DETROIT – Taking a huge step towards marriage equality – and recognizing that the action may cause more evangelicals to flee the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and international partners to break off relations – the 2014 General Assembly on June 19 took two momentous votes to allow PC(USA) ministers to perform same-sex marriages.
One of those steps – passing an authoritative interpretation – gives PC(USA) ministers leeway to perform same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are legal, although it does not require pastors to do so, and has almost an immediate effect. That authoritative interpretation would take effect at the close of this assembly on June 21.
The second step is to approve an amendment changing the definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA) constitution to say that marriage involves “two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” instead of the current wording stating that Christian marriage is between “a man and a woman.”
Any change in the PC(USA) constitution requires approval from a majority of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries – a process which takes roughly a year.
The votes on the two measures each passed by significant margins. The authoritative interpretation passed 371-238 (61 percent in favor), and the constitutional amendment passed 429-175 (71 percent in favor).
Supporters of marriage equality were ecstatic – same-gender marriage is legal in 19 states plus the District of Columbia, and some ministers in those states have implored the assembly to give them the freedom to provide equal pastoral care to all those in their congregations. A news release from the advocacy group the Covenant Network of Presbyterians called this “a glorious day for the church and for LGBT people who have been seeking full inclusion here for decades.”
Some commissioners addressed the assembly directly from personal experience.
“As a pastor I urge you to allow me to exercise the calling that God has placed on my heart,” said Beth Freese Dammers, a teaching elder from Chicago Presbytery – in a state where same-sex marriage is legal. The denomination has studied same-sex marriage for years, and at this assembly 36 presbyteries concurred with overtures asking for change, Dammers said. “Don’t make us wait two more years.”
These votes puts the PC(USA), with just under 1.8 million members, among a group of U.S. Christian denominations that bit-by-bit have opened the door for same-gender weddings – and follows the denomination’s decision in 2011 to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians in committed relationships. Those changes have meant that some Presbyterian ministers have themselves married their same-sex partners – but could not perform weddings for same-gender couples people in their congregations, because a 2008 ruling from the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – the highest court in the PC(USA) system – barred PC(USA) ministers from doing that.
The new authoritative interpretation wipes away that prohibition, as well as a 1991 authoritative interpretation on which it was based.
There also was recognition, however, that these dramatic shifts in policy will have repercussions for the PC(USA).
Hunter Farrell, the PC(USA)’s director of World Mission, told the assembly that 17 of the denomination’s global partners have indicated they might break relations with the PC(USA) if the denomination allows its ministers to perform same-sex marriages. Those 17 international partners are primarily in Africa and South America, Farrell said, and involve some of the denomination’s most active partnerships.
Jeff Bridgeman, the moderator of the assembly’s Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee and a minister from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara in California, said “my own mother now worships in another denomination. My heart is broken,” as more than 350 churches left the PC(USA) for other more conservative denominations over the past two years.
Bridgeman urged the commissioners to support for attempts at reconciliation – including a new initiative the assembly approved to send representatives to visit each presbytery, to “present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.” When asked how much those visits will cost, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, Gradye Parsons, said he wasn’t sure, “but I would say the cost of not doing this is higher.”
The constitutional change originally presented to the assembly used only the words “two people” in the definition of Christian marriage – but commissioners amended that proposal on the floor so it read “two people, traditionally a man and a woman” – an effort to give some comfort to evangelicals who contend that the Bible and historic Christian teaching do not permit same-sex marriage.
Earlier in the week, language had been added to state explicitly that no minister would be compelled to perform a same-sex marriage.
That language 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.”
During a news conference, the newly elected moderator of the General Assembly, Heath Rada – who lives in North Carolina – said he has detected a “significant amount of concern” over this issue in the South. Rada said he hopes not a lot of Presbyterians will leave the church over this, but if some do he hopes “that we can graciously part ways.”
And Parsons said some gays and lesbians will now feel they can stay in the church, that there’s a place for them and the partners they love. “I think for those people this is good news,” Parsons said.
On the hard work of reconciliation: Part of it is “six hundred and thirty-some commissioners going home and trying to do the work themselves.”