General Assembly committee wrestles with same-sex marriage overtures

Some have predicted that if the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) decides to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages, many more churches will bolt from the denomination in protest – accelerating the PC(USA)’s decline in members.

Others said the PC(USA) has an opportunity to show God’s love to all people, and to let Presbyterian ministers follow their consciences and provide pastoral care to loving couples in their congregations, regardless of sexual orientation.

In small-group discussions in the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee, commissioners discuss what they heard from about 30 speakers at an open hearing.
In small-group discussions in the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee, commissioners discuss what they heard from about 30 speakers at an open hearing.

Citing the Bible and telling stories from their own congregations and families, more than 30 folks addressed the General Assembly Committee on Civil Unions and Marriage (Committee 10) on June 16 – zigzagging back and forth between support of and opposition overtures coming to the 2014 assembly regarding same-sex marriage. The overtures propose a variety of methods for changing the rules – including an authoritative interpretation, which if approved would allow Presbyterian ministers to begin performing same-sex marriages immediately, and a change in the PC(USA)’s constitution, which would require approval from a majority of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries. The overtures being discussed all would permit PC(USA) teaching elders to perform same-sex marriages – but would not require them to do so.

Not surprisingly, the comments at the open hearings reflected widely divergent views.

If the PC(USA) allows its pastors to perform same-sex marriages, “many presbyteries will be decimated and many more churches will leave our denomination,” said Paul Luthman, executive presbyter of Flint River Presbytery in Georgia.

“I’ve been wrestling with Scripture for 25 years,” and can’t get around the requirement that the Bible requires marriage to be between a man and a woman, said Robert Austell, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Charlotte. Austell said in his close study of Scripture, he can’t find biblical justification for same-sex marriage.

George Jordan, a lifelong Presbyterian from Maryland and a gay man, said same-sex marriage is legal in Maryland but not in the church I grew up in, and “I don’t understand.”

Gary Saunders, a pastor from Bowling Green, Ohio, spoke of a lesbian couple from his congregation, two nurses who together are raising three daughters. “Their home is deeply Christ-centered, with love and generosity overflowing,” Saunders said. The couple held a commitment ceremony, but “of course I couldn’t marry them . . . These growing girls will soon be asking me why the church ceremony wasn’t a wedding and why their moms can’t marry. What can I tell them that won’t be devastating? Please allow me to provide full pastoral care.”

Craig Beikleman said research has shown that children need both a mother and a father, that “men and women parent differently, and children need both.”

Libby Davis of the Presbytery of the Redwoods said her husband is a PC(USA) minister, and they have a daughter who has a same-gender partner. “By voting for this authoritative interpretation, you remove from parents like my husband the wrenching choices” of either adhering to the church’s strict requirements or of following their consciences.

If he had not overcome same-sex urges he felt as a young man, “I would have missed out on so much rich healing,” said Dan Hitz, executive director of Reconciliation Ministries of Michigan. As it turned out, he and his wife have been married 27 years and have five children. “I was able to overcome my struggle with homosexuality,” Hitz said.

Layton Williams of Chicago said she is a single, bisexual woman who is hoping to soon be ordained as a teaching elder. Williams said she has felt affirmed by the church at her baptism and confirmation, and hopes the same could be true at her wedding. “I hope for a church where all faithful love is embraced,” Williams said.

Nikita Tompkins said she ministers to people in same-sex relationships, “and it’s not that they desire marriage, but they are seeking companionship.” Tompkins implored the PC(USA) not to violate Scripture, to not be “rebellious children, mounting sin upon sin.”

Carol Seaton, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, was surprised to discover, when she married her same-gender partner, that “marriage really does matter.” She had long said “I don’t care, make it a civil union” – but changed her mind after she married and found “it had a profound effect on me spiritually.” Seaton said it grieved her that after 30 years in the ministry, she could not ask one of her PC(USA) pastor colleagues to perform the wedding.

Conflict and mistrust would be the fallout if the PC(USA) changes the rules to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages, said Lowell Avery of the Presbytery of Western New York.

After a 30-year career in public relations, “I believe the brand of our church is in jeopardy” – with membership declining and some questioning the relevance of a church that doesn’t live up to its reputation for fairness, said Margaret Blankers of Heartland Presbytery. “Do we want to be known for not fully embracing all of our brothers and sisters?”

Jack Sharpe, a ruling elder from Carlisle Presbytery, warned against permitting same-sex marriage – saying that “ignoring Jesus’ words comes at great peril.”

If the PC(USA) affirms same-sex marriage, “you’re going against Scripture,” and the number of Presbyterians leaving the denomination “will triple,” said Jeff Winter of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay.

Barbara Gaddis of Ames, Iowa, said a United Church of Christ pastor in town said: “If you have gay couples who want to be married, send them to me. Evangelism – not!”