As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cruises towards the General Assembly in June in Detroit, some things will be the same: As in 2012, the 2014 assembly will consider a series of overtures on whether to allow ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to perform same-gender marriages. Hot button issue, divisive, controversial: “yes” to all of that.
And some things are palpably different. Over the past years the United States has seen a remarkable, fast-moving shift in public opinion on this issue. Same-gender marriage is now legal in 17 states plus the District of Columbia. Public opinion polls reflect increasing support — with some showing that over half of adults in the U.S. favor same-sex marriage, with particularly strong support among young adults, Democrats and those who infrequently or never attend religious services.
Here’s another change. The composition of the PC(USA) itself has shifted through the steady and ongoing erosion of evangelicals leaving for other denominations, in part as a response to the PC(USA)’s policy shift in 2011 to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians who have partners. Already more than 100 congregations have left the PC(USA) to join ECO: A Covenant Network of Evangelical Presbyterians — with some of the largest and wealthiest of the denomination’s congregations either out the door already or heading that way, including Menlo Park Presbyterian in California and Highland Park in Dallas.
Those departures are likely to sway the dynamics of the upcoming assembly, with fewer evangelicals remaining to try to convince the assembly to stick with the current standards, which define Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman. “There’s been kind of a re-centering of the theological middle of the denomination,” said Jim Kitchens, a teaching elder and a principal in PneuMatrix, a ministry consulting group in Northern California.
Those favoring change will push on two fronts, working in tandem with the Covenant Network of Presbyterians leading the effort for an authoritative interpretation that would permit (but not require) PC(USA) teaching elders to perform same-sex marriages, and with More Light Presbyterians taking the lead on a constitutional amendment.
“This is a real and pressing matter the church has to deal with,” said Brian Ellison, the Covenant Network’s executive director. “Literally thousands of congregations are faced with the very real possibility that a (same-sex) couple is going to come to their pastor and say, ‘We want you to marry us. We want you to provide the same care for us as you would for the couple sitting next to us in the pew’ … Pastors have to say ‘I will not care for you in the same way I would care for someone else, because I could be disciplined for it.’ It’s untenable.”
Evangelical groups within the PC(USA) have morphed too. The Presbyterian Coalition, once a significant political presence, has grown much quieter between General Assemblies. The Fellowship of Presbyterians has emerged as a connecting organization for evangelicals who are staying in the PC(USA) — but the Fellowship is not focusing on General Assembly advocacy, but on the aftermath, however the votes turn out, according to Paul Detterman, the Fellowship’s executive director. “Our focus is from July 1 on,” he said — to find ways for Presbyterians to shift their focus from infighting to mission.
“We as a small tribe in the kingdom of God have got to get over ourselves,” Detterman said. “We are so self-obsessed. And in the meantime we’ve got literally global culture that is falling apart around us. I really think the biggest challenge we have is to get over ourselves and realize there are people we can reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Evangelicals also are realistic about the way the momentum has shifted. Detterman described the push to pass same-sex marriage overtures at the 2014 assembly as “a full-on press” by progressive advocates, “and it’s helped by the fact that secular culture is certainly moving in that direction.” While conservatives will certainly strategize and work to keep the current constitutional language, “there are fewer people in the evangelical side of the conversation who have the deep passion for slogging out the issues at General Assembly than we had in years gone by,” he said. “It’s a very different playing field than it was even two years ago.”
Grassroots. This is also an issue with deep implications for the grassroots of the church. If the assembly were to approve a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage, that proposal would go to the PC(USA)’s 172 presbyteries for a yes-or-no vote — bringing the issue very close to home.
Pressure already is coming from ministers in states where same-gender marriages are legal, some of whom argue that the PC(USA) is impeding their ability to provide pastoral care when gays and lesbians who are part of their congregations ask to marry in the church — but the denomination doesn’t permit it. Some Presbyterian ministers are defying the rules — quietly marrying same-gender couples despite rulings from the highest PC(USA) court that PC(USA) ministers can provide ceremonies of blessing for such unions but cannot perform same-sex marriages.
The pastors of a few congregations have decided not to sign any marriage licenses any at all — raising questions about the role that the church does and should play in executing civil marriages.
The Presbytery of Lehigh has submitted an overture proposing that the Book of Order be changed so that no teaching elder or commissioned ruling elder could preside at a legal civil marriage, but could only “bless covenant partnerships,” as they are “not agents of the state, but of Jesus Christ.” The rationale for the overture states that currently, “the state has framed issues of marriage, and the church has been forced to respond.”
And the Presbytery of Midwest Hamni, a Korean-American presbytery, has presented an overture that would preserve the current Book of Order language defining Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman, but would amend the church’s constitution to also say this: “For the purpose of God’s mission, presbyteries and sessions may define marriage as a civil contract between two persons within the boundary of the state law.”
