by Jon M. Walton and Barbara G. Wheeler
Behold, I will show you a still more excellent way. Presbyterians place a high premium on process, the way the church determines what it should teach and how it should act. The editor of this publication and authors he has published have been struggling not only with questions of what the PC(USA)’s teaching and pastoral practice should be with respect to same-gender marriage, but — just as important — how to make that decision as truthfully and gracefully as possible.
We believe several measures that will come before the General Assembly offer a graceful and truthful way ahead. These measures propose authoritative interpretations of the constitution that demonstrate how both “sides” in the marriage debate are already permitted, in principle, to teach and act as their consciences dictate.
“Authoritative interpretations” make some Presbyterians on both sides of the theological aisle nervous. They are sometimes represented as end runs around the constitution. They are not. In fact, they are a necessity for any community whose governance is based on a written constitution. No texts — not even Scripture — are self-interpreting. If they were, we would all agree, all the time, about what they say and mean. Therefore all constitutional governments, secular and religious, have mechanisms for interpretation. In our case, both the judicial commission of the assembly and the assembly itself, our legislative court, may interpret the PC(USA) constitution. Indeed, they must if it is to function as a living document rather than a dead letter.
But is it valid to interpret a document that links the words “marriage” and “a man and a woman” as permitting of teaching elders to officiate at same-gender marriages in civil jurisdictions where they are legal and sessions to agree to host such ceremonies? Yes it is. Here is why.
Presbyterian churches have always given the state priority in defining marriage. We do not marry anyone who does not have a civil license. In an essay on same-gender marriage, Reformed theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw reminds us that Calvin himself viewed marriage as lawful in the eyes of God but not a sacrament. It was, he wrote, essentially an earthly matter, like “agriculture, architecture, shoemaking and shaving” (Institutes, 3.19.34). Today we maintain that non-sacramental view. When married persons present themselves for membership in our congregations or are nominated for office, we do not inquire whether they were married under Christian or Presbyterian auspices and then require them to be remarried in church if they were not. Indeed, “Christian marriage” as distinct from civil marriage seems to be a state in life that exists only on the day of the wedding. After that, all married church members and leaders, including those whose ceremony did not invoke the triune God, are called to lead holy and faithful lives, working out their discipleship as Christian partners in marriage.
If the state provides the primary definition of marriage, then the Presbyterian constitution (W-4.9000) is anachronistic, at least in some jurisdictions. It should be read to permit teaching elders and sessions to participate in marriages as civilly defined. The constitution must also, however, be read to uphold the long tradition of pastoral discretion in decisions about whether to officiate in the marriage of any particular couple (W-4.9002b). Pastors and sessions are finally accountable to God and their consciences in decisions about what to bless or honor in God’s name. For some, their reading of Scripture rules out officiating at or approving same-gender weddings. For others, including us, the blessing of state-sanctioned marriages of committed church members and their partners, including same-gender couples, is a pastoral and theological necessity, undergirded and even encouraged by Scripture. The authoritative interpretations sent to this year’s assembly provide freedom of conscience for both groups.
Amending the constitution to clarify further the meaning of marriage and the freedom of conscience of pastors and sessions is, in our view, desirable, but it is not necessary to achieve those ends. There are reasons to take the more moderate step, one which would not force yet another presbytery-by-presbytery tug-of-war over the question of marriage so soon after the major shift on ordination. These reasons are compellingly stated in two messages we received recently. One came from a conservative colleague:
In the present debate, I think that if GA approves an authoritative interpretation permitting pastors in states that approve same-sex marriage to conduct such ceremonies, it might fly. But to change the Directory of Worship at this time would only inflame the situation… and send many more out the door. You and I both know that the tide has turned on this issue and nationally things will be very different in a few short years. They already are. Patience for peace, unity and purity would be wonderful. Let’s hope that graciousness marks this assembly.
The other came from a mutual friend, a gay man who has been a leader in church movements for ordination of GLBT persons and for marriage equality. He also sees promise in an authoritative interpretation:
It is understandable that some of our activist colleagues worry about being caught behind the curve after society has moved to a more progressive consensus. However, at this juncture, we Presbyterians might do better to model forbearance, love across boundaries, humility and sacrifice — things that enable people who are different to live together nonetheless.
An authoritative interpretation may not qualify, in the view of either side in the marriage debate, as the most excellent way. One party would prefer that the assembly do nothing, the other that it do something more ringing and definitive. But an authoritative interpretation is OK, and perhaps more than OK at this juncture: it may enable more of us to go forward together, with our convictions and consciences intact — in truth and in grace, knit together spiritually, as Scripture says, into a dwelling place for God.
JON M. WALTON is pastor of The First Presby- terian Church in the City of New York. BARBARA G. WHEELER is former president of Auburn Theological Seminary and a ruling elder in the United Church of Granville, New York.