and truly just, as Jesus has called us to be. We have struggled with how to assure a full and unbiased search process so that minorities are included. We have asked ourselves who can be ordained and who can be married in our church.
For much of our nation’s and our church’s history, the marriage question focused on interracial couples.
In 1878, the Supreme Court of Virginia invalidated the marriage of a white woman and a black man on the grounds that interracial marriage was contrary to God’s plan. “[C]onnections and alliances so unnatural that God and nature seem to forbid them,” the court asserted, “should be prohibited by positive law, and be subject to no evasion.”
“God and nature.”
These were the grounds on which white supremacists successfully upheld so called miscegenation laws for another one hundred years, during which time interracial marriage was prohibited in thirty states.
One of the few people to openly condemn miscegenation laws was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who in 1959 boldly stated that the right to marry whom one chooses is the most fundamental of all human rights:
The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which “the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race” are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.
It would be another seven years before the Supreme Court of the United States took up the question of whether the laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional.
The PC(USA) wasn’t content to stand by while the justices deliberated.
The 835 delegates to the UPCUSA 177th General Assembly (1965) of the then 3.3 million-member church concluded that there are “no … theological grounds for condemning or prohibiting” marriage between consenting adults merely because of racial origin (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1965, Part I, p. 409).
Today, when one out of every fifteen marriages is interracial, most Presbyterians embrace Jesus for his inclusivity.
Jesus, we’re the first to say, was not a racist.
And yet we don’t often consider that prohibiting the right of our fellow Christians to marry someone of the same gender is wholly analogous to prohibiting the marriages of people of different races.
Indeed, in 2003, when Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote for the majority in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the first ruling by a state’s highest court that same-gender couples have the right to marry, she made the analogy herself:
Recognizing the right of an individual to marry a person of the same sex will not diminish the validity or dignity of opposite-sex marriage, any more than recognizing the right of an individual to marry a person of a different race devalues the marriage of a person who marries someone of her own race. … That same-sex couples are willing to embrace marriage’s solemn obligations of exclusivity, mutual support, and commitment to one another is a testament to the enduring place of marriage in our laws and in the human spirit (http://masscases.com/cases/sjc/440/440mass309.html, p. 337).
To deny the privilege of being married in the church and declaring before God the promises of fidelity and caring, limits the pastoral capacity of our clergy and our church.
It is now time to allow, not force, but allow, our clergy and churches to perform weddings in jurisdictions where it is legal for same-gender couples as a sign of our pastoral care.
Let us remember that it is Jesus who gave us the example of welcoming all to fellowship and ministry with him. It was our Lord who stood against the tyrannical bias of his day when he welcomed Mary to sit at his feet as a disciple, and when he ate with Zacchaeus and declared that salvation was his, and when he healed the Roman centurion’s servant even though he was Israel’s enemy.
In the spirit of Jesus, it is time to say to those in the LGBT community that you are welcome, that you are fully members of the PC(USA).
Presbytery of Long Island: Authoritative Interpretation
The Session of the Setauket Presbyterian Church takes seriously its vows to “pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” (W-4.4003h), to “love [our] neighbors and work for the reconciliation of the world” (W-4.4003f), to “try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ (W- 4.4003i3), and to “be governed by our church’s polity” (W-4.4003e). We also take seriously our pastoral and leadership role as elected by a congregation that is socio-politically and theologically diverse.
The Setauket Presbyterian Church is the fifth oldest congregation in the denomination (1660), with a history of putting faith and principles into action dating at least from organized resistance to British occupation during the American Revolution. We are a More Light church and a member church of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. From our history and our public stance, it is logical that same-sex couples would come to us, as indeed they have, trusting that we will welcome them and their families, and that we would provide the same pastoral care and congregational support in the name of Christ that a church is called to offer to all people.
The civil laws of the State of New York allow same-sex marriage, but the present interpretations of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) do not. This created personal conflict for each of us, and, as we grappled with it together, distress and sadness in the session as a whole. We saw that the language in W-4.9001 describing civil marriage was no longer adequate or accurate, at least when applied to a growing number of states (including our own) and other nations worldwide. As we studied, prayed, and reflected over two months and three session meetings, the following issues rose to the surface:
Suppose, we reasoned, one of the same-sex couples in our church family adopted a baby, presented her for baptism, and also asked to get married now that that was possible. We realized that we could baptize the baby, but not marry the couple. We could even approve their reception on our property, but not their wedding. That seemed illogical and unfair to us, no matter how kindly we broke the news to them. We saw that no matter which way we turned, we would be breaking one or another of our ordination vows.
