Overture asks commissioners to endorse ‘Christian marriage’
By John H. Adams, The Layman Online, April 19, 2004
The 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be asked to endorse “A Christian Declaration of Marriage,” a statement that the PCUSA-affiliated National Council of Churches rejected because it did not include same-sex couples.
The Presbytery of Santa Barbara submitted Overture 04-70 describing the declaration as “an apt expression” of the denomination’s “commitment to work ecumenically and practically to strengthen marriage – an institution that is honored in the Scriptures and important in U.S. society today.”
The declaration is one of two matters of business on marriage that will come before the General Assembly commissioners, who will meet in Richmond, Va., June 27-July 3. In addition, the commissioners will consider a report on “Families in Transformation” from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.
The advisory committee rejected a proposal from a member of its writing team to include “A Christian Declaration of Marriage” in its revised paper. While the revised paper is more theologically grounded, as the 215th General Assembly mandated, it still avoids holding up the denomination’s historic commitment to marriage between a man and a woman as the Biblical standard.
The declaration was originally signed by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches. But Robert Edgar, president of the National Council of Churches, withdrew his signature in November 2000 after NCC leaders privately admonished him for signing a document that did not endorse same-sex couples.
The Santa Barbara overture comes at a time of a national controversy over marriage, prompted by the unlawful civil marriages of same-sex couples in San Francisco and other cities and state supreme court decisions in Vermont and Massachusetts supporting marriage benefits for homosexual couples.
In addition, two high-level staff members of the Presbyterian Church – Washington Office Director Elenora Giddings Ivory and Unzu Lee, who is leadership director of Women’s Programs in the National Ministries Division – recently delivered public speeches to groups lobbying for same-sex marriages.
Giddings Ivory erroneously said that the PCUSA favored same-sex marriages. Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick did not publicly reprimand her, but he did retract her error with a statement posted on the PCUSA Web site.
Lee decried the use of Scripture in considering what is sexually appropriate. “Scripture is the site of our struggle,” she said. “By giving such authority to written text, we lose our ability to intuit and listen to signs around us and be compassionate. I wonder if Scripture is helpful in sexual orientation.”
The following is the text of Overture 04-70, including the text of “A Christian Declaration of Marriage”:
The Presbytery of Santa Barbara overtures the 216th General Assembly to
1. Endorse “A Christian Declaration on Marriage” as an apt expression of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s commitment to work ecumenically and practically to strengthen marriage – an institution that is honored in the Scriptures and important in U.S. society today.
2. Direct the Stated Clerk to communicate this endorsement to U.S. Christian communions that have already endorsed the declaration, as well as to other communions that might be encouraged to endorse the declaration in the future.
3. Instruct appropriate General Assembly entities to seek ways of working with other Christian communions in “prayer and spiritual support for stronger marriages; encouragement for people to marry; education for young people about the meaning and responsibility of marriage; preparation for those engaged to be married; pastoral care, including qualified mentor couples, for couples at all stages of their relationship; help for couples experiencing marital difficulty and disruption; influence within society and the culture to uphold the institution of marriage.”
4. Urge synods, presbyteries, and local congregations to seek ways of working with other Christian bodies in their areas toward these same purposes.
5. Ask all church members to join in a year of prayer for marriage renewal and reconciliation.
Almost every couple contracting marriage desires sincerely “to commit themselves to a mutually shared life, and to respond to each other in sensitive and lifelong concern” (Confession of 1967, 9.47). But many of today’s marriages are more tenuous, the vows less certain of fulfillment, than marriages of one or two generations ago. The church has not been exempt from this trend, as nearly half of all U.S. marriages – both inside and outside of the church – end in divorce.
The church must take responsibility for its part in this troubling situation. We must confess that when we do not teach youth about God’s plan and purpose for marriage, when we perform wedding ceremonies without proper counseling, and when we do not provide support for persons in struggling relationships, we have failed to live up to our call to tend God’s flock.
In 2000, a nearly unprecedented coalition of Christian leaders came together to draft “A Christian Declaration on Marriage.” They recognized, “With three-quarters of marriages performed by clergy, churches are uniquely positioned not only to call America to a stronger commitment to this holy union but to provide practical ministries and influence for reversing the course of our culture.” The declaration called “on churches throughout America to do their part to strengthen marriage in our nation by providing: prayer and spiritual support for stronger marriages; encouragement for people to marry; education for young people about the meaning and responsibility of marriage; preparation for those engaged to be married; pastoral care, including qualified mentor couples, for couples at all stages of their relationship; help for couples experiencing marital difficulty and disruption; influence within society and the culture to uphold the institution of marriage.”
