PC(USA) marriage amendment passes

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has voted to take a momentous step in favor of marriage equality.

As of March 17, a proposed amendment to change the definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA)’s constitution has won enough votes to pass. The new language, which will take effect June 21 (a year after the close of the 2014 General Assembly and after all the presbyteries have voted), will define Christian marriage in the denomination’s Directory for Worship as involving “two people, traditionally a man and a woman” – a departure from the current language of Christian marriage being between “a man and a woman.”

The proposed constitutional amendment 14F – which the General Assembly approved in June 2014 – also needed approval from a majority of the PC(USA)’s 171 presbyteries, meaning it needed “yes” votes from at least 86 presbyteries to take effect.

The denomination crossed that threshold on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Donegal Presbytery voted in favor in the morning, becoming the 85th “yes” vote – and in the evening Palisades Presbytery became the 86th to vote in favor. Immediately, Twitter and Facebook lit up with reactions – celebration from advocates of same-sex marriage equality and sadness or even condemnation from those who disagree.

That constitutional change takes the PC(USA) to a place where many other mainline Christian denominations have not yet gone, including the Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. Other religious groups that have taken similar action include the United Church of Christ, which in 2005 affirmed “equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender”; the Quakers; the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations; and, in Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements.

While passing the amendment constitutes a distinct shift in policy, the PC(USA) will not require a minister who doesn’t want to perform a same-sex marriage to do so. Language was specifically included in Amendment 14F to state 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.

While many celebrate the new direction – saying it’s the right thing to do and is keeping with the direction towards marriage equality sweeping the country – this change also has come for the PC(USA) at a distinct price. Over the last several years, anticipating this move was coming, hundreds of evangelical congregations have left for more conservative denominations, helping to birth ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which now has close to 200 congregations. Those evangelical departures likely made the marriage amendment easier to pass in the PC(USA) – but also have washed pain and sometimes acrimony across the denomination.

Paul Detterman
Paul Detterman

“I’m saddened by the passing of the amendment,” said Paul Detterman, an evangelical who has chosen to stay in the PC(USA) and is national director of The Fellowship Community. “I think we are listening to each other rather than listening to Scripture and the voice of God through Scripture . . . We’ve eroded some of our ability to stand on the teachings of Scripture by this vote.”

Others are jubilant.

“It’s happened faster than anyone could have imagined or prayed for,” said Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians. For loving, committed same-sex couples, “it really feels like an affirmation of their sacred covenant of marriage.”

Authoritative interpretation. In one way, the passage of the amendment doesn’t change a thing. The 2014 General Assembly also passed by a vote of 371-238 an authoritative interpretation that gives PC(USA) ministers permission to perform same-sex marriages in places where such marriages are legal – although again, pastors who object aren’t required to do so. In practical terms, that means Presbyterian ministers have been performing marriages for gays and lesbians since last summer without fear of disciplinary proceedings – and some gay and lesbian ministers themselves have been wed.

Brian Ellison
Brian Ellison

Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said there’s no way to tell how many same-sex marriages PC(USA) ministers have performed since last summer. The impact, however, “has been incredible,” Ellison said. “It has been liberating. It has made people proud to be Presbyterian again. It has kept couples in the church, it has brought couples back into the church. It has allowed ministers to live out their vocation with integrity and pride.”

The amendment. In other ways, however, the amendment’s passing does have deep significance.

For one thing, it would be harder to unearth or undo. A future General Assembly could rescind an authoritative interpretation or pass a new one with different language, rendering the 2014 action moot. Changing the constitutional language regarding the definition of Christian marriage would take the approval both of an assembly and a majority vote by the presbyteries.

It’s also matters to many Presbyterians that their denomination is willing to put language affirming marriage equality directly in the denomination’s constitution.

“Our Book of Order is a grounding of what our values are,” McNeill said. “It’s the Presbyterian Church’s public commitment of affirming those who are called to marriage. Before, there was a caveat . . . We are affirming as a denomination that we’ve talked about this, we’ve prayed about it, we’ve listened to the Spirit, and 51 percent of us at least are in a place where we need to update our standards.”

Some also see the new language speaking a powerful word to those outside the PC(USA) – particularly to young people.

“We know that the Presbyterian Church now welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation, with no strings attached,” Ellison said. “I think people do notice that. It will make a huge difference – not just to gay people, but to a whole generation that says, ‘Unless you are welcoming to everybody, I don’t want anything to do with you.’ . . . Now, there’s a place for everyone in the PC(USA).”

Alex McNeill
Alex McNeill

McNeill put it this way: “Having our denomination being able to be more public about its commitment to all loving committed couples will attract folks who want to be part of a church and a denomination that doesn’t discriminate.”

Work ahead. Whether they agree with the impending change or not, Presbyterians also say there’s more work to be done – to help mid councils live into the new reality with a degree of grace and to help Presbyterians think more deeply about a range of issues related to marriage. Should Presbyterian ministers be involved in performing civil marriages? What approaches to premarital counseling work best? What do people struggle with in marriage?

Some evangelicals worry that the rules will get even tighter in the future – that the PC(USA) will, at some point, require all its ministers to perform same-sex marriages. Or they fear what Ellison calls a “casual” tightening of the rules – “of a minister not being able to get a call in a particular presbytery because of their views on marriage. That is something I would oppose. I think we’re stronger when we have a diversity of viewpoints represented in every presbytery.

The worry that the PC(USA) may someday insist that all ministers be willing to perform same-sex marriage is “a massive concern” among evangelicals, Detterman said.

For those who disagree with the amendment, “is it just that we are trying to be obstinate, that the Bible says no, so hell no! Or is it that our sadness about this, our continuing refusal to participate in the direction the church is going on in this particular issue, has to with a deep seated faith and belief about what Scripture says about the covenant of marriage? . . . I would really welcome those conversations,” said Detterman.


Here is the wording of amendment 14-F:

The proposed amendment to the Book of Order recommended by the 221st General Assembly (2014)

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.

In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.

If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who may agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.

The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session (W-1.4004–.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises; prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities that support them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness.

A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the statements made shall reflect the fact that the couple is already married to one another according to the laws of the civil jurisdiction.

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.

The authoritative interpretation of W-4.9000 adopted by the 221st General Assembly (2014)

Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God (W-6.3001, W-6.3010) in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology. Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place, teaching elders* have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.

Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The authoritative interpretation of this section by the 203rd General Assembly (1991) (Minutes, 1991, Part I, p. 395, paragraphs 21.124– 128), and the subsequent authoritative interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it, are withdrawn and replaced with this authoritative interpretation.

*As in other places in the Directory for Worship, the use of “teaching elders” in this paragraph should be understood to include ruling elders commissioned to pastoral service.