Assembly stops short of the brink on same-gender marriage

PITTSBURGH, July 6, 2012 – The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stepped back – but just barely – from recommending an amendment to the church’s constitution that would change the definition of Christian marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.”

By a vote of 308-338 (48 percent for, 52 percent against), the 220th General Assembly on July 6 defeated an overture from Hudson River Presbytery in New York that would have asked the denomination’s 173 presbyteries to vote on the proposed constitutional change.

The PC(USA) already had warning that proposing such an amendment could lead to a further rupture with some of the denomination’s international partners. Hunter Farrell, PC(USA) director of worldwide mission, told the assembly that a “discreet inquiry” earlier this year revealed that 17 or 18 international partners indicated they would break relations with the denomination if it changed the definition of marriage, with even more saying it would damage relations.

The General Assembly also declined to deal head-on with requests that it allow Presbyterian pastors to perform same-gender weddings in states where such marriages are legal. It voted to answer overtures requesting that the assembly issue an authoritative interpretation to provide such freedom with its answer on another action: to ask the denomination to enter into a two-year “season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.” Presbyteries would be asked to report back to the assembly in 2014, explaining how congregations had conducted those studies.

The assembly’s close vote on the constitutional amendment by no means settles this issue for Presbyterians. “We are a divided church,” General Assembly Moderator Neal D. Presa said immediately after the vote.

Ruth Hamilton, a teaching elder from National Capital Presbytery, encouraged ministers and sessions to be bold and open in their efforts to push the denomination toward change.

She said ministers who “already do marriages for same-sex couples and who have for years ordained and installed openly gay and lesbians elders and deacons” ought to “begin to come out of the closet” and be willing to risk disciplinary action.

“Bring this into the courts,” Hamilton said. “This will change.”

The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the highest court in the denomination’s judicial system, has ruled that PC(USA) ministers should not “state, imply or represent that the same-gender ceremony is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PC(USA) polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages.”

Melody Young, a teaching elder from Olympia Presbytery, told the assembly that “this is a personal issue for me” as well as an urgent pastoral crisis. Washington state has approved same-gender marriage, subject to a referendum in November.

Young said she hopes to perform the marriage of her son, “a committed Christian.” But without an authoritative interpretation to “protect me from prosecution by our courts, his wedding will cost the church tens of thousands of dollars” in legal fees, Young said, adding that for that, “I apologize in advance.”

All through the assembly, as same-gender marriage was debated both in committee and for several hours on the plenary floor, the discussion revealed theological disagreement among the commissioner, their strong opinions and sometimes conflicted hearts.

“The issue is not how we define marriage, but how God defines marriage,” said Barb TerLouw, a ruling elder from Western Colorado. “Marriage is between a man and a woman. We know the Scriptures. … The church, the body of Christ, should hold to God’s definition.”

Piper Madison, a young adult advisory delegate from North Alabama Presbytery, spoke against a substitute motion to send the issue for study by presbyteries and congregations, rather than considering a constitutional change.

“There is not time to wait four years to repair the relationships that have been splintered by our reluctance to accept every member of our community regardless of sexuality,” said Madison, who said she is gay and that others like her “only want a home in which to worship our Lord and savior.”

Shelly Wood, a teaching elder from North Central Iowa Presbytery, said she welcomes the idea of a study of the theology of Christian marriage. Wood said she struggles with issues of church and state, and “I welcome that discussion among my colleagues,” as well as hearing from young people or a “post-modern demographic.”

The committee heard both passion and conflicting testimony. “We heard a strong impulse to proceed with caution and we heard a resolute belief in the urgency of acting now,” said Aimee Moiso, a teaching elder from California and moderator of the assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues, which had voted on July 3 by a 28-24 margin to recommend the constitutional change.

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