We stand by our editorial, and we offer the following brief additional comments to help clarify the choice that the presbyteries are facing on this issue. Naturally, we will work within the constitution of the church whatever the outcome, and we will continue to advocate a polity that brings all Presbyterians together.
First, let us be clear that there is no constitutionally approved public rite or ceremony in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that can be applied to people in same-sex relationships. Nor is there any proposal before the church that seeks church-wide approval for such a thing. Voting against “O” does not change that. Therefore, our position does not create any conflict with the current constitution; indeed, it is simply a recommendation that we leave the current constitution alone.
Second, there is a major difference between setting constitutional standards for ordination, on the one hand, and regulating the discretion of pastors and sessions over the use of church property and the exercise of pastoral care, on the other. Ordinations in one congregation and presbytery are recognized in all other congregations and presbyteries. Were we debating the approval of some specific public rite or ceremony requiring the whole church’s approval, then the analogy to ordination standards would be apt. However, that is not the issue before us. Although it might be argued that Amendment O is precisely aimed at the peremptory rejection of such a specific rite or liturgy, the language of the amendment, as noted in our editorial, goes beyond that, capturing not only public ceremonies but also any “event” of whatsoever nature. We stand by our opinion that this is unnecessary and over-reaching.
Third, this over-reaching touches the real lives of real people in real congregations in specifically painful and inappropriate ways. There are congregations in our denomination that have in their midst people who are Sunday School teachers, choir members and participants of every sort who also happen to be in long-standing same-sex relationships. These people are few in number, but they are there. So then, this is not just a philosophical debate over what the church thinks about the issue of “same-sex unions.” It is a pastoral concern about how much we will trust individual congregations to find appropriate ways to embody the grace of the gospel for all its members. It may be recalled that last summer the bishops of the Episcopal Church refused to create a special rite for blessing same-sex unions and condemned promiscuity; but they also voted overwhelmingly (119 to 19 with 4 abstentions) to acknowledge the empirical fact that there are in our congregations unmarried couples, some of the same sex, living in long-term monogamous relationships who are entitled to the embrace of the gospel. We believe that pastors and sessions are in the best positions to exercise discernment in these individual cases.
Fourth, our view is based on the polity principles we have articulated and not on any specific ruling of the General Assembly PJC. However, we observe that whatever may be the confusions caused by the Hudson River decision, it specifically held that “ceremonies of ‘union’ between persons of the same sex are governed by the General Assembly’s Authoritative Interpretation of 1991” (which prohibits them); that there can be no such ceremony that is the equivalent of marriage; that no such ceremony can confer a new status as does marriage; and that “this decision should not be construed as an endorsement of homosexual conjugal practice proscribed by the General Assembly.”
Fifth, in responding to our belief that the language of Amendment O is too broad, Jerry Andrews rightly appeals to the good sense of pastors and sessions not to interpret “O” in an unreasonable fashion should it be passed. We too affirm the good sense of pastors and sessions, but we respectfully contend that Amendment O is a bad way to communicate that trust. We should trust the good sense of pastors and sessions who have gays and lesbians in their congregations to extend pastoral care to them in ways that are appropriate. We acknowledge that things have been done that are inappropriate. Pro-gay groups have damaged their own cause by politicizing ordination and pushing public same-sex ceremonies without a churchwide mandate. Yet we maintain that anti-gay groups are creating a different kind of counter-damage by turning how one parses the nuances of this issue into a litmus test for orthodoxy. Passing another church law on an issue on which the church is closely divided is not the way to move forward beyond our present impasse.
Sixth, we have observed that the fury directed against our editorial from some corners of the church is far out of proportion to the measured position we have taken. This should tell you something. With tens of thousands of dollars being poured into lobbying efforts to affect the outcome of this one vote, we believe that there is something badly amiss. There is an animus fueling this debate, an animus by some toward people who are homosexual and an animus by others simply against those with whom they disagree. A basic principle of our church order is that people “of good characters and principles may differ.” Therefore we must “exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” For, after all, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” [Book of Order, 1.0301(a)]. Finally, we take issue with the charge that what we advocate is inconsistent and hypocritical. If there be any inconsistency or hypocrisy at work in the way our polity is operating today, it is the mounting inconsistency and hypocrisy of spending so much of our energy going after the perceived transgressions of this small minority of people in the church when the transgressions of the majority are allowed to go unnoticed.
The log in our own eye is growing larger with each addition to the Book of Order.
William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary