So what about marriage? How would you advise commissioners and delegates to the 221st General Assembly as they consider proposals to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex partners?
This edition of the Outlook invites you to be the fly on the wall, listening to an ongoing conversation between disagreeing but not disagreeable Presbyterians. They offer a rationale for retaining the gender-specific definition, and they make a case for broadening that definition to include same-gender couples. We’ve cast votes in that zero-sum way before, with one side winning, the other losing, usually by a painfully slim margin.
Then again, you might advise pursuing a third way forward, one that might resonate with the broad center of middle-way Christians who fill most PC(USA) pews, by choosing a path of discretion instead of redefinition.
Consider the proposals of Wilson Gunn and of Jon Walton and Barbara Wheeler. These essays affirm the merits of a traditional marriage while looking to make its benefits accessible to those whose perceived suitable life-partner is of the same gender.
Consider also the proposal offered by Midwest Hanmi Presbytery, with endorsement from two other Korean American presbyteries. It suggests a Book of Worship amendment that retains the existing heterosexual model for marriage but adds authorization for presbyteries and sessions to adapt the definition of civil marriage to respond to the missional context in which they serve. While not being the first to suggest this adaptive model, this time it comes from folks who have no intention of performing such weddings.
Why such a proposal? Joe Lee, the stated clerk of Midwest Hanmi says, “Korean churches are mostly very conservative on these issues,” but they want to support “a perspective that can [allow churches] to make the decision according to law without dividing the PC(USA) in the process.” Further, he adds that the “interpretive and implementation process” of applying the traditional definition should be entrusted to the respective sessions and presbyteries. “Marriage is a part of worship. We leave the format of local worship to the local church sessions.”
The Hanmi overture affirms the longstanding practice of pastors-with-sessions preparing and assessing the readiness of couples to enter into a marriage. For example, when 20th century Presbyterians removed the scarlet letter from their divorcees’ nametags, they did so without changing the definition of marriage. They simply gave worship leaders wider latitude to exercise their discretion to consider performing weddings of folks previously prohibited.
But do we need to go through the rigors of amendment ratification to allow such discretion, or can the commissioners make that call in the form of an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of the existing constitutional language? Well, the past prohibition against ordaining openly gay persons to church office was enacted via GA “definitive guidance” statements in 1978-79, and then strengthened via a 1993 AI. Only when conservatives feared that our top court might overturn the AI did they propose an amendment to the constitution itself (in the fall of 1995 I was moderating the board of the organization that determined to develop and promote the “fidelity-chastity amendment”).
The option for an AI is strengthened by the biblically reported practice of Jesus, Paul and others of not changing the laws of Moses and the prophets, but of granting more latitude in applying those laws (their approach to working on the Sabbath and to divorce and remarriage being two examples).
Also noteworthy is the wisdom of Rabbi Gamaliel, who, when asked how to respond to those fellow Jews who seemingly were abandoning the true faith to follow a man they called God, he counseled, “keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts. 5:38,39) Any change of marriage policy that gets fixed into the Book of Order itself becomes exceedingly difficult to amend after the fact. Better to take a more tentative and amendable approach – a more discretionary approach — until we have a chance to see how the church lives into it.