PC(USA) pastors granted leeway to perform same-sex marriages

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 of the PC(USA) 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, although it does not require pastors to do so, and has almost an immediate effect. That authoritative interpretation will 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. “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. The denomination has studied same-sex marriage for years, and at this assembly 36 presbyteries concurred with overtures asking for change, Dammers said.

There also was recognition, however, that these dramatic shifts in policy will have repercussions for the PC(USA).

Hunter Farrell answers questions posed by the assembly
Hunter Farrell answers questions posed by the assembly

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 in 14 countries, Farrell said, primarily in Africa and South America, 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 148 churches left the PC(USA) for other more conservative denominations in 2013 and more a hundred in the year before that.

Bridgeman urged the assembly’s support for efforts at reconciliation – including a new initiative the assembly approved to send representatives to visit each presbytery “and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.”

The constitutional change originally presented to the assembly used only the words “two people” – but commissioners amended the proposal June 19 so it read “two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” in an effort to reach a hand of reconciliation towards evangelicals who contend that the Bible and traditional Christian teaching do not permit same-sex marriage.

The new wording supports “the right of those who affirm the traditional understanding of marriage to do so in their own context,” said John Wilkinson, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Genesee Valley in New York state, who proposed the amendment.

Earlier in the week, language had been added 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.

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.”