This declaration was signed by top officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the National Council of Churches. Subsequently, NCC general secretary Robert Edgar withdrew his name, saying that he had not thoroughly consulted NCC member communions before signing the document and he was concerned that “misinterpretation of the declaration may be used by some as a pretext for attacks on gay and lesbian persons.” But the declaration takes no position on the contentious issue of homosexuality. Even after Edgar’s withdrawal, the declaration is still supported by leaders of two-thirds of U.S. Christians-more than 50 denominations representing over 100 million members. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can join itself to this broad ecumenical coalition, and encourage more denominations to do the same, by adding its endorsement to the declaration.
The declaration expresses an appreciation of marriage that is shared by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), along with virtually every major branch of the Christian tradition. Our Presbyterian confessions teach, “Christian marriage is an institution ordained of God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, established and sanctified for the happiness and welfare of mankind, into which spiritual and physical union one man and one woman enter….” (Westminster Confession, 6.131). Endorsing the declaration would be a way of communicating this teaching more publicly, in a larger company of voices, to a wider audience. The declaration’s focus on practical means of strengthening marriages accords well with one of the emphases in the proposed General Assembly policy statement on “Transforming Families.” A General Assembly endorsement of the declaration would be an excellent complement to a new PCUSA policy on families, linking that policy to expanding ecumenical efforts to address problems in our most basic social institution. Together, these actions would be an important step in leadership for the General Assembly, providing guidance for church members and witness to the culture. Combined with a year of prayer for marriage renewal and reconciliation, these actions could re-energize the church’s family ministries.
“A Christian Declaration on Marriage,” in full, states:
“As we celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, entering the third millennium, we pledge together to honor the Lord by committing ourselves afresh to God’s first institution – marriage.
“We believe that marriage is a holy union of one man and one woman in which they commit, with God’s help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithful relationship that will last for a lifetime. God has established the married state, in the order of creation and redemption, for spouses to grow in love of one another and for the procreation, nurture, formation, and education of children.
“We believe that in marriage many principles of the Kingdom of God are manifested. The interdependence of healthy Christian community is clearly exemplified in loving one another (John 13:34), forgiving one another (Ephesians 4:32), confessing to one another (James 5:16), and submitting to one another (Ephesians 5:21). These principles find unique fulfillment in marriage. Marriage is God’s gift, a living image of the union between Christ and His Church.
“We believe that when a marriage is true to God’s loving design it brings spiritual, physical, emotional, economic, and social benefits not only to a couple and family but also to the Church and to the wider culture. Couples, churches, and the whole of society have a stake in the well being of marriages. Each, therefore, has its own obligations to prepare, strengthen, support and restore marriages.
“Our nation is threatened by a high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in non-marital births, a decline in the marriage rate, and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying, especially among young people. The documented adverse impact of these trends on children, adults, and society is alarming. Therefore, as church leaders, we recognize an unprecedented need and responsibility to help couples begin, build, and sustain better marriages, and to restore those threatened by divorce.
“Motivated by our common desire that God’s Kingdom be manifested on earth as it is in heaven, we pledge to deepen our commitment to marriage. With three quarters of marriages performed by clergy, churches are uniquely positioned not only to call America to a stronger commitment to this holy union but to provide practical ministries and influence for reversing the course of our culture. It is evident in cities across the nation that where churches join in common commitment to restore a priority on marriage, divorces are reduced and communities are positively influenced.
“Therefore, we call on churches throughout America to do their part to strengthen marriage in our nation by providing:
- Prayer and spiritual support for stronger marriages
- Encouragement for people to marry
- Education for young people about the meaning and responsibility of marriage
- Preparation for those engaged to be married
- Pastoral care, including qualified mentor couples, for couples at all stages of their relationship
- Help for couples experiencing marital difficulty and disruption
- Influence within society and the culture to uphold the institution of marriage
“Further, we urge churches in every community to join in developing policies and programs with concrete goals to reduce the divorce rate and increase the marriage rate.
“By our commitment to marriage as instituted by God, the nature of His Kingdom will be more clearly revealed in our homes, our churches, and our culture. To that end we pray and labor with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
“May the grace of God, the presence of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit be abundant in all those who so commit and be a blessing to all whose marriages we seek to strengthen.”