Those who would permit same-gender marriages don’t just want additional federal or state benefits, the draft report concludes. “The struggle is not just to be able to visit in hospitals, share health care or custody of children. Same-gender couples desire to belong – to be accepted in the larger society.”
But those who say marriage should only be between a man and a woman “see the compromise of civil unions as a dangerous and myopic redefinition of marriage” that loses important dimensions of marriage, the draft report states.
The committee is meeting in Louisville Sept. 14-17, and will be approving, section by section, a preliminary version of its work. The full draft report will be posted later this week on the website of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Jim Szeyller, a pastor from Charlotte and the committee’s chair, stressed that this version of the report is preliminary – that the committee will hear feedback from the church regarding its ideas and then will have time to make revisions before approving a final version at its meeting next January.
The report is limited to 10,000 words. And there’s no way it will be the final word in the long, excruciating debate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over all things related to homosexuality. The study also is being conducted at a time of fast-moving change in the secular world – when Presbyterian ministers in a half-dozen states, for example, now must consider whether to perform same-gender marriages that are legal in those states, while serving in a church that defines Christian marriage as being solely between a man and a woman.
The 2008 General Assembly, which created the task force, has instructed it to study:
· the history of the laws governing marriage and civil union,
· the theology and practice of marriage in the Reformed tradition, and more broadly in Christianity,
· the relationship between civil unions and Christian marriage,
· the effects of current laws on same-gender partners and their children,
· and the place of covenanted, same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.
So far, the committee has approved two draft sections – so far, with consensus, even though it’s clear the members don’t all agree on some key issues involving gay marriage.
The draft report refers to the conflict over marriage in the church as “a crisis of conscience – on all sides.”
It states that “some say marriage is a gift of God that can only be defined within the context of a relationship between a man and a woman. For many, blessing a relationship they believe to be forbidden by scripture is not acceptable, and an unloving gesture. For them, this is fundamentally an issue of conscience and faithful scriptural interpretation.”
And others say “marriage is a gift of God that need not only be defined within the context of a relationship between a man and a woman. For many, not blessing a relationship they believe to be allowed by scripture and given by God is not acceptable and an unloving gesture. For them, this is fundamentally an issue of conscience and faithful scriptural interpretation.”
The draft report also describes “grey areas” in the ongoing discussion.
“I would anticipate that we would get significant push-back in several areas that will give us places for extended conversation in January,” Szeyller said before the first vote. “I am pleased and thankful for all the hard work you have done.”
Clay Allard, a pastor from Dallas, said he felt he could vote “with integrity” for what’s been presented so far.
“I’m a pretty hard-core Calvinist,” said Tracie Mayes Stewart, a pastor from Statesville, N.C. “The providence of God is such a big part of what’s going on here. We are in God’s grip.”
And Margaret Aymer Oget, an assistant professor of New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said of the committee, “I feel like miraculously we’re still communicating, which if nothing else is a model to the church.”
The committee has not yet voted on its recommendations – so it’s not completely clear yet what it will propose saying or if the consensus seen so far will hold. On Sept. 15, it did approve a 10-page section including a biblical and historical summary of how Christianity over the centuries, and the PC(USA) in more recent years, have considered civil unions and Christian marriage.
It also approved another section describing the relationship between civil union and Christian marriage.
Among the points in those sections:
· The committee is using the phrase “expanded civil marriage” to describe what’s happened in states where same-gender marriages are legal. That language keeps the committee away from “the red flags that (the terms) `traditional marriage’ or `non-traditional marriage’ brings,” Allard said. But Emily Miller, a 2009 graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, warned that the “expanded civil marriage” terminology might be unfamiliar and confusing. “I just worry about the readers of this, and how quick they’re going to understand,” Miller said.
· The committee is discussing “same-gender” rather than “same-sex” relationships – trying to use that language consistently through its report.
· The report describes civil marriage as “a state-licensed contract entered into between two consenting adults,” and Christian marriage, as defined in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order, as a covenant through which “a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship.”
· A section on historical views concludes by acknowledging that Christian bodies around the world would have diverse views on marriage, divorce and same-gender relationships. “The challenge facing the PC(USA) in light of these discussions will be complicated by our desire to maintain communion with our brothers and sisters in the global church,” the draft report states.
The committee expects to vote on the remaining sections of its draft report and its recommendations when the meeting continues on Sept. 16.