DETROIT – Taking a huge step towards marriage equality — and recognizing that the action may cause more evangelicals to flee the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and international partners to break off relations – the 2014 General Assembly on June 19 took two momentous votes to allow PC(USA) ministers to perform same-sex marriages.
One of those steps — passing an authoritative interpretation — authorizes PC(USA) ministers to perform same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are legal (although it does not require pastors to do so) and took took effect at the close of the assembly on June 21. Already, some PC(USA) churches are spreading the word that they welcome same-gender couples who want to marry.
The second step the assembly took was to agree to recommend to presbyteries that they approve an amendment adjusting the definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA) constitution to say that marriage involves “two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” instead of the current wording stating that Christian marriage is between “a man and a woman.”
Such a change in the PC(USA) constitution would need ratification from a majority of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries — a process which takes roughly a year.
The votes on the two measures each passed by significant margins. The authoritative interpretation passed 371-238 (61 percent in favor), and the constitutional amendment passed 429-175 (71 percent in favor).
Supporters of marriage equality were ecstatic – same-gender marriage is legal in 19 states plus the District of Columbia, and some ministers in those states have implored the assembly to give them the freedom to provide equal pastoral care to all those in their congregations. A news release from the advocacy group the Covenant Network of Presbyterians called this “a glorious day for the church and for LGBT people who have been seeking full inclusion here for decades.”
Some commissioners addressed the assembly directly from personal experience.
“As a pastor I urge you to allow me to exercise the calling that God has placed on my heart,” said Beth Freese Dammers, a teaching elder from Chicago Presbytery — in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. The denomination has studied same-sex marriage for years, and at this assembly 36 presbyteries concurred with overtures asking for change, Dammers said.
Bob Brizendine, a teaching elder from New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina, said the mother of a gay son from his congregation asked him to give the assembly a message. “I would like for my son to be married to the man he loves,” she told Brizendine. “And I would like you to be able to officiate at that marriage — that he would have the blessing of the community of faith, just like we do.”
The votes put the PC(USA), with just under 1.8 million members, among a group of U.S. Christian denominations that bit-by-bit have opened the door for same-gender weddings — and follows the denomination’s decision in 2011 to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians in committed relationships. Those changes have meant that some Presbyterian ministers have themselves married their same-sex partners — but could be brought up on charges if they performed weddings for same-gender couples in their congregations, because a 2008 ruling from the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission — the highest court in the PC(USA) system — barred PC(USA) ministers from performing same-sex weddings.
The new authoritative interpretation wipes away that prohibition, as well as a 1991 authoritative interpretation on which it was based.
According to the Pew Research Center, other religious groups which permit same-sex marriage include the United Church of Christ; Quakers; the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; and, in Judaism, both the Reform and Conservative movements. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) permits local decision-making — allowing the minister of each congregation to decide whether to marry same-sex couples.
While some Presbyterians wept tears of joy, there also was recognition that the policy shift will have repercussions for the PC(USA).
Prior to the vote, Hunter Farrell, the denomination’s director of World Mission, told the assembly that 17 of the denomination’s global partners have indicated they might break relations with the PC(USA) if the denomination allows its ministers to perform same-sex marriages. Those 17 international partners are primarily in Africa and South America, Farrell said, and involve some of the denomination’s most active partnerships.
Jeff Bridgeman, the moderator of the assembly’s Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee and a minister from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara in California, said “my own mother now worships in another denomination. My heart is broken” that more than 350 churches, including some of the PC(USA)’s largest, have left for other more conservative denominations over the past two years.
Bridgeman urged the commissioners to support attempts at reconciliation — including a new initiative the assembly approved to ask the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to “engage in the process of working together with churches in the task of reconciliation,” starting by sending representatives to visit each presbytery. When asked how much those visits will cost, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, Gradye Parsons, said he wasn’t sure, “but I would say the cost of not doing this is higher.”
The constitutional change originally presented to the assembly used only the words “two people” in the definition of Christian marriage — but commissioners amended that proposal on the floor so it read “two people, traditionally a man and a woman” — an effort to retain the classical language and thereby give some comfort to evangelicals who contend that the Bible and historic Christian teaching do not permit same-sex marriage.
Earlier in the week, language had been added to state explicitly that no minister would be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage.
That language states that: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”
During a news conference, Moderator of the assembly Heath Rada — who lives in North Carolina — said he has detected a ”significant amount of concern” over this issue in the South. Rada said he hopes not a lot of Presbyterians will leave the PC(USA) over this, but if some do he hopes “that we can graciously part ways.”
Leslie Scanlon is the Outlook national reporter.