Amendment O is Bad Polity

Before the presbyteries for a vote, as the new year begins, is the issue of Amendment O. Narrowly passed last summer by the 212th General Assembly, Amendment O proposes an addition to the PC(USA) Directory of Worship to the effect that church property shall not be used for, nor shall any church officer "take part in conducting any ceremony or event that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the church or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is inconsistent with God's intention" of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.

Based on polity considerations, The Outlook urges that Amendment O be defeated.

It should be defeated not as an exercise in one-sided partisan politics, but as an act of unity on the part of all Presbyterians.

We believe that the ones who should take the lead in defeating this amendment are traditional and moderate Presbyterians — the very ones who may be inclined to vote “for” the Amendment out of weariness over the whole sexuality debate. Let us try to explain why the amendment is unnecessary and may do more harm than good.

In the first place, the amendment is unnecessary. Our present polity already declines to extend the status of marriage to so-called same-sex unions. In a 1991 General Assembly action, same-sex union ceremonies, if considered to be the same as marriage, were proscribed on the grounds that the Directory of Worship limits marriage to a union between “a man and a woman.” A vote against Amendment O in no way alters this prohibition.

What proponents of Amendment O are afraid of, however, is an apparent loophole under which same-sex union ceremonies could perhaps be permitted in cases where a church’s session made it clear that the ceremony being conducted was clearly something other than marriage. We are aware that a few congregations have sought to use this loophole. Indeed, Hudson River Presbytery enacted a policy declaring that such unions were permitted within its bounds because it was the presbytery’s understanding that they were not the equivalent of marriage. In response to the Hudson River policy, the Northeast Synod PJC suggested that an amendment to the Book of Order was necessary to clarify the standard.

In May 2000, the General Assembly PJC declined to accept the blanket permission for such unions enacted by Hudson River Presbytery. Nonetheless the GA PJC set forth criteria by which such ceremonies could properly be conducted by Presbyterian ministers and using Presbyterian church property, if the participants communicated in various ways that the ceremonies are not the equivalent of marriage.

It was in reaction to these events that overtures proposing explicit bans on same-sex union ceremonies came to the 212th General Assembly (2000). The net result — Amendment O — seeks to eliminate in any way, shape or form every scintilla of church affirmation for same-sex relationships.

We submit that this reaction is in fact an over-reaction. Although we understand the anxiety that the GA PJC decision has caused for some, we believe that Amendment O, on balance, does more harm than good. This is so, because in trying to close what is perceived as a loophole in the Directory of Worship, the language of Amendment O is so overly broad as to preclude other things as well. The Amendment goes so far as to prohibit any “event” that “pronounces blessing,” “gives approval” or “invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship” of a same-sex couple. The casting of such a broad net we find disconcerting. Permit us to cite a few examples.

Under this language, a child being presented for baptism by someone nurturing that child in the context of a same-sex relationship could arguably have to be denied the sacrament, insofar as it requires the minister to invoke a blessing and to pray not only for the child but also for its family. In addition, under the Directory of Worship, persons who are “unrepentant” are supposed to be warned not to come to the Holy Table. Does Amendment O have the effect of stipulating a special case where such a fencing of the Table would now be permitted or even required? Perhaps the drafters of Amendment O do not intend such results, but we think they follow from the overreaching language of the amendment itself.

Critics of the amendment are right to point out that this language covers not only events of public worship but also the exercise of private acts of pastoral care. For example, the Directory of Worship provides guidance for the conduct of prayers, both public and private. The effect of adding Amendment O to the Directory would be to prohibit even prayers conducted in private or in the exercise of pastoral care, if such a prayer were somehow construed to invoke blessing of a gay couple’s relationship. Such a binding of a pastor’s conscience is not only unwise, it is unprecedented in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. It is hard to see how such a potential policing of pastoral practice either serves the gospel or reflects the ministry of Jesus who drew near unto those whom others wished to shun.

With Some Qualifications

There is much more that needs to be pondered and prayed about on this topic. The two of us are not of the same mind concerning how the church’s current disagreements should finally be resolved. That is why our respectful opposition to Amendment O is accompanied by the following qualifications. First, should the presbyteries agree with us and Amendment O is defeated, this should not be taken as a green light to rush to repeal the so-called “fidelity-chastity” standards concerning ordination contained in Book of Order G-6.0106b. Instead, it should be taken as a signal that a long process of dialogue still lies before us.

Second, the rejection of Amendment O should not be viewed as an invitation for pastors to begin performing public ceremonies that break the spirit if not the letter of the Book of Order. Those conducting such public ceremonies are still subject to disciplinary action under current polity. Private acts of pastoral care would remain permissible, as they are now. And if, on appeal, the GA PJC affirmed practices that the majority of Presbyterians believed to be inappropriate, then a subsequent General Assembly could approve an Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution designed to proscribe such inappropriate activities. Under our current polity the most recent Authoritative Interpretation of the church’s Constitution is binding.

The benefit of this moderate approach is that specific practices that violate the church’s sense of what is required by God’s will as expressed in Scripture and the church’s confessions can be proscribed as they arise rather than using, so to speak, an elephant to swat a fly.

In sum, what is being argued here is that there is evidence of only isolated instances of same-sex unions being performed under Presbyterian auspices, that the Book of Order already contains appropriate remedies to deal with such cases, and that the present deeply held convictions of the church regarding holy marriage can be protected without approval of an amendment whose unintended consequences could be injurious to the church, its faith and its polity.

We are, as pointed out in a recent editorial titled “In Thrall to the Law” at the outermost extreme as to the effectiveness of church law to address complex situations involving the exercise of pastoral ministry in the life of the congregation. To take the step of approving Amendment O, we believe, would, in fact, do material damage to the authority and integrity of our Constitution.

If, contrary to our position, Amendment O is approved, it should be interpreted narrowly to refer to public events and not to private acts of pastoral discretion. Further, those opposed to Amendment O should not rush to violate its provisions, leading to “show trials,” for the purpose of vilifying those who supported it. In short, all sides should show pastoral sensitivity and restraint.

In conclusion, this position should not be read as mere political expediency. Yes, we are for compromise but not one that compromises theological integrity or the claims of the gospel. Instead, what we are urging is the creation of a process and a space for the gospel to be realized among Christians who always see its reality through a mirror dimly. Over time, the Holy Spirit, working quietly and pervasively, can lead us to a consensus concerning the mind of Christ in these disputed matters. For now, in our struggles over the details and nuance of church law, let us remember that the law must always be administered as a form of the gospel.


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