PITTSBURGH, PA, July 2, 2012 – With one “very big, big” issue to decide at the 220th General Assembly, the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues spent Monday listening to often-emotional testimony.
At the end of the long day, after first spending time in small groups, committee members summarized their feelings, revealing some hints of what they are thinking.
“I feel like we’re the disciples in the upper room waiting for the Holy Spirit to come down with answers,” said Carol Waters, a ruling elder from St. Augustine Presbytery.
She and others who spoke noted the pressure the committee members are feeling. They were told several times during the day that if the assembly proposes redefining marriage to include same-gender couples, it could further split the denomination and lose it more ecumenical mission partners around the world
“This a very big, big decision,” summed up Ben Graves of Eastminster Presbytery.
And it’s a decision the committee will have to make on Tuesday.
Monday’s process started with open hearings on the items of business, all dealing with either overtures sustaining or redefining the definition of Christian marriage in the Book of Order, or issuing authoritative interpretations to help pastors and sessions deal with the changing landscape of civil marriage laws.
More people signed up than could be heard in the one-hour allotted, so speakers were picked by lottery. While “pro” and “con” speakers were supposed to alternate, the first series of speakers were all of the same position, supporting the traditional definition. Committee chair Aimee Moiso noted that obviously there was a problem with the system in which the speakers self-defined which position they were taking.
The arguments against redefining Christian marriage or reinforcing the current definition as “between one man and one woman” focused primarily on Scripture and God’s intent for that relationship, but also mentioned the possible mass exodus of more churches from the PC(USA) and more faith partners around the world breaking their ties with the denomination.
Those on the other side advocated for changing the definition to “between two persons” and/or allowing pastors and sessions more leeway in performing same-gender marriages in jurisdictions where such marriage are allowed by civil law. They spoke of the need to minister equally to same-gender couples in congregations, not to treat them as second-class Christians, and the need to solve the dilemma of pastors in the growing number of states that allow same-gender marriage.
Twenty-six persons spoke during the open hearings.
During the afternoon session, the committee heard from advocates for the 14 items of business before the committee.
While more polished and orchestrated, the advocates presented most of the same arguments for their positions as those heard in the open hearing phase.
The afternoon ended with presentations by representatives of the General Assembly Mission Council, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Advocacy Committee for Women.
In response to questions from the committee, two top denominational officials dropped by in the afternoon.
Hunter Farrell, director of world mission for the PC(USA), “guestimated” that 17 or 18 of the denomination’s mission partners would break relations if same-gender marriage is allowed.
General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons was asked how many more churches might leave the denomination if same-sex marriage came about, and he said he had “no objective data” to offer. “Subjectively,” Parsons said, some Presbyterian officials have told him many would leave, and others have said not to expect a big exodus.