A combustible conversation about same-gender marriage

It’s likely to be one of the most combustible issues at the 2012 General Assembly — as potent in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as it is in the secular world. Should Presbyterian ministers be allowed to perform same-gender weddings in states that permit such marriages?

Polls show increasing acceptance in the secular world for same-gender marriage — with the Pew Research Center reporting about 47 percent of Americans support same-gender marriage and 43 percent oppose it. So far, eight states plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-gender marriage, although there are efforts in some states to overturn those laws through a voter referendum.

The PC(USA) currently defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman, and the denomination does not allow its ministers to perform same-gender weddings. Some presbytery executives predict a flurry of evangelical congregations will depart should the PC(USA) allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages, since some of those congregations already are deeply distressed by the denomination’s decision in 2011 to allow the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.

Others, however, say that ministers in states that have legalized marriages for gays and lesbians should have the pastoral freedom to perform such weddings. The rationale for an overture from the Presbytery of East Iowa explains that thinking:

“Although some Iowa 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.”

Presbyteries have submitted more than a dozen overtures to the assembly regarding same-gender marriage, with most falling into two basic camps.

One group seeks to amend the definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order to include marriage between same-gender partners. If one of these overtures were to pass, the proposed amendment then would be sent to the presbyteries for a vote, with the change taking effect only if a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries were to ratify the revision.

A second set of overtures asks the assembly to approve an authoritative interpretation regarding the section of the PC(USA)’s constitution that defines Christian marriage. That approach would not change the wording of the constitution itself, but would authorize Presbyterian ministers and commissioned ruling elders to use “pastoral discretion” in deciding when to perform weddings for couples who have obtained a civil marriage license. That would mean ministers could perform same-gender weddings in states where such marriages are legal — and sessions could allow church property to be used for such weddings.

Some overtures also make it clear that sessions and ministers also would have the option of saying “no” — they would not be required to perform same-gender weddings or to permit such services to be held on church property.

Now, in the weeks before the General Assembly convenes June 30 in Pittsburgh, the outlines of the debate are beginning to take shape.

The board of directors of Covenant Network of Presbyterians has said it will not support a constitutional amendment regarding same-gender marriage, but favors overtures seeking an authoritative interpretation that would allow pastoral discretion in performing such weddings.

More Light Presbyterians supports both approaches, said Executive Director Michael Adee in an interview. Adee sees the overtures as a catalyst to move the denomination into needed conversations about the meaning of marriage and committed relationships.

“The Presbyterian church as a whole would greatly benefit from having a conversation about what does it mean to be in a healthy and faithful relationship as a Christian person” Adee said. “The conversation about marriage is one the Presbyterian church should be invested in, not shrink from.” 

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