Guest commentary by Wilson Gunn
Please grab your Book of Order. I’d love to be less BOOish – but this is, plain and simple, a BOOish article.
Recently, the Salem Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) ruled that a church session cannot set policy pertaining to weddings on the property, which the session oversees as the trustee of the PC(USA), as noted in G-4.0203. Particularly, the PJC highlighted the portion of W-4.9000 that allows latitude for the pastor’s conscientious discretion on a case-by-case basis concerning whether or not to conduct a wedding service. The pastor “may seek the counsel of the session,” but is not required to do so. The PJC cited F-1.0403: “There is no longer male and female,” and the sentence “No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution.” The PJC was almost apologetic in its judgment, noting that numerous documents had assured General Assembly and presbytery commissioners, who approved the W-4.9000 section, of the session’s authority to establish policy regarding whether the particular congregation would or would not house a same-sex wedding service. Their ruling contradicts those assurances. The PJC also acknowledged that the Book of Order presents some contrasting sentences, but sums up their position: “It is only after the teaching elder assesses the couple’s capabilities, intentions and readiness for marriage, determines that they are ready for marriage, and he or she is called to perform the ceremony that the teaching elder involves the session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage ceremony.” The PJC ruling still allows a session to exercise its authority over the use of the property, but only after the pastor has discerned the “capabilities, intentions and readiness of the couple to be married” (this wording is from the Authoritative Interpretation prior to W-4.9002 approval).
Curiously absent from the PJC ruling are the following Book of Order citations:
- Among the duties of a session are “managing the physical property of the congregation for the furtherance of its mission” (G-3.0201c.).
- “There are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ” (F-3.0105).
- “Whenever property of, or held for, a congregation of the PCUSA ceases to be used by that congregation as a congregation of the PCUSA in accordance with this Constitution such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold as provided by the presbytery” (G-4.0204). This citation then assumes that while a congregation is a PC(USA) congregation, it, through its session, is the agent that holds, uses, applies, transfers or sells property subject to the required permissions in G-4.0206 and required property insurance (G-3.0112).
The PJC decision hinges on the 2014 “Authoritative Interpretation,” which they interpret to indicate that the pastor decides first if the couple should be married and then goes to the session for the session’s consideration. That interpretation is of questionable authority, however, in that it has been superseded by the 2014 General Assembly action to approve W-4.9000, which was endorsed by the presbyteries and which became effectively authoritative in June of 2015. Personally, W-4.9000 appears to endorse the ability of a session to consider policy separate from any consideration by the officiating pastor. The PJC ruling appears to be based upon an “interpretation” which is no longer “authoritative.”
For now, this ruling is binding on the Salem Presbytery churches alone. It is not binding on any other congregations.
To manage these aspects on a case-by-case basis and deny a session the authority to set policy in this regard is a violation of G-3.0201c. which gives sessions – and sessions alone – the duty to “manage the physical property of the congregation for the furtherance of its mission.” Policy is an essential function of management. Also, for those sessions who embrace a hermeneutic that leads them to believe that a same-sex marriage cannot be a Christian marriage, the session mandate to establish a policy “warning and bearing witness against error in doctrine and immorality in practice within the congregation and community” (G-3.0201c.), the establishment of “policy” would be a witness they view as important. While I personally embrace a hermeneutic that would not discount the possibility of a same-sex marriage between Christians to be one means by which grace could enhance the depth of faith for those entering such a covenant, I would absolutely resist the violation of conscience of my brothers and sisters who faithfully live out of a different hermeneutic. In contrast with the PJC assertion, the Book of Order here mandates a certain conscientious discrimination by the principles of some PC(USA) members and pastors. It even allows a policy with which I personally disagree. That forbearance the PJC did not see fit to extend.
Additionally, the PJC ruling decides that the W-4.9000 aspects that empower the teaching elder’s discernment and the session’s authority over the use of the church property are dependent, serial considerations. Might these be parallel considerations, not serial considerations? That was certainly the understanding of those who drafted the FAQs for commissioners who voted in favor of the inclusion of this chapter in the Book of Order. It would also appear so from the emphatic authority given the session at the end of this section in W-4.9006. Certainly the pastor is compelled to consider officiating on a case-by-case basis, however the pastor’s consideration does not necessarily precede the session’s consideration on the use of the property. Policy seems as appropriate a vehicle for that as a case-by-case consideration. Indeed are not policies essentially the boundaries which have commonly been discerned based on the accumulated pattern of decisions which have been made previously on a case-by-case basis? Also any policy allows for the consideration of exceptions, which the session that sets a policy can certainly consider on appeal by a member who might feel at odds with the policy. Presbyterians are not shy about challenging policies. (Welcome to my life.)
No appeal has been lodged. I think the church would be well served for this decision to be appealed. Sans appeal, I would recommend that the church seek an Authoritative Interpretation (G-6.02) from the 223rd General Assembly which might settle this matter until such time that even clearer clauses might be introduced into the Book of Order in this regard.
WILSON GUNN JR. is general presbyter of National Capital Presbytery.