Editor’s note: The Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC), the publisher of The Layman and The Layman Online, does not support same-sex marriage. Instead, the PLC “believes with Scripture that God ordained the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman in the very order of creation and that Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, blessed and sanctified this relationship.”
In its efforts to have same-sex marriage permitted in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Covenant Network has announced that it will support Overture 21 – which completely re-writes the definition of marriage found in the denomination’s constitution – at this summer’s General Assembly.
The Covenant Network also plans to support efforts to have the 2014 assembly approve an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of the definition of marriage in the Book of Order to “clarify that officiating at a marriage of two women or two men is a legitimate exercise of pastoral discretion, addressing the immediate crisis that ministers risk ecclesiastical discipline for following their conscience in serving the people,” according to the organization’s web site.
Presbyterian Lay Committee President Carmen Fowler Laberge responded to that by saying, “I see the immediate crisis as having nothing to do with the risk of ecclesiastical discipline or conforming to the desires of particular people. I see the immediate crisis as much greater – with the risk of divine judgment for the failure to conform to God’s holy will.”
Covenant Network’s goal at the 221st General Assembly is to emphasize “the imperative of opening the PCUSA to the ministry of marriage for all,” and to do so, it “is supporting both an AI and the amendment in Overture 21,” read an update sent out by Tricia Dykers Koenig, the Covenant Network’s national organizer.
The PCUSA’s General Assembly will be held June 14-21 in Detroit, Mich.
Overture 21, from the Presbytery of the Cascades, states that the presbytery, “stands with those in the PCUSA who believe that the teachings of Jesus call for radical inclusion of all people and that the actions of Jesus, passed down in Scripture, showed unconditional love and equality for all people. We believe that God created each of us with many differences, including sexual preferences, and that those differences are to be celebrated as part of the creative plan of God. Support of marriage equality is consistent with our faith tradition. The covenant of marriage requires love and commitment; qualities that are in no way gender specific.”
Fowler Laberge rejects that argument, saying, “The very nature of God’s created order is complementary. To suggest otherwise is to reject the God-declared goodness of things before the Fall. You not only have to re-write Genesis 1 and 2, you have to thoroughly ignore Genesis chapter 3 to arrive at the place where an affirmation of same-sex relations is possible. They may ‘believe’ that God created sexual preferences, but there is no Biblical evidence to support that claim. In fact, the entire testimony of the Scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments bear witness to the contrary.”
The overture would delete the current wording of W-4.900 (where the definition of marriage can be found in the constitution) and replace it with:
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 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 (USA), 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 shall 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.”
(A side-by-side comparison of the text of both the current wording and Overture 21 can be found by clicking here.)
Sixteen other PCUSA presbyteries have concurred – or agreed – with Overture 21, including Albany, Baltimore, Boston, Cayuga-Syracuse, Chicago, East Iowa, Genessee Valley, Heartland, Hudson River, National Capital, New York City, San Francisco, Southern New England, Redwoods, Twin Cities and Transylvania.
Most of the presbyteries listed wrote additional rationales voicing their support of the overture, and many of those note that the proposed change to the definition of marriage will not obligate any teaching elder to perform a same-sex marriage.
The rationale from Hudson River Presbytery clearly states that “It is now time to allow, not force, but allow, our clergy and churches to perform weddings in jurisdictions where it is legal for same-gender couples as a sign of our pastoral care.” (emphasis added)
Speaking to that same issue in his article “Why an Authoritative Interpretation matters,” Brian Ellison, Covenant Network’s executive director, discussed a “disheartening conversation” he had with a Presbyterian friend who hoped the General Assembly would not approve the AI because she feared that, in time, all churches and ministers would be forced to permit and conduct same-sex weddings.
“That is not the goal,” wrote Ellison. “… the proposed AIs explicitly preserve conscience for those who do not approve of same-sex marriage. What we stand for is pastoral discretion and freedom – the ability of ministers to do what they always do with marriages, discerning the appropriateness of a marriage, offering counseling and prayer, and officiating at those weddings they feel are God-honoring and wise. No church would ever be required to host any wedding. No minister would be forced to perform one. On the contrary, this authoritative interpretation would best preserve our traditional affirmation that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” trusting the Spirit to lead our ministers and councils, on a case-by-case basis, to know what is best.”
However, the rationale from San Francisco Presbytery, while not calling for ministers to perform same-sex marriage, does indicate that it hopes all ministers will have to help facilitate them. “It should be hoped that those pastors who cannot perform such ceremonies for those who request them would find other teaching elders nearby or in their presbytery who may be willing to do so to preserve the pastoral connections of the couple within the church,” stated the rationale.
