GA 2010: Marriage and Civil Union Committee approves special committee report with minor amendments

MINNEAPOLIS — The Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues of the 219th General Assembly voted 47-8 today (July 5) to recommend that the General Assembly approve the final report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage.

  In its deliberations, the committee made minor amendments to that report – but eventually voted its approval.

            The committee also considered a motion to replace the final report with a minority report presented by three members of the special committee, a report that emphasized the traditional understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman, and said the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should not support same-sex partnerships. The proposal to choose the minority report over the special committee’s report was defeated 15-40.

            Speakers for and against both reports and the deliberations of commissioners and advisory delegates reflected the theological diversity of the PC(USA).

            “I think that it stands on Scripture,” said Phil Henkel, an elder commissioner from Beaver-Butler Presbytery, speaking in support of the minority report. “If Jesus is wrong in what he thought about marriage, what else was he wrong about?  The church has become nothing but a social organization.”

            The PC(USA)  has “thousands of same-gender couples in our congregations,” said Velma Tilley, an elder commissioner from Cherokee Presbytery.  “To not extend our loving compassion to those couples is unconscionable to me.  Jesus was very clear about divorce.  We have many divorced couples in our churches, and we don’t deny them anything.  ‘Those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.’  Of course, they were talking about us.  As I read that over and over again, it was so compelling to me, that that was the message we’re sending our churches – Let’s not separate over this.”

            The committee is also recommending that the assembly direct that updated guidelines and resources be created to address the distinctions between a ceremony of Christian marriage and a same-sex union ceremony.  The committee also asked that the assembly encourage sessions to engage in study of issues of biblical interpretation as outlined in the General Assembly papers, “Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture” and “Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” as well as directing the development and distribution of a study guide to go along with those papers.  Finally, the action recommends the assembly commend to sessions video study materials developed by the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA).

            In the midst of deliberations, Margaret Boles, a minister commissioner from Grace Presbytery, questioned actions that encourage further study on sensitive issues, highlighting the reality of dwindling numbers in adult education classes.

          “Are there any studies about how diligent congregations are at engaging study?” she asked. “I want to make sure that ministers at this table are diligent at taking these things home and studying them.”

          Luis Antonio De La Rosa, an elder who served on the special committee that produced the report, later referred to Boles’ concern, and reminded pastors to preach about these issues in addition to offering other adult education opportunities.

            “The Holy Spirit will bring peace, unity and purity to the Presbyterian church,” he said.  “These [resources] are tools that can be used.  Like any tradesman knows, you don’t use the same tools for each job.  For the six members sitting in your class, or for the 600 members who hear you preach on it, use them as the Spirit guides you.”

            Before approving the recommendation of the report, the committee considered other options for dealing with the final report and the minority report, including a motion that both reports be received as information only.  That motion failed 40-10.

            The full General Assembly will consider the committee’s recommendations later this week, meeting in plenary. On July 6, the committee will consider 11 overtures addressing the issue of civil union and same-gender marriage in the life of the church.