TUCSON, Ariz. – Advocates for changing the definition of marriage will be hard at work between now and the 221st General Assembly hoping to push measures through the 221st General Assembly that, if approved, will allow same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA) by June 21, 2014.
More Light Presbyterians (MLP) and the Covenant Network (CN) of Presbyterians announced at the MLP 2013 National Conference held Sept. 27-29, that they have joined forces to try to press the PCUSA to change its stance on marriage to not only allow marriage between couples of the same gender, but to also allow PCUSA pastors to conduct the services on church property.
Following an early summer meeting of MLP and CN representatives, the board of directors for both organizations were in agreement that an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of the PCUSA constitution and an amendment to the constitution are two things “that this assembly must pass,” said Brian Ellison, executive director of CN.
An AI of the constitution would protect congregations, sessions and pastors, said Ellison, and it is “absolutely essential” for it to be passed at the 2014 General Assembly. Both organizations also agree that an amendment to “enshrine marriage equality in the Book of Order is essential,” as part of the denomination’s witness to God’s justice.
Both groups advocate for full lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights and privileges in the PCUSA and society, and also advocate for same-sex marriage in the PCUSA.
Currently, the PCUSA constitution states that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” and its pastors are not allowed to perform same-gender marriages. However, MLP advocates and celebrates through its “Stand for Love” campaign pastors who openly defy the church’s constitution and General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission rulings and perform same-gender marriages now.
Heidi A. Peterson, co-moderator of MLP, along with Ellison, told the approximately 90 people at the conference of the preparations and plans being made to advocate for marriage equality at the 221st General Assembly.
She said that MLP and CN worked together on the successful Amendment 10A campaign — where the 2012 General Assembly and a majority of PCUSA presbyteries approved an amendment to the PCUSA constitution that allowed for the ordination of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people to the offices of deacon, elder and pastor. They hope to build on that success when it comes to same-sex marriage.
The work will be divided, said Ellison, with the CN working to get the AI approved by the GA and the MLP advocating for the amendment.
The Authoritative Interpretation
Ellison described an AI as a “privilege that the GA has. It is one of only two ways that we can agree on what the constitution means to our church.” The other is a ruling of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the highest judicial body of the PCUSA.
Once an AI is approved by the General Assembly, it goes into effect immediately. Unlike an amendment to the constitution, it does not need to be ratified by the presbyteries. The 221st GA will meet June 14-21 in Detroit. Therefore, if the assembly does approve the AI, same-sex marriage would be allowed in the PCUSA on the day of the vote, which at the very latest would be the closing day of the assembly — June 21, 2014.
Ellison said there was a lot of talk about AI’s at the last General Assembly. Some thought it was a way to get around a church-wide discussion of same-sex marriage. Others thought it was a “sneaky way for us to get what we want,” he added.
“Every bit of policy in marriage,” he said, “has been the result of an AI — an AI by the GAPJC … all those cases by the GAPJC have created policy by the PCUSA.” And that policy is all the PCUSA has, since the Book of Order doesn’t say a word about same-gender marriage.
Ellison said that an AI from the General Assembly would be “immediate, coherent” and would “bring immediate relief to the pastoral crisis we are now facing … where pastors are dealing with the reality that people in their churches” want to have the same opportunity to marry.
“An amendment would actually change our Book of Order,” said Peterson, so it doesn’t just require a majority vote of the assembly, but also a majority vote of the PCUSA’s 173 presbyteries.
The starting place on writing an amendment, she said, “was a blank sheet of paper. We didn’t look at what was in the book and think about how to change it … We thought about what is marriage in the Reformed tradition? Is it about gender identity or is marriage in our faith tradition about covenant, abiding love and commitment?”
Peterson said that the previous efforts to change the constitutional language concerning marriage had just changing the words “a man and a woman” to “two people” had not been persuasive.
“We need to bring our church to where we need to be and where we ought to be,” she said.
Ellison added that there are some draft amendments “circulating around the church … there is language out there that is developing some consensus.”
He told those interested in the draft amendments to contact Tricia Dykers-Koenig of the Covenant Network. “She can offer a glimpse of where things are,” he said.
Peterson told the crowd that this is not the same issue that was approved in 2012.
“People who felt our way about 10A may not feel the same way about marriage equality … the cultural tide is in a whole different place than it was at the last General Assembly … we can’t know how those two factors will play off of each other,” she said.
During a question and answer session, Ellison and Peterson were asked if the AI and the amendment would go before one General Assembly committee or could measures be sent to different assembly committees?
Ellison said that it is the job of Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons to assign business to the committees. “He refers as he pleases,” said Ellison. “We have a hard time imaging that the stated clerk would assign those items to different committees,” since no conflicting business can come out of two different committees that would confuse the assembly.
“The very worst outcome is for some of us to pursue an amendment and lose the AI,” he said. Then, if the assembly passes the amendment, and it was voted down in the presbyteries, “we end up with nothing. An AI is essential right now. I would argue an amendment is also essential, and we need both right now.”
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