CHICAGO – When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meets in Detroit next summer, the primary focus of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a progressive advocacy group, will be marriage equality.
Tricia Dykers Koenig, the network’s field organizer, told the group’s “Marriage Matters” conference Nov. 2 that the network will use a two-pronged approach to push for change.
One, it will seek an authoritative interpretation to remove all previous authoritative interpretations which limit Presbyterian clergy in performing same-gender marriages. That’s something the network considers imperative because 14 states already have legalized gay marriage, leaving pastors from those jurisdictions facing “terrible dilemmas about how to minister to their congregations,” Koenig said.
Second, Covenant Network will work with More Light Presbyterians in seeking to amend language in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order that currently defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman.
An authoritative interpretation is important, Koenig said, because the current restriction comes from a 2008 ruling of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in a case involving Jane Adams Spahr, a pastor who had officiated at the same-sex union ceremony of two lesbian couples in California. The commission ruled that Presbyterian ministers can’t describe services they perform for same-gender couples as being marriages, because the PC(USA) constitution doesn’t recognize those as Christian marriages.
Since the PC(USA) constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, “a same-sex ceremony can never be a marriage,” the GAPJC ruling states. The court ruled that Presbyterian church officers authorized to perform marriages “shall not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage.”
In making that ruling, the permanent judicial commission “created an offense where none previously existed,” Koenig said. She said a significant policy shift was imposed in that ruling by a divided court. As a result, “it is entirely appropriate to address this pastoral crisis created by authoritative interpretation by issuing a different authoritative interpretation.”
The change the network would suggest would remove all authoritative interpretations on this issue starting in 1991.
If the assembly chose to pass a new authoritative interpretation, that would provide immediate relief for pastors in jurisdictions where same-gender marriage is legal and who believe that their being unable to perform such weddings violates both their consciences and their understanding of the gospel, Koenig said.
The PC(USA) “must afford ministers the discretion to participate in legal marriage services if they believe the Holy Spirit is calling them to do so as part of their ministry,” Koenig said. Ministers who did not want to perform such weddings could also follow their consciences, and would not be required to do so, she said.
While a new authoritative interpretation would change the landscape immediately, the network also will pursue a constitutional amendment –which would need to be approved both by the assembly and then by a majority of the 173 presbyteries – as a longer-term effort to change the language in the PC(USA) Directory for Worship regarding marriage, Koenig said.
In an earlier workshop discussion, she expressed confidence that the PC(USA) will change its policy on same-sex marriage, as it already has done regarding the ordination of gays and lesbians. Even though the General Assemblies in 2010 and 2012 did not change the denomination’s definition of Christian marriage, more and more states are moving to legalize same-sex marriage, and public opinion increasingly is shifting in favor of same-sex marriage.
“The trajectory is pretty clear,” Koenig said. “At some point we or our children . . . are going to look back and wonder how it could have ever been any different.”