The committee did not recommend any change in the definition of Christian marriage currently in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). That definition – that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman – was off-limits to the committee, according to its mandate from the 2008 General Assembly.
Nevertheless, three evangelical members of the committee voted against the committee’s recommendations, expressing concern they might lead to some form of local option, and insisting that the church needs to speak a strong message that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong.
“Let us boldly proclaim that God has a place for sex,” said a substitute proposal offered by one of the dissenters, Tracie Mayes Stewart, a pastor from South Carolina. “It is within marriage between a man and a woman and that commitment is for life.”
The recommendations the committee did pass do not call for dramatic changes in PC(USA) policy, but move more in the direction of urging further discussion and the development of resources that could help presbyteries and congregations know what they are and are not allowed to do in the complicated areas of civil unions and gay marriage, and in ministering to gays and lesbians and their families.
It is possible, however, that the 2010 General Assembly could be asked through overtures to take on some of these issues more directly – such as clarifying whether Presbyterian pastors in states that allow same-gender marriages can perform them.
The committee voted late Sunday (Jan. 24) to approve its report and recommendations, with eight members voting yes and three no. Those three — all of whom have said they support the current definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA) constitution – voted no on the report and recommendations, and reserved the option of submitting a minority report in the coming weeks, although they could ultimately decide not to do that.
Bill Teng, a pastor from northern Virginia and one of those who voted against the recommendations, said a minority report could serve the broader church by giving it alternatives, and does not reflect a splintering of the committee.
“I really believe that what we have done here is good work, is faithful work,” Teng said. “We have spoken our convictions on both sides. We just came to different places” about what should be in the report.
“The option of a minority report gives us all a way when we’ve gone as far as we can go to allow everybody’s conscience to be unbound,” said Lisa Cooper Van Riper, an elder from Greenville, S.C., who also voted against the report. She urged those who support the recommendations to vote for them – “don’t worship the unity of a report. Go after what you believe. … I operated on truth today, from my perspective, and it felt good.”
But some members voiced deep disappointment that the committee was not able to reach unanimity.
Margaret Aymer, an associate professor of New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said: “I’m very, very proud” of the committee’s work, but its inability to reach consensus “still makes me very uneasy. … It makes me uneasy for this church.”
During its 10 months of conversation, the committee discussed a complicated matrix of ideas including the reality that some Presbyterian ministers serve in states that have made same-gender marriage legal; that churches minister to families in a wide variety of configurations, including gay and lesbian couples and their children; and that state laws governing same-gender marriage and civil unions are diverse and fast-changing.
The committee’s vote was the result of a months-long struggle by its members to find common ground, but still to stay true to their convictions; to say something substantive, but not incendiary. Repeatedly, the committee removed language that someone suggested was “loaded” for either progressives or evangelicals.
The committee also discussed presenting a report with no recommendations, but ultimately rejected that.
Among the recommendations it did approve were to:
– Ask the 2010 General Assembly to encourage presbyteries and sessions to develop resources that are consonant with the PC(USA) constitution, regarding how church facilities can be used for marriages and same-gender union ceremonies, and for clergy participation in marriages or same-gender ceremonies. According to the discussion, those resources could help answer questions ranging from “Does someone have to be a member of this church to get married here?” to “Will we allow same-gender union ceremonies?”
– Ask the assembly to direct the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship and the Constitutional Services section of the Office of the General Assembly to provide guidelines and resources addressing the difference between a ceremony of Christian marriage and a same-gender union ceremony.
– Encourage sessions to study issues of Biblical interpretation, using specific resources already available in the denomination.
– Commend the committee’s covenant for use by others in the church on divisive issues.
– Ask the assembly to “affirm the church’s call to extend Christ’s compassion to all,” and to encourage presbyteries and sessions “to be diligent in their exercise of care in all the transitions of life.”
The full report is expected to be posted on the PC(USA) Web site soon.
The committee decided not to make a specific recommendation on another issue — the recognition that the Book of Order definition of Christian marriage, as being between a man and a woman, does not match the civil definition in marriage in a handful of states that have legalized same-gender marriages. Instead, in a footnote in the report, the committee points out that “a conflict may exist” in definitions, “and this conflict has implications for the role of clergy as agents of the state. However, changing the definition of marriage in the Book of Order falls outside the mandate of this committee.”
The committee also is recommending that the church use the committee’s own covenant as a guide for discussing divisive issues.
There was some discussion, during a reconsideration today (Jan. 25) of the vote taken the night before, of whether the committee should remove that covenant from the report, considering that it has the title “Those Whom God Has Joined Together, Let No One Separate,” while they are facing the possibility of a minority report. Ultimately, they decided to keep it in.
“Our unity was not in our conformity,” but in the ability to stay together at the table even while disagreeing, said committee chair James Szeyller, a pastor from Charlotte, N.C. The covenant speaks of the committee’s commitment to listen to one another with respect; to pray for each other; and “to love one another even when we disagree.”
Those who disagree with the recommendations “didn’t walk out,” Van Riper said.
They didn’t walk out, but they also were not able to resolve some crucial disagreements. Van Riper, for example, voiced her concern that sections of the report “are leading us farther from connection and closer to local autonomy.”
Others, however, wanted the Presbyterian church to speak a clear and pastoral message to committed gay and lesbian couples.
Earl Arnold, a minister from New York state, said that for him, the question is not just what the church says about sex outside of marriage, but “is marriage limited only to a certain category” of sexual orientation?
“What is the place of covenanted, same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?” the report asks. “The members of the PC(USA) cannot agree.”
And Emily Anderson, a single minister from Tennessee, said the church also struggles with how to speak pastorally about sex and relationships to those who aren’t married.
When Presbyterians make arguments about God creating men and women to be complementary and to complete one another, “what that says is that I am incomplete and half a person,” Anderson said. “I feel like I am treated as half a person by the church all the time. We know what to do with married people. I don’t think we know what to do with single people.”
MAKE NO RECOMMENDATIONS?
Some committee members argued that the committee should not make any recommendations at all — that the strength of its work would lie in the report that it had worked so hard to write, rather than a list of recommendations that some Presbyterians might well find controversial.
Teng argued that many General Assembly commissioners likely will skip the “well-thought-out and nuanced report” and jump directly to the recommendations.
Making recommendations on which commissioners will argue back-and-forth “is the conventional way of doing this. I really believe we have to have a new way of being the church, and not polarize the church,” he said.
But others contended that the committee shouldn’t back away from making recommendations, even if not everyone on the committee could agree with them. The church has invested time and money in the committee’s work, “and they want to know what we think” about these issues, Anderson said. “Being faithful to our task, we just can’t say we don’t want to be controversial or we want to play it safe. I really believe we have to step out and make some recommendations.”
Even if the committee didn’t make recommendations, “people will still not read the report,” Aymer said. “The reality is that the bulk of what comes out of these meetings does not get read by the bulk of the church, period.”
In the end, this committee finished its deliberations with the possibility of a minority report looming; without any clear word on how the PC(USA) should resolve these difficult issues; and unsure of how its work will be perceived by the broader church.
But the committee members were still able to worship and pray together, to tease one another and to praise each other for honesty and faithfulness, even when they ended up in different places.
“We have not solved the problem,” said Clay Allard, a pastor from Dallas. “We have said ultimately, that’s not our call. Our call is to witness to the fact that Christ called us together.”
While the committee members couldn’t agree on the issues – just as the rest of the PC(USA) hasn’t been able to agree — “we can with integrity” stay together, he added.