The Advisory Committee on the Constitution has weighed in on some of the issues pending before the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — including same-gender marriage and issues of representation.
The ACC provides advice on constitutional implications of business coming before the assembly — advice the assembly is free to consider (or disregard) as it wishes. Regarding the overtures on same-gender marriage, for example, the committee wrote that its intent was to offer advice regarding the constitutionality of the proposals. “It is not intended to be advice on the theological, ethical and legal merits of the overtures.”
Here’s some of what the ACC has to say to this year’s assembly.
Same-gender marriage. The committee notes that presbyteries have submitted overtures on both sides of this issue — both to allow Presbyterian ministers to perform same-gender weddings in states that permit such marriages, and also to reinforce the current definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA) constitution as being between a man and a woman. The ACC points out that the PC(USA) has drawn a distinction between same-gender unions, which it has permitted in the church, and same-gender marriage, which it has not.
The ACC states that if the assembly wants to allow ministers to perform same-gender weddings in states that permit such marriages — as six states plus the District of Columbia currently do — an amendment to the section of the PC(USA)’s constitution that defines Christian marriage would be a better way to achieve that than by issuing an authoritative interpretation.
An authoritative interpretation alone “will be problematic and constitutionally insufficient,” the ACC advice states.
The ACC also states that four overtures propose amending the definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA) constitution to say marriage is between “two people” rather than between “a man and a woman.” Such a change “would alter the foundation” on which previous authoritative interpretations rested, the ACC states, adding that such changed language also “might be challenged on the basis that it is inconsistent with Scriptures and the Confessions.”
The ACC points out that the language now in the constitution does require some interpretation. One question is whether the civil definition of marriage and the PC(USA)’s definition of Christian marriage are or should be the same — and what the implications are if they are different.
“When state and church definitions were consistent, the question of how marriage was defined was not essential,” the ACC advice states. “With some states now providing for marriage between same-gender couples,” the language in the PC(USA)’s constitution regarding marriage being “a civil contract between a man and a woman” then “becomes problematic for the church; whose definition of marriage is proscriptive in the church?”
The committee also points out that the PC(USA) has consistently advocated “for the end to discrimination in the civil arena on the basis of sexual orientation. This commitment to equality under the law has prompted our support of civil unions for same-gender couples that would afford them protections and rights by the state equal to those afforded heterosexual couples under marriage. The church has permitted the blessing of same-gender unions as an act of pastoral care to its members and as an act of witness, justice, and compassion to the wider community. The passage of civil laws providing for the marriage of same-gender couples creates a conundrum for church polity.”
Biennial assemblies. The Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies is making a series of recommendations — and the ACC is recommending disapproval of one, and raising questions about another.
The ACC does not support a recommendation that the denomination’s constitution be amended to require that overtures to the assembly receive concurrences from at least 10 percent of the presbyteries in order to be submitted. The committee raised constitutional concerns — including that some business might be important to a small number of presbyteries, and that the PC(USA) “protects the voice of the one from being silenced by the many.”