DETROIT, Mich. — Later this week the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will consider two recommendations to allow same-sex marriages in the denomination.
GA Committee 10 on Civil Unions and Marriage Issues voted to recommend that the assembly approve both an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a woman and a man” to “two people” and to approve an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) to the constitution that would give Presbyterian pastors discretion to conduct same-sex ceremonies.
If the General Assembly approves the amendment, it would be sent to the denomination’s 172 presbyteries for ratification, and if approved by the presbyteries could be part of the PCUSA constitution by this time next year (2015).
If the AI is approved it would go into effect in the PCUSA as soon as the General Assembly ends its meeting on June 21.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee laments the action of the committee but reminds readers that the General Assembly itself has not yet taken action on these matters. “We are hopeful that the assembly will reject both recommendations from this committee. Should the assembly affirm this committee’s recommendations it will demonstrate the PCUSA’s alignment and allegiance to the culture, not the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Laura Messer, a young adult advisory delegate from Northern Kansas Presbytery made the motion for the committee to approve motion 10-02 to amend the description of marriage in the Book of Order. “I would like to point out,” she said, “that this changes the description of marriage, not the definition of marriage. It has always been two people.”
Two amendments were made to the overture before it was finally approved by the committee. The first had been suggested by the denomination’s Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC).
Evan Hansen from Eastern Oregon Presbytery made the motion to change the word “shall” to “may” in a sentence in the third paragraph. Instead of stating that the “… teaching elder, who shall agree to the couple’s request …,” it now reads “… teaching elder, who may agree …”
An ACC representative told committee members that changing the “shall” to “may” makes the statement permissive and not required. “We feel like the conscience of all pastors should be protected,” she said.
Hansen’s second amendment was to add a paragraph to the end which read: “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 elders or the sessions discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”
He called it a public safety valve and said it was an effort toward reconciliation with those in the denomination for whom the redefinition of marriage is unacceptable.
After the amendment was approved, the committee voted 49-18 in favor of 10-02.
The Authoritative Interpretation
It was Brenton Thompson of Philadelphia Presbytery who made the motion that the committee recommend GA approval of item 10-03, an Authoritative Interpretation of the constitution that would allow pastors to perform same-sex ceremonies without having to wait for presbyteries to ratify the amendment. That process can take up to a year and the AI would have immediate effect.
The motion was challenged. A commissioner said that according to Robert’s Rules, (page 223), any motion that says a person can do something that contradicts another part of the constitution — like the Book of Confessions — is out of order.
The PCUSA’s constitution is made up of two parts — the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. Both currently define marriage as between a woman and a man. If the AI is approved, that would be a contradiction of both sections. The Book of Order may or may not be changed to define marriage as between two people, depending on the actions of the General Assembly later this week, and the possible votes of presbyteries later this year and in early 2015.”
“This is a constitutional issue,” he said, as the ACC had instructed in its counsel to the committee.
In its written advice to the committee on item 10-03, the ACC said, “This overture proposes an authoritative interpretation which would allow the exercise of pastoral discretion and freedom of conscience in conducting a marriage service for any couple as permitted by the ‘laws of the place where the couple seeks to be married.’ It suggests an interpretation contrary to the clear statement of W-4.9000. Section W-4.9001 and related citations (W-4.9002a, W-4.9004, W-4.9006) limit marriage to couples who are ‘a woman and a man.’ Because these statements are clear and unambiguous, they cannot be interpreted in a manner that is inconsistent with their plain and ordinary meaning … If it is the will of the assembly to change the definition of marriage, such a change is better accomplished by amendment of W-4.9000 rather than by authoritative interpretation.”
An ACC representative told the committee that there are instances “where we are intentionally in conflict with each other.” She also said that Roberts Rules were subordinate to the denomination’s constitution.
Committee chair Jeffrey Bridgeman of Santa Barbara Presbytery agreed with the ACC representative and the motion was allowed.
Thompson then explained why he made the motion to approve item 10-03. Of the three similar overtures that requested the assembly approve an AI, item 10-03 had the most concurrences from other presbyteries. That reason, he said, gave him the most confidence that it spoke with clarity.
Slight amendments were made to some of the language in the overture, and then it was approved by a 51-18 paper ballot vote.
About the recommendation that the assembly issue both an AI and send an amendment to the presbyteries, LaBerge said, “An AI is perceived by the people in the pews as an end-around our system. Passage of both an AI and an amendment leaves us in the conflicted reality of knowingly allowing something that is not permitted by our constitution without waiting for the presbyteries to have their voice. It is possible that the amendment could be defeated by the presbyteries and then where would we be on this?”
Throughout the two days of meetings, the committee members heard stories of pain for both sides of the issue. Pastors who couldn’t marry members of their flock and couples who could not marry their loved one because it might get their pastor in ecclesiastical trouble. On the other side of the issue were stories of departure from pastors who had seen their home churches and churches they had ministered to, leave the PCUSA to join other Presbyterian denominations where marriage is clearly defined as between one man and one woman.
Commissioner Stuart Broberg from Washington Presbytery made an impassioned appeal for some kind of reconciliation, especially if these matters passed the General Assembly.
Broberg said that “if we just act upon the things before us and do not have some kind of plan to have reconciliation be a part of that, we can assume and know what the outcome would be.”
He called for reconciliation in the church, and wanted the denomination to have “a proactive plan, to sit and talk together and study Scripture and pray together … believing and trusting that we are a lot more than just changing something in the Book of Order, but we are really about changing the heart of the church.”
“It’s easy to change something in the Book of Order, it is hard to bring reconciliation and unity in the church,” he said.
His motion, which after one amendment was approved, read “Recommend the General Assembly direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church that would visit each presbytery to serve as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at large to present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.”
A committee’s “grammar elf” was given the task of cleaning up the language of the approved motion.
At a press conference following the action, committee chairman Jeff Bridgeman was asked how that reconciliation might be achieved as this most polarized point in the life of the PCUSA. He acknowledged that he does not know, that the committee did not address the how but referred the matter to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board.
LaBerge asked Bridgeman if the committee had taken into account Hunter Farrell’s comments about the likely break in fellowship with current global partners. “We heard his report,” Bridgeman acknowledged, “but we didn’t talk about that.”
In other business, the committee voted to:
- Disapprove item 10-07 from Eastern Korean Presbytery that asked for a task force to be created to identify common ground and reconcilable difference with respect to same-gender marriage.
- Disapprove item 10-01 from Lehigh Presbytery that would have prohibited pastors from presiding at the legal civil marriage of a couple.
- Answer item 10-05 from Midwest Hanmi Presbytery with the action it took on 10-02.
- A answer items 10-04 and 10-06 with the action taken on 10-03.
The 221st General Assembly will debate and take actions on these issues later this week.