A General Assembly committee has opened the door for ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to perform same-sex marriages – which, if the full assembly follows that direction later this week, could be a momentous step which would both thrill supporters of marriage equality and drive more of those who disagree to leave the PC(USA).
By approving both measures, the committee set in motion the possibility that PC(USA) ministers could begin performing same-sex marriages immediately following this assembly, if the assembly approves a new authoritative interpretation. Currently, 19 states plus the District of Columbia permit same-sex weddings, but a 2008 ruling from the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission bars PC(USA) teaching elders from performing such marriages.
There likely will be pushback: Hunter Farrell, the PC(USA)’s director of World Mission, told the committee that preliminary conversations indicate that perhaps 17 of the denomination’s 54 global partners may break relations with the PC(USA) if Presbyterians define Christian marriage as being between “two persons” rather than “a man and a woman.”
The assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues on June 17 approved an authoritative interpretation giving PC(USA) ministers the discretion to perform same-sex marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal. By a vote of 51-18, the committee approved Overture 10-03 from Heartland Presbytery that would give Presbyterian ministers the freedom to perform such marriages.
The proposed new authoritative interpretation would supplant an authoritative interpretation the assembly passed in 1991, which allowed for the blessing of same-gender relationships as long as those ceremonies were not considered to be the same as marriages, and also withdrawing both that action “and the subsequent authoritative interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it.”
The committee also approved by a vote of 49-18 a proposed amendment to the PC(USA) constitution that would change the definition of Christian marriage in the constitution from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two persons.”’
Before the committee voted, language was added to that proposal – Overture 10-02 from the Presbytery of the Cascades – to state explicitly that no minister would be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage. In other words, pastors who disagree with same-sex marriages could follow their consciences and decline to perform them.
The amendment the committee approved states that: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”
Both measures will go to the full General Assembly for its consideration later this week. Any proposed amendment to the PC(USA) constitution also would require approval from a majority of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries.
A minority report on this issue is expected. According to Jeff Bridgeman, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara and moderator of the committee, the minority report is likely to include a proposal which the committee rejected – that the committee answer seven overtures regarding same-sex marriage with a comment stating in part that “this assembly believes that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not in a position to recast its teaching on marriage. Our understanding of God’s good gift of marriage is deeply rooted, based on the Scriptures” and discussed further in the Book of Confessions.
The committee voted 15-53 against the motion to answer the same-sex marriage overtures before it with that comment. To approve it would mean “we are fearful to address the issues” and consider them “too controversial,” said Scott Overacker, a young adult advisory delegate from the Presbytery of the Peaks.
The Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) has recommended that the assembly not approve either an authoritative interpretation or a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage. The proposed authoritative interpretation to allow pastoral discretion in performing same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are legal “suggests an interpretation contrary to the clear statement” of the section of the Book of Order defining marriage as being between “a man and a woman,” the ACC has written.
And changing the definition of Christian marriage in the Book of Order could create “perceived tension between Scripture, the Confessions and the Book of Order,” the ACC’s advice to the assembly states.
From early on, however, it seemed clear that the committee was willing to recommend a change in policy – moved in part by the pleas of PC(USA) ministers who serve churches in states where same-sex marriage is legal, and who are having to tell their own parishioners they can’t marry them.
Committee member Bob Brizendine, a teaching elder from New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina, said the mother of a gay son from his congregation came to him last week, and asked him to tell the assembly that “I would like for my son to be married to the man he loves….and I would like you to be able to officiate at that marriage, that he would have the blessing of the community of faith, just like we do.”
Wendy Neff, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of East Tennessee, said the authors of the confessional statements in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions may never have imagined the idea of same-sex marriage. But Presbyterians today know it is possible for people of the same sex to have committed relationships and to desire the church to bless those relationships in marriage, Neff said. It is time for the PC(USA) “to reflect the lived reality of our lives,” she said, recognizing there is “a tension we know how to live with because of other parts of our life together.”
Some on the committee warned that allowing PC(USA) ministers to perform same-sex marriages would further fracture the denomination and spur more congregations and Presbyterians to leave.
Stuart Broberg, a minister from Washington Presbytery, described the pain many evangelicals felt when 148 churches left the PC(USA) for other denominations in 2013. When his home church left, “it was like somebody stabbed me in the heart,” Broberg said.
He pushed the committee to craft some sort of plan for reconciliation – “to sit and talk together, study Scripture, pray together, share the different voices, believing and trusting that we’re about a lot more than just changing the Book of Order. We’re really about changing the heart of the church. It’s easy to change something in the Book of Order. It’s hard to bring reconciliation and unity in the church.”
As a matter of new business, the committee did recommend that the assembly “direct the the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church that would involve visiting each presbytery and serving as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at-large and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.”