We learned that in the Reformed tradition, teaching elders have always had pastoral responsibility to assess the appropriateness of any marriage, and that sessions had similar responsibility in assessing the impact on “proclamation of the Gospel” and “demonstration of the Kingdom of God to the world” in their approval of the use of church buildings. We understood those parallel responsibilities to be part of the checks and balances built into our polity. We grieved that the current interpretation of the descriptive language in our Directory for Worship interferes with this trust and these responsibilities.
We observed that, as a church, we bless heterosexual marriages contracted under civil law because for century’s marriage partners have testified that their bond is a means of grace. We felt that when same-gender partners testify that their committed relationships have the same benefit, it was right to give them the same blessing. We acknowledged that as the world changes, same-gender couples are actually doing something profoundly conservative by asking to be held, through public covenant, to the same standards of faithfulness and mutual love that the church expects of heterosexual couples.
We were concerned for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We remembered that our Lord Jesus spent very little time in the Temple, and most of his time among the people. On many occasions we see him following the spirit of the law, when he found it in conflict with the letter. The spirit of marriage is alive and well in two people who express a heartfelt desire to unite their spirits and their lives with each other and with God. It would be against that very spirit to deny them that right.
Out of our established commitment to peace and justice, we reflected that as Jesus taught us to fight for the oppressed, in our time there is perhaps no better example of what Jesus meant than the one before us now. It seemed to us unimaginable to think that Jesus would deny two people who seek to live their lives in union, with him and with each other, the ability to do so. Recognizing our duty as Christians to fight for justice for all of God’s people, we realized that in this case, if we do not make a change in the church, we are not only refusing to fight for the oppressed, we are in fact the oppressors.
Moreover, we were deeply concerned for the faith of our children. We were startled to read the statistics published by the conservative evangelical Barna Foundation: that 85 percent of unchurched young people under age 29 believe the church is hypocritical; 87 percent believe that it is judgmental, and 91 percent believe it is anti-homosexual. Digging further, we discovered that conservatives and liberals alike are alarmed at the growing rate at which young people are falling away from the churches. Although there are undoubtedly many contributing factors to this, we could not dismiss the Barna statistics as irrelevant.
Our denomination as a whole has for decades maintained a consistent civil rights stance on behalf of LGBTQ people in matters of civil law, no matter how we are still working out the details of polity. This is something of which the young people in our congregation are proud. We wanted to contribute to an environment of pastoral concern rather than ecclesiastical litigiousness as our denomination works through the huge transitions now shaping society.
For all these reasons, we wanted to be part of the solution, and through due denominational process, to return our polity to its historical position: an expectation of prayerful discernment on the part of teaching elders and sessions, where marriage in the church intersects with marriage in the still-evolving law of the land.
Presbytery of New York City: Amending Marriage
Since July 2011, the State of New York has allowed two people of the same gender to marry. It is now simply untrue that “marriage is a civil contract between one man and one woman,” as the Book of Order now states. Although some New York pastors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have declined to perform such marriages in keeping with their conscience, many others are caught in an untenable position: their conscience tells them to exercise their pastoral responsibility and perform the marriage but the church tells them to fear prosecution. Such prosecutions have already placed tremendous financial burden on presbyteries, diminishing the church’s ability to effectively evangelize and perform necessary mission work
We Are Called to Make Disciples
According to the Book of Order, we declare,
The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. … proclaiming the Lord’s favor upon all creation. … In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission … by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission. [F-1.01]
… No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel. [G-1.0302]
The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving … . [W-2.4011]
According to this, Presbyterians call all people to discipleship in Christ, live to glorify God, extend the fellowship of Christ to all people, and recognize that none of us earn or deserve God’s grace.
The Marriage Ceremony Is Worship
In our order for worship, we listen to the Word, proclaim the Word, and respond to the Word. Responding to the Word is a demonstration of the love of God for God’s people.
“The response to the proclamation of the Word is expressed in an affirmation of faith and commitment. … Response to the Word also involves acts of commitment and recognition. … acts of commitment which may appropriately be included as response to the Word are (a) Christian marriage, …” [W-3.3500, W-3.3502, W-3.3503] According to this, Presbyterians view Christian marriage as an act of worship.
One part of our current Presbyterian polity specifically excludes a group of people when it comes to worship: those people in loving, committed, Christian relationships who are also of the same gender and wish to marry. However elsewhere in our polity, we hold up the words of Jesus Christ:
“… There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). … The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. … [F-1.0403]
We are all discerning God’s Word for us. And as surely as we are all unique creations of the loving God, we will each of us disagree from time to time. But if we profess to call all people to Christ, to call all people to proclaim God’s love for us in worship, to guarantee full participation in worship to all persons, we must give teaching elders and sessions the discretion to choose to recognize the covenant of Christian marriage for two people of the same gender who seek to enter into marriage with love and faithfulness, just as we allow teaching elders and sessions the discretion to choose otherwise. To do anything else unfairly denies this group of our membership the opportunity to fully worship our God.