Fowler Laberge responded to that rationale by saying, “What is proposed here is that pastors whose conscience proscribes blessing what the Bible calls ‘sin’ would be compelled by their denomination to functionally facilitate the blessing through reference to someone who would perform the wedding. That is not a protection of conscience. That is coercive compulsion.”
And, Presbyterian blogger Viola Larson discussed another danger to evangelical/conservative pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriages if the AI is approved by the GA.
“If a baker, or a photographer, or a florist who does not want to participate in a same gender wedding can be fined, forced out of their business, even jailed, what will happen to a pastor, who is a member of a denomination which allows same gender marriage, when someone files a discrimination suit against her? She will not be able to state that her denomination does not allow same gender weddings,” Larson wrote in her blog. “Ellison cannot guarantee and he stands, with his promises, on a very flimsy foundation. If the AI passes, the crisis, the true crisis, will surely tear the PCUSA apart in so many ways.”
The Authoritative Interpretation
In his article, Ellison wrote that “This summer, we at the Covenant Network are encouraging the 221st General Assembly to make decisions that will deepen and enhance the church’s understanding of marriage – clarifying that its blessings are available to all people, including couples of the same gender. One way we hope the assembly does this is through an authoritative interpretation – a binding ruling by the church’s highest council about what the constitution does and doesn’t say.”
The Covenant Network’s update listed three overtures that seek an AI of the constitution regarding marriage. They are:
- Overture 24 from Heartland Presbytery with 19 concurrences from other presbyteries.
- Overture 27 from East Iowa Presbytery with three concurrences.
- Overture 36 from New Castle Presbytery with one concurrence
“Upon approval by the GA, an AI goes into effect immediately; thus it is the most efficient means of protecting pastors who are exercising their discretion according to their conscience,” Dykers Koenig wrote in the update.
Fowler Laberge points out that “the issuance of an AI by the assembly would redefine marriage while by-passing the process of formally amending the denomination’s constitution. To be honest, this is the reality in which we already live. PCUSA pastors are performing gay weddings with impunity. And we have PCUSA ministers who are in same-sex marriages. The Board of Pensions offers full benefits to same-sex partners of plan members. PCUSA seminaries provide housing for partnered gay students. The sad truth is that for all practical purposes, the PCUSA already affirms same-sex practice – the issuance of an AI to expressly allow for all that would reflect the theology already in practice.”
The AI recommended in Overture 24, which has the most support from the denomination’s presbyteries, reads:
“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 place where the couple seek to be married, 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, if 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.”
In its rationale, Heartland Presbytery wrote, “The civil legal framework of marriage has changed since the constitutional provisions and other rulings that govern marriage in the PCUSA were put into place. The constitution protects a minister’s obligation and right to exercise pastoral discretion in matters such as whether or not to officiate at the marriage service of any particular couple. Clarifying the constitution in this way will contribute to the peace and unity of the church.”
To that statement, Fowler Laberge points out the obvious: “It will notably not contribute to the purity of the church.”
Ellison wrote, “The reality is that the situation before the church with same-sex marriage is exactly the kind of situation an AI is designed to address. It is a situation that the Book of Order didn’t anticipate, but where its guidance can still be applied, with some interpretation. The Directory for Worship as currently crafted reflects a reality much different from our current context. We as a church can address our practice of marriage without changing our fundamental understanding of it, and an AI allows us to move forward in a faithful way.”
He continued that by passing the AI, the General Assembly would resolve the crisis faced by pastors when same-sex couples ask to be married by them in the church. The AI “would allow for weddings in states where same-sex marriage is legal; it would also ground that act in the same deep foundation set forth in the Book of Order that is offered for all other marriages: ‘a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family… a covenant… a lifelong commitment… publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith’ (W-4.9001).”
Larson took exception to Ellison’s comments, writing “What he is actually saying is that as the law changes, so must the denomination. And he is basing that on what can only be seen as unBiblical views of love, and unBiblical sexual acts. A church so involved with the world is truly a lost church, an empty shell that may be called a denomination, but not the Church. Furthermore, a denomination which embraces the dictates of civil government when those dictates collide with Biblical teaching is preparing to stand against some of it on members who still hold to the authority of Scripture.”
Fowler Laberge commented that “what’s at stake in the cultural debate, reflected here in the debate within the PCUSA, is nothing less than holiness, righteousness, the purity of the Bride of Christ and the very real question of whether or not we receive the Word of God for what it really is. These are not new questions – but the question remains whether or not the PCUSA will faithfully answer by affirming God’s revealed ordering for marriage which has been male/female since Creation.”