Panel weighs options for giving pastors power to perform same-sex marriages

Over and over, members of the committee considering same-sex marriage overtures at the 2014 General Assembly have been saying it’s time for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move.

The sense is this committee wants to address the difficulties Presbyterian pastors face as they try to provide pastoral care to same-sex couples at a time when 19 states plus the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage, but the PC(USA) prohibits its ministers from performing such marriages.

When Jeff Bridgeman, moderator of the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues, asked for a straw poll June 16 on how sure committee members felt about what they wanted to do, nearly everyone was tilting toward some sort of a decision.

Then every committee member was given a chance to briefly share some of his or her thoughts – and those comments reflected both the complexity of the task the committee faces, and some apparent resolve to do more than just study the issue.

The committee has a series of options – including whether to pass an authoritative interpretation allowing PC(USA) ministers to perform same-gender marriages (although they would not be required to do so), and whether to try to amend the denomination’s constitution to allow ministers that freedom. One difference between those options: an authoritative interpretation would take effect as soon as the General Assembly passed it, while a constitutional amendment would require approval from a majority of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries. That approval process would take roughly a year.

In considering those options, committee members seemed aware of the potential ripple effects internationally and pain for some Presbyterians, particularly evangelicals, that any decision to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages might carry.

Hunter Farrell, head of World Mission for the PC(USA), told the committee that at the 2012 General Assembly, he was asked what the likely impact would be on the denomination’s relationship with international partners if it were to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages. Anticipating he might be asked again, several months ago the World Mission staff began making what Farrell called “discreet inquiry” with the denomination’s international partners.

Farrell offered several notes of caution. As with the PC(USA) itself, it can be difficult for global partners to predict what might happen. Each operates within a particular cultural context – and homosexuality is understood differently in different countries and contexts. And the discussion “is changing around the world,” Farrell said. In 2010 Argentina legalized same-sex marriage; Uruguay followed in 2013. At the same time, there’s “a growing movement towards criminalization” of homosexual practice in Africa and the Middle East, he said. “So it’s a complex and changing environment.”

With those caveats, Farrell said it’s expected that 17 of the PC(USA)’s 54 global partners would break relations with the denomination if the PC(USA) were to change its understanding of Christian marriage to include two persons of the same gender. Another 25 partners say it would damage but not sever the relationship. “This is not an exact figure,” Farrell said. It’s our best guess.”

Some partners might be less likely to break relations if the PC(USA) permitted pastors to perform same-gender marriages – some sort of relief of conscience – but did not declare Christian marriage to include same-sex couples, Farrell said.

Comments by committee members made it clear they’re considering the ramifications on multiple levels of any potential action.

Carole Cooke, a ruling elder from Grace Presbytery in Texas, said she’s been married to her husband for 48 years, but knows same-sex couples who’ve lived together more than 50 years and have never been free to marry. Now, as those older couples face health problems, they’ve sometimes encountered difficulties at hospitals and involving other aspects of aging because, despite a lifetime of commitment, they’re not officially married.

“To be excluded from the hospital room for somebody who you love . . . . somehow doesn’t seem very fair to me,” Cook said. So she favors change – but at the same time “I would like this to be done in a good way, so there aren’t a lot of hurt feelings.”

Laurie Farquharson, a ruling elder from Central Florida Presbytery, said she’s worked as a director of Christian education for 25 years in a context that’s quite conservative. “We have a lot of churches in our area who have left the denomination,” Farquharson said. “We have others that are in process. The pain is very real. I don’t want us ever to forget that. I do think we need to keep everybody at the table who wants to be at the table.”

At the same time, “we need to give relief to pastors who need to come down on the side of pastoral care.”

Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and an overture advocate from Heartland Presbytery, spoke of “a pastoral crisis in the church,” in which ministers in 75 presbyteries and nine synods in places where same-sex marriage is legal “may find their consciences constrained.”

For gays and lesbians raised in the church, who were baptized and confirmed – “we’ve told them they are God’s own, they are loved – not just by God, but by us,” Ellison said. When they come to the church wanting to marry, “to pledge their lives to each other in covenant faithfulness,” the PC(USA) tells them “their families are not sanctioned by God.”

Hurt, some young people leave the PC(USA) for other denominations. Some turn away from church entirely. Some determine that “the church is homophobic,” Ellison said.

Ellison, a teaching elder from Kansas City, said he and his partner, Troy Lillebo, have been in a committed relationship for 11 years – a relationship which “the church I love, the church for which I have given my life in service, will not embrace.”

Phyllis Winzenried, a ruling elder from John Calvin Presbytery, said she had a dream at her hotel that the walls were changing, and she had no control. “No matter what happens here, the spirit is with us,” she said. The walls are shifting on same-sex marriage, and “no matter how we vote, the world is not going to stand still for us.”