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GA 2010: Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues recommends changes to language of marriage in the Directory for Worship

MINNEAPOLIS – The Directory for Worship of the Book of Order would define marriage as being between “two people” instead of being between a man and a woman, if the full General Assembly accepts the recommendations of the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues of the 219th General Assembly.

Overture 12-04 passed the committee by a margin of 34-18. This overture from Boston Presbytery would amend the Directory for Worship to allow pastors to perform marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples in communities where such marriages or civil unions are legal.

Discussion in the committee made it clear that commissioners and advisory delegates are grappling to reconcile cultural realities with the life and worship of their congregations.

“The great action of God is not limited to the church,” said Chris Henry, a pastor from Greater Atlanta Presbytery. “God speaks to us in the realms of culture and society. I believe God is speaking to us. God is doing something new. I serve a church that exists in the rubble already created by hand-grenades previously tossed, and this would give me the ability to serve that church in integrity.”

Paige Eubanks, a young adult advisory delegate from Mid-South Presbytery, said she believes Scripture is infallible.

“We are to constantly strive to reflect the purity of Jesus,” Eubanks said. “My fear is that if we are to open up Scripture to interpretation, we compromise that purity, and in compromising that purity we become susceptible to deception, and that this body, my family, will disintegrate.”

The committee considered amendments proposed to the Directory for Worship to change the phrase “a man and a woman” to “two people,” and add language allowing worship services that recognize civil marriage or civil unions for same-gender couples. The committee approved the recommendation that the following language be added to W-4.9001 in the Directory for Worship:

“Persons authorized to conduct services of Christian marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may exercise pastoral discretion when asked to officiate at ceremonies for two people who have obtained a civil marriage license, and sessions may permit the use of church property for such services. Ministers of the Word and Sacrament and Commissioned Lay Pastors may refuse to conduct any marriage ceremony and sessions may refuse to permit the use of church property for such services.”

The committee recommended that its action accepting the Boston overture also serve as its response to four other overtures proposing similar changes. Following the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, a portion of the Boston overture that proposed a change to the Book of Discipline’s language to exempt married people from testifying against each other was set aside to be sent to the denomination’s 173 presbyteries for a separate vote.

The committee also approved 12-06, one of three overtures that urge the assembly to issue an authoritative interpretation of W-4.9000, allowing pastors to exercise discretion when asked to officiate at ceremonies for couples who have obtained a civil marriage license, as well as allowing sessions to permit such services to take place on church property.

Tara Lindsley, an elder from Albany Presbytery, said she was present when her home church composed that overture.

“One of the things I love about this overture is it does seem to exercise a mutual tolerance and forbearance in this area where people of good faith differ,” she said. “In this case, the sacrifice required to do this is equally distributed through the whole body until Christ the head comes to reconcile us. This was perceived as a unifying solution to the crisis we find ourselves in.”

The committee recommended that its action on the Albany overture also serve as its response to two other overtures, and changed the language of “couples” to “two people” in places in the Albany overture as well.

Overtures 12-04 and 12-06 (the Boston and Albany overtures) use the same language to accomplish the same end by different means. Overture 12-04 proposes changes to the Book of Order that would need to be ratified by a majority of the presbyteries. But Overture 12-06 recommends that the General Assembly issue an authoritative interpretation, which would not require a presbytery vote.

James Benson, a theological student advisory delegate from Gordon Conwell Seminary, disagreed with the motion to approve the Albany overture.

“The fact that the state has always allowed more behavior than the church has allowed is nothing new,” Benson said. “There are many things that the church upholds as not permissible that the society does permit. This will allow the General Assembly to change the authoritative interpretation without the approval of the presbyteries.”

The whole General Assembly will consider the recommendations of the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues later in this week, in plenary.