The 2012 General Assembly came stunningly close to taking a bold and controversial step – rejecting by just a 52-48 percent margin a proposed amendment to change the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to say that marriage is between “two people” instead of between a man and a woman.
It’s widely expected that issue will be in the spotlight again at the 2014 General Assembly – this time with an increasing number of states having legalized same-gender marriage and the momentum of public opinion shifting in that direction.
But in what context should the PC(USA) have that next conversation – one with the potential to further polarize an already splintered and financially struggling church?
What role should the voices of its ecumenical partners around the world play? What guidance can the church’s confessional history offer? How much should the church be led by – or speak separately from – the tilt of the secular culture?
Those were among the points of discussion when General Assembly moderator Neal Presa convened the second of three planned discussions to discuss unity with difference – this time with a focus on the Book of Confessions. The second conversation was held Dec. 11-13 at Princeton Theological Seminary; the third – with a focus on race, gender and religious identity – will be held March 12-14 at Whitworth College in Spokane, with the proceedings once again live-streamed.
Charles Wiley, of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, led a discussion of Christian marriage in the Reformed perspective, tracing the discussion the 2012 assembly had on same-gender marriage and describing a study on traditional marriage that his office prepared for congregations to use, at the direction of that assembly. While some congregations have engaged with the marriage study – giving it somewhat mixed reviews, Wiley said – only a handful of the 173 presbyteries have utilized it.
“By and large presbyteries right now feel that bringing up another contentious issue at a time when their common life feels fragile seems like a bridge too far,” he said. “The last few years have been pretty hard” on presbyteries, both economically and with congregations leaving the PC(USA) by the dozens for other more conservative denominations.
In considering changes involving same-gender marriage, other denominations generally have taken incremental steps, Wiley said. “We came within a whisker of going zero to 60, a very dramatic move” in 2012.
In a paper he presented at the Princeton discussion, Wiley outlined Reformed theology regarding marriage and the PC(USA)’s long debate over whether sexually-active gays and lesbians could be ordained to ministry. He wrote that “the net result of these thirty-five years of conversation and actions around homosexuality is that the PC(USA) now has no stance in our polity regarding the sinfulness or faithfulness of sexual relationship between persons of the same gender. Prohibitions against ordination of homosexual persons were removed, but the new language does not affirm homosexuality in any way.”
Whatever the 2014 assembly decides to do, Wiley said his office hopes it will proceed “with an appreciation of what marriage has meant” in the Reformed tradition.
Presa asked what the ecumenical implications would be, both globally and nationally, should the 2014 assembly decide to permit Presbyterian ministers to perform same-gender marriages.
Wiley said the PC(USA)’s World Mission staff could better speak to the impact on global partners – and said the answer may vary from place to place. When the PC(USA) decided to allow non-celibate gays and lesbians to be ordained, some denominations sent messages of congratulation, while others distanced themselves, such as the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, which ended its 139-year-old partnership in mission with the PC(USA) in response.
Last summer, Wiley attended a gathering in Ghana, along with Hunter Farrell, the PC(USA)’s director of World Mission, at which Reformed churches from both the global north and south together discussed some of these issues.
Some of the African church representatives spoke of their colonial legacy, explaining that “you need to understand all our anti-sodomy laws come from the colonizers” – some of the same countries that now are calling for liberalization, Wiley said.
Some indicated that “we have a long history of partnership and we’re not going to let one issue destroy that,” he said. For others, a vote by the PC(USA) to allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages could have significant repercussions.
Jerry Andrews, a pastor from San Diego who attended the conversation representing the Fellowship of Presbyterians, said some ecumenical partners “have pleaded with us not to break fellowship,” saying “this puts them in a very difficult situation . . . They said almost unanimously this has harmful effects, different than the ordination question.”
Andrews wants the PC(USA) to stay in discussion about what the Book of Confessions might teach Presbyterians about “how to read the word of God well.” He pushed on the question of how much the church should respond to cultural shifts – and how much be led by its own confessional heritage.
“Are we really waiting to hear from the majority of state legislatures on this?” Andrews asked. “That’s where we hear the word of God on this?”
Around the world, partner churches are dealing with their views on homosexuality as well. “There are pressures on world churches in the same ways we’re feeling here,” said Ray Bagnuolo, who is on the staff of That All May Freely Serve, because of “the movement of the spirit” towards equality and justice.
Presa responded: “There are real ecumenical implications for what we do and how we conduct ourselves.”
Amaury Tañón-Santos, director of programs for continuing education at Princeton Seminary, said the issue is complex. A decision to permit Presbyterian ministers to perform same-gender marriages could have an impact on immigrants in PC(USA) churches in this country – there are cultural components in this country to the discussion, he said. In Mexico, some are exploring organizing a new denomination, in frustration with the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico’s refusal to ordain women. Some international ecumenical partners voiced concern over the gay ordination vote, while others remained silent.
“We need to let go of these patriarchal views that they are our daughters, and really see them as our sisters,” Tañón-Santos said. “They need to assume their own conversations”
There also was debate over how much the PC(USA) should be influenced by changing legislation in the states over same-gender marriage. A gift the marriage discussion can provide is that “we’ve lived way too long thinking the church and the culture really work together, that we basically have the same values,” Wiley said. This provides an opportunity, he said, for the church to consider how it views marriage on its own terms, and why.
Andrews made a plea for Presbyterians to be willing to continue the conversation.
If same-gender marriage is presented only as an issue of equality and justice, then “an appeal for considered, sustained conversation can be heard as nothing more than a cynical ploy to delay justice,” he said. But “if you think this is a matter of truth” then sustained conversation is vital “in order that truth may emerge,” beyond the personal stories, prejudices “and flat-out stubbornness to listen before we speak. It takes time to get to that.”
Andrews said that for him, “this is a matter of truth. We’re not going to have peace in the church until we have justice in the church. We’re not going to have justice in the church until we have truth in the church. What does the Almighty have to say about this? Surely he is not silent.”
Tricia Dykers-Koenig, national organizer for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, responded that she takes exception to the implication that those who want justice for gays and lesbians may not care about truth. “We’re trying to find God’s truth, which leads to justice, and I hope all of us are together in that endeavor,” she said. “I am also concerned for truth, as I’m concerned for justice, for the lives of actual people who I love and who God loves.”
Dykers-Koenig said “I have no question whatever where we’ll end up” – that the PC(USA) will allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages. “I don’t know what the timing will be, but I could not be surer about that.”