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GA NEWS: Same-sex marriage performed at More Light banquet

Hundreds of More Light Presbyterians filled the ballroom at the Marriott Hotel Saturday night for their traditional General Assembly Reception and Dinner.  Once the dinner plates had been cleared, and the cake was eaten, it began to look like the reception was almost over.  But the marriage ceremony had not yet begun.

         After First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, California, received the More Light Presbyterians’ Inclusive Church Award, two of its members, Derrick Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner, received the David Sindt Leadership Award.  As the longtime couple accepted their award at the podium, Kikuchi stunned the gathering by asking Wiesner to join him to make their marriage legal in the state of California.

         The couple was greeted by surprised exclamations, whoops of delight and a standing ovation by the body gathered there. 

         Michael Adee, national field organizer for More Light Presbyterians, said in an interview that Kikuchi and Wiesner were married in a church ceremony 18 years ago at First Presbyterian church in Palo Alto – in a service that he said the session of that congregation recorded as a “marriage,” not a same-sex union.

         The wedding at the More Light Presbyterians dinner became possible because the California Supreme Court on May 15 struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. That makes California the second state in the country, following Massachusetts, to legalize same-sex marriage. Four other states allow civil unions.  California just began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on June 16 – just in time, as it happened, for the Presbyterian General Assembly.

         “Though it will be on the front page of the Layman tomorrow,” Wiesner said, “I will.”

         The couple called forth Diana C. Gibson, the pastor who presided over that service 18 years ago.  “I’m not asking for us to be married before God because this was already done in our church in 1990,” Wiesner told Gibson.  “Will you join us to make this a legal civil marriage?”  Gibson accepted, and the two witnesses from the church service 18 years ago, served as witnesses again this time.  Gibson is a former pastor of First Presbyterian church in Palo Alto, and now the executive director of the Santa Clara Council of Churches.

         The gathered body was silent as the couple repeated the vows they composed in this largely self-directed ceremony, among them, “to find… the courage to resist the many deaths by which love can die, … to be willing to take the risk to accept the vulnerability to love again and again and again.”

         “So cool,” one wedding guest whispered to her husband, her arm around his shoulders.

         After the couple repeated their vows to each other, the body was invited to stand and commit to support Kikuchi and Wiesner, and couples like them.  Silverware clinked against dozens of glasses as attendees encouraged the newlyweds to kiss.  Gibson waited for the clinking to stop before she declared with careful emphasis on the last word, “By the authority newly given me by the state of California, I declare that Craig and Derrick are married in the eyes of the state.”

         Supporters were invited to stay to sign the marriage certificate.

         “God bless us all,” Weisner said at the close of the ceremony. “We’ve made an incredible journey these 20 years to be with you tonight.”

            “This is the legal completion” of what happened 18 years ago, Adee told The Outlook.  The couple believes they were reaffirming the vows they made in a church marriage 18 years ago – “they consider that they had already been married in their faith community 18 years ago,” he said – and now they are being married civilly under California law.

            So does this amount to a wedding in the eyes of the church?

            “I don’t know where it fits,” Adee said.

            But he also said: “Diana (Gibson) is aware that she could likely be charged with an offense with this one.”

            Like much at the General Assembly, this same-sex ceremony comes with a shopping cart loaded full of history and not a few nuances.

Court rulings. The debate over same-sex unions is not new to the PC(USA), although this is the first time a General Assembly has been held in a state that was currently permitting same-sex marriage.

            The most recent twist in the PC(USA)’s ongoing debate over this was a ruling in April 2008 in a case involving Jane Adams Spahr, a California minister who was brought up on charges for performing two by performing two “ecclesiastical” marriages for lesbian couples.

            The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – also known as the GAPJC and the PC(USA)’s highest court – ruled April 29 that Spahr had not violated the church’s constitution, because what she described as a “marriage” in fact, in the court’s view, was not.

            The GAPJC ruled that the denomination’s constitution does not prohibit a Presbyterian minister from performing a same-sex union ceremony, as long as that ceremony is not represented as a marriage.

            And since the PC(USA) constitution defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, “a same-sex ceremony can never be a marriage,” the GAPJC ruling stated.

            The ruling also stated that the commission “does not hold that there are no differences between same-sex ceremonies and marriage ceremonies. We do hold that the liturgy should be kept distinct for the two types of services,” and that church officers authorized to perform marriages “shall not state, imply or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage.”

            That raises the question of whether – now that the GAPJC has ruled in the Spahr case – a Presbyterian minister could face charges that would stick if he or she conducted a same-sex ceremony that was represented as a marriage.

            Ironically, Spahr also was in the news this week. She performed a same-sex California wedding June 20 at a government building in Marin County and, according to the Associated Press, said after the service that “I pronounced them married under the authority granted me by the state and as a minister of the Presbyterian Church.” One of the women involved in that wedding was Sara Taylor, a lawyer who represented Spahr in her case before the GAPJC, and who has been involved in a committed relationship with her partner, Sherrie Holmes, for 18 years.

Overtures. The assembly itself – meeting in San Jose June 21-28 – will be dealing with several overtures related to same-sex partners.

An overture from Baltimore presbytery would change the definition of marriage in the church’s constitution, to say that marriage is between “two people” rather than a between a man and a woman.

The PC(USA)’s Book of Order currently reads that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.”

The overture proposes to change the language to say: “Marriage is a covenant between two people and according to the laws of the state also constitutes a civil contract. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which two people are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made between two people, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.”

Two other overtures – similarly worded, one from New Brunswick presbytery, one from Denver presbytery – deal with the issue of rights for same-sex partners. They refer to the denomination’s long-standing commitment to equal protection under the law for gay and lesbian persons.

 And they ask the General Assembly moderator to appoint a special committee, with diverse representation, which would study the issue of same-sex unions – including laws and history, theology, and the relationship between civil union and Christian marriage – and to report back to the assembly in 2010 with possible policy recommendations.