Many perceive that the United States is in the midst of some kind of sea change regarding same-gender marriage. A survey released June 6 by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that about 72 percent of American adults said legal recognition of same-gender marriage is “inevitable.” That opinion was held by nearly six in 10 of those who oppose same-gender marriage and 85 percent of those who support it.
As of June, 12 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) and the District of Columbia have legalized same-gender marriage.
And teaching elders and others in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continue to press the question of what is the faithful response for the church. Some ministers serve congregations in places where same-gender marriage is legal — and they see the hurt it causes in their congregations when they tell same-gender couples that, because the PC(USA) defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman, they can’t be married in the church.
Some say the PC(USA) ought to hold fast to that position: that that’s’ exactly what faithful adherence to the Bible and to Christian tradition requires.
Some Presbyterian pastors, in defiance of the rules, reportedly already perform same-gender weddings.
It’s far too early to tell what the 2014 General Assembly will do about same-gender marriage, but it’s clear the issue will rise again. Some presbyteries and congregations are trying to lay the groundwork for what may come — for whatever the denomination decides — by using the off-year to study questions surrounding marriage.
In late April, the denomination released a study on traditional marriage —intended to lay a theological foundation for whatever future conversations the denomination might have. In a pretest of the material by 13 congregations, however, there was some restlessness — a desire to grapple more directly with the same-gender marriage question and with other complexities of heterosexual marriage in contemporary life.
In response, the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship made some revisions — and is encouraging congregations and mid councils to spend time talking about what the Book of Common Worship actually says about Christian marriage, and how that intersects with the concerns about marriage when, for example, more than half the children born in the U.S. to women under age 30 are born outside of marriage.
Already, interest groups are gearing up for what’s likely to be a fierce focus on marriage at the 2014 assembly.
Covenant Network of Presbyterians has set “Marriage Matters” as the theme for its 2013 national conference, to be held in Chicago Oct. 31-Nov. 2. Evangelical congregations who think the PC(USA) is on the wrong course entirely are departing at an accelerated pace for other denominations.
And the debate in the 2012 General Assembly showed that same-gender marriage poses complex questions for Presbyterians.
Some fear that a move to allow PC(USA) ministers to perform same-gender marriages might irrevocably split the denomination — fracturing its witness in an environment where increasing numbers of people already consider themselves religiously unaffiliated and sometimes estranged from organized religion.
Others say that a church which declares itself to be loving toward all and committed to justice can’t turn its back on same-gender couples who want to pledge their fidelity and love to each other.
In 2012, the General Assembly voted 52-48 percent not to redefine marriage in the PC(USA) constitution as “a covenant between two people.” Some warned that the denomination’s international partners could break historic relationships if Presbyterian ministers were allowed to perform same-gender marriage. Hunter Farrell, the director of world mission, estimated that 18 international partners might cut their ties to the PC(USA) if that happened.
In the secular world, the church and the courts, the seas continue to shift.