By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie.
I typically do not chase presbytery PJC rulings but rather wait until there has been a review by either a Synod PJC or the GA PJC so that they have had a chance to be digested a bit by another commission. However, a recent case is, as the decision notes, “…a question of first impression in this Presbytery and to the knowledge of this Commission in the PCUSA.” So here we go.
The case heard by the Permanent Judicial Commission of Salem Presbytery is Thomas E. Morgan – Complainant v. Session, First Presbyterian Church, Asheboro (North Carolina) – Respondent. My thanks to the Layman Online for making the full text available.
The circumstances of the case are rather straight-forward — A remedial complaint was filed against FPC Asheboro regarding a policy their session put in place that says, in part:
The Session will exercise due discretion in affirming marriage service requests, but affirms that all marriage services conducted at First Presbyterian Church shall reflect the understanding that Christian marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.
The complaint alleges that this conflicts with the Book of Order section F-1.0403 which says, in part:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution.
With that in mind, the case boils down to the new language regarding marriage, W-4.9, and the placement of the final section (W-4.9006) that says:
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 question before the Commission was whether this language would permit a session to take a categorical stand in a church policy. The PJC said it does not and that section W-4.9 represents a process that must be followed and requests for marriage services must be handled on a case-by-case basis. More specifically, the decision says that the earlier sections of W-4.9, those involving meeting with the teaching elder and counseling, must happen first before a decision is made about the appropriateness of the marriage. They point out that this is a “shall” phrase in the Constitution where it says that following their request the couple “shall receive instruction from the teaching elder.”
The decision’s decisive paragraph says:
A categorical decision by the session not to permit any marriage by a couple of the same sex on church property without consideration of their commitment to each other, their understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and their commitment to living their lives together according to its values is inconsistent with the process required by W-4.9001-9006. There is absolutely no question that W-4.9006 authorizes a session to prohibit any marriage on church property contrary to its discernment of the Holy Spirit and understanding of the Word of God. However, that authority is granted in the context of a process that requires the teaching elder to counsel with every couple seeking Christian marriage whether they are of the same sex or not. With regard to each such couple, the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session and the session is authorized to determine whether that couple may be married on church property. By adopting and publishing a policy that categorically excludes any same sex couple from being married on church property, the session has contradicted the policy requiring inquiry and counselling [sic] for any couple seeking a Christian marriage, including same sex couples. The logical effect of this policy will be to discourage any same sex couple desiring Christian marriage to seek counsel from the teaching elder called by the congregation or to seek permission to be married on church property regardless of any other circumstances. A categorical prohibition of same sex marriage on the property constitutes a categorical discrimination against same sex couples who present themselves for consideration for marriage in the congregation.
In one of the more interesting parts of the commission’s discussion they let the session off the hook a bit by pointing out guidance, but not authoritative language, in two document from the Office of the General Assembly does specifically say that sessions can make a categorical prohibition.