A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) study on traditional marriage – intended to lay a theological foundation for conversations on same-gender marriage – should be ready for congregations to use in May.
The 2012 General Assembly instructed the Office of Theology and Worship to prepare the study, while also declining – after vigorous discussion – to change the denomination’s policy regarding same-gender marriage. Early this year, the PC(USA) sent out a first draft of the study, asking 13 congregations with a range of theological perspectives to test it and offer critiques.
Taking that feedback into account, Theology and Worship revised the study, which is intended to help congregations explore and discuss what the Book of Common Worship says about Christian marriage, which the Book described as marriage between a man and a woman. The revised study will be ready for electronic distribution to congregations by April 29, according to Charles Wiley, coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship.
What was the response to the pretest?
The biggest criticism was that it lacked enough discussion of same-gender marriage, Wiley told a committee of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board in April.
People said: “We want questions that are specifically about same-gender marriage,” Chip Hardwick, the PC(USA)’s director of Theology, Worship and Education, said in an interview. “Universally, everyone said the whole reason we’re doing this study is because we want to talk about same-gender marriage.”
In other words: The controversial question that the General Assembly was trying to ease away from, to give the grassroots church more time to discuss the theology of traditional marriage, was exactly what folks wanted to take on.
People chafed at the narrowness of the study, whether they support same-gender marriage or not. In the pretest, Presbyterians kept trying to nudge the conversation toward something they sense is inevitable for the church to discuss, and which already has been argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases to be decided this term.
Hardwick thinks the theological conversation could be valuable for the church. He hopes the study will lead people to discuss views of marriage first, rather than a specific overture or action.
“What I hope for is that it will be a step toward a more nuanced view, rather than just saying ‘I am politically conservative so I oppose it (gay marriage), or I am politically liberal, so I favor it,” he said.
Doris Glaspy, pastor of Rosewell United Presbyterian Church in Newark, N.J., one of the congregations which participated in the pretest, convened a group that met on Saturday mornings over six weeks to study the material.
“My African American congregation appreciated the biblical study,” Glaspy said. “But I think they kind of knew that (material) already. There were some comments that ‘we were looking for something a little more edgy.’ ”
At several of the congregations involved in the pretest, energy built when the conversation touched on either views of same-gender marriage or on the challenges involved in traditional marriage.
“We know gay people are in all of our churches,” Glaspy said. “We talked about being realistic about where gay people are in our families, in our churches. How do we deal with that? And how do we think Jesus would feel about them?”
At Laguna Presbyterian Church in California, people came with strong and generally conservative views on same-gender marriage, “and that’s what they wanted to talk about,” said Kathy Sizer, associate pastor for congregational life. “They really did not want to talk about traditional marriage.”
Although the Laguna congregation supports teachings on traditional marriage, some members have family members who are gay or lesbian. Some have been divorced and wanted to talk about that. Some wanted to explore biblical texts on same-gender relationships or sexuality.
“What we didn’t get to do was to look together at Romans 1 and see what it says,” Sizer said. “How do you read it? How do I read it? . . . And understand why the person across the table reads it differently than I do.”
Through marriage enrichment programs, Sizer also has found people eager to discuss the complexities of traditional marriage arising from communication differences, conflict resolution, child-rearing, sex, money and forgiveness. Forty couples recently completed a seven-week course at her church using a curriculum by Alpha that gives space for each couple to have private discussion.
“I have never seen that level of honesty,” she said. “Even couples that have been married for 50 years are loving it . . . It’s drawing people from the community.”
Sizer has found people more than willing to talk about traditional marriage if the focus is on how strong marriages can be built and nurtured and there’s and the curriculum is realistic about what causes problems.
In North Carolina, First Presbyterian Church in Whiteville, where Joshua Bower is pastor, participated in the pretest jointly with a smaller congregation 11 miles away – Lake Waccamaw Presbyterian, where Joshua’s wife Sommer Bower is pastor. The two congregations opened the study to anyone who wanted to participate. The first-night crowd of 40 participants dwindled to 14 by the study’s end.
“It was a study occasioned by a discussion about marriage equality and same-gender relationships . . . but the study material itself didn’t address that issue,” Joshua Bower said. “That on the one hand made people really happy in a more conservative-minded church. But it didn’t challenge any of their assumptions or their interpretations of Scripture.”
In his church, “there’s a great skepticism about anything that comes out of the PC(USA),” and some suspected the marriage study might be “used to advance the great liberal agenda” of the denomination, he said.
He said one woman held up her Bible and said of those who favor gay marriage: “I don’t know what Bible they’re reading. The Bible I’ve got in my hand – it says marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Finding ways to discuss theologically differing views on gay marriage in rural North Carolina is “a pickle – is that a good theological word?” Bower asked. But people were eager to discuss subjects such as the difference between civil marriage and “sacred marriage,” or those performed in churches. They were intrigued with questions such as, “Do we as the church have to say the same thing as the civil society does?” Or “in the body of Christ can there be churches that have differing opinions? Do we all have to think the same thing? . . . How do you live together when you disagree with what is happening?”
Participants wanted to understand the connections between the covenant made in a marriage ceremony, and the idea of covenant between God and the community of believers.
There also was energy, Joshua Bower said, around finding ways to make traditional marriages better – such as having long-married couples mentor newly married ones. How can churches support and nurture marriages and committed relationships?
People spoke of “how they would have loved to be in a church that talked about the difficulties of marriage, how it changes through the years. Those were the best discussions we had, when people started talking about their marriages, what was great and what made them difficult.”
They spoke of mental illness and alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease and about the difficulties of raising children. One woman said, “things aren’t that erotic when the body starts to sag,” and spoke of remaining committed when romantic love has dimmed.
“I think there’s a better discussion to be had,” aside from just what the church’s policy on same-gender marriage should be, Bower said. “Maybe it’s time to have a discussion about covenant.”