Evangelicals also are watching carefully for what the assembly will do — particularly concerned about whether pastors who don’t condone same-sex marriage would have the freedom to refuse to perform such weddings. They’re also concerned that the exodus of evangelicals out of the PC(USA) will only accelerate if the PC(USA) changes its policy to allow pastors discretion to marry same-gender couples.
Clark Cowden, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Diego, suggested that some evangelicals who’ve stayed in the PC(USA) have essentially “defected in place” — still part of the PC(USA), but focused on mission and giving little energy or time to denominational matters.
“We have a lot of people who think we’re living in a post-denominational world,” Cowden said. “They don’t pay a whole lot of attention to denominational stuff … Our people are just really focused on everyday ministry. That’s where their hearts are and where their call is. That’s where the bulk of the energy goes.”
In those congregations, “people would still rely on what Scripture says about marriage and what the church historically has said and what the majority of the global church is still saying” Cowden said. “Other people can change their views, but as long as we’re not required to change our view locally, then we can probably stay within the system. But if it ever becomes a requirement where people are forced to go against their own conscience, then they would probably have to leave.”
Some would also welcome a broader conversation within the PC(USA) on all aspects of marriage. At the direction of the 2012 assembly, PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship prepared a study on what the Book of Common Worship says about Christian marriage — intended to lay a foundation for discussions in congregations and mid-councils about the Reformed view of marriage. Some in congregations that have used that study have voiced a desire for churches to talk more openly and honestly about all the complexities and undercurrents of marriage — everything from finances to fidelity to how to fight fair.
“We are coming to a much deeper understanding of the importance of this issue, the importance of marriage period,” Ellison said. “We’re talking about why it matters; what is essential about it; what it says about who we are as people if faith, people in community, people who follow Jesus Christ.”
The PC(USA) is not alone in struggling with where to stand on same-gender marriage.
Over the past year, United Methodist ministers have made national headlines for marrying same-sex couples in conscientious defiance of their denomination’s policies — including Frank Schaefer, who was defrocked in December 2013 after he performed the same-sex wedding of his son, Tim, and then refused to promise he would not officiate at more same-gender marriages. Schaefer was removed from the ministry — but that did nothing to quiet the waters.
Peggy Johnson, the bishop who presides in the part of Pennsylvania where Schaefer had been serving a church, wrote on her blog that the prohibition in the United Methodist Book of Discipline on ordaining and marrying gays and lesbians were “discriminatory” and have led people to question “how we can talk out of two sides of our mouth.” Other Methodist ministers began performing same-sex weddings in open defiance of the rules.
The PC(USA) also has seen some quiet, determined defiance. So far, more than 300 teaching elders have signed an online statement presented by More Light Presbyterians, which says:
“As a teaching elder in the PCUSA, I have married or am willing to publicly marry same gender couples in my pastoral role, in obedience to my ordination vow to ‘show the love and justice of Jesus Christ.’ Respecting the conscience of fellow Presbyterians, I accept the consequences of this declaration, including the provisions of discipline in our Book of Order.”
Dick Headen, a retired associate executive from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, was among those who signed. “I didn’t really expect to be asked because I’m retired,” he said in an interview — although Headen said he’d be willing to perform a same-gender marriage if asked. Since Minnesota began permitting same-gender marriages in August, 2013, Headen said three lesbian couples have been married at the church where he worships, St. Luke Presbyterian in Wayzata, Minnesota, although he did not perform those weddings.
“It was a real cause for celebration for the congregation,” he said, because the women in those couples all were active in ministry in the church. “How do you say no to a couple who have been very active and vital as a part of the church?” Headen asked. “How can you do that as a pastor? You can’t. I couldn’t.”
Ruth Hamilton, a pastor from Washington D.C. and a commissioner to the 2012 assembly, acknowledged in remarks at that assembly that she has performed same-sex marriages.
“We trusted that eventually laws would change as hearts were changed,” she wrote in an email explaining her actions. “We’ve always been prepared as pastors and as a congregation to face any ecclesiastical consequences resulting from our actions though we have not purposely sought media or church-wide attention across the years.
“I did feel compelled to speak at the last General Assembly, simply to note that I know there are many pastors like myself who have to follow our conscience even though we know our actions grieve beloved brothers and sisters in the church. It was a call to be more open about our actions and not hide in fear.”
Questions also are being raised about the impact that a change in PC(USA) policy might have on its relationships with global partners and for evangelism — particularly in reaching out to young people who are reluctant to be part of a church they view as narrow-minded or unwelcoming to gays and lesbians.
Polls show that religiously unaffiliated young people often cite churches’ teachings on homosexuality as one of the reason they stay away. A 2014 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that one-third of millennials who no longer identify with the religion in which they were raised cite negative teachings about or treatment of gays and lesbians as one of the reasons why.
“I think we should recognize that this is not just about our polity or some arcane theological point — this is about our witness, this is about evangelism,” Ellison said. “This is about whether the next generation will hear the gospel from us or move on to something else.”