The future of marriage in the PC(USA)
Marriage discernment and the five major options before the 221st General Assembly (2014)
By Charles Wiley and Chip Hardwick
The change in state and federal law concerning same-gender marriage has been rapid. By press-time for this article, 18 states across the country had legalized civil marriage between two men or two women. Congregations are facing critical questions as they consider what this means—biblical, theological, and pastoral questions whose answers will have far reaching consequences, not only for same-gender couples, but for the entire church’s understanding of marriage and its role in society.
Understanding the importance of this issue, particularly for pastors in states where same gender marriage is legal, the 220th General Assembly (2012) asked the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Theology and Worship to produce a study on marriage to help congregations and presbyteries wrestle with these questions. The study that Theology and Worship produced aimed to encourage dialogue and reflection. It was not a proclamation on what the church should believe, but rather an invitation into deeper conversation about marriage, based on the Statement on the Gift of Marriage from the Book of Common Worship.
Congregations and mid-councils throughout the denomination have used this study (which you can find at pcusa.org/marriage) in a number of different ways. Some have invited any interested person in the congregation to use the six-week study; others have conducted the conversation only among ruling elders. Presbyteries have used the two-hour version of the study among their leadership teams or used it with their full presbytery.
Palms West Presbyterian Church (PWPC) in West Palm Beach, Florida, was one of the congregations that used the study. Like many congregations and presbyteries, the PWPC had had virtually no organized conversations about same-gender marriage until the session decided to undertake the study.
Pastor Ruffin Stepp reported that the study was eye-opening. He and the ruling elders of PWPC were grateful that the study pointed the participants to Scripture and to the Confessions, without assuming a preordained conclusion that would come from exploring these resources. He added that the study’s attention to the potential differences between the church’s decisions and civil law poignantly brought to mind many issues that his congregation had not previously considered before undertaking the study.
Since then, Stepp has seen a difference among PWPC’s ruling elders, saying “The marriage study was a great primer on all of the issues that surround the church as the General Assembly considers taking action. It is hard to know what will happen in the future about marriage—at General Assembly, in the culture, or here at PWPC—but doing the study was a great first step toward discerning God’s will for a faithful response.”
Others who have undertaken the study have similarly reported that it was helpful, in giving the opportunity to discuss difficult issues in a safe space. For instance, Doug Hucke, teaching elder from Sandia Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, reported that “The Presbytery of Santa Fe faced the very contentious issue of same-sex marriage last fall. We used the marriage study to help us navigate the conversation. The result was honest but nonthreatening. People with very different viewpoints were actually able to have a healthy conversation.”
Penny Hill, executive presbyter from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, appreciated the balanced nature of the study: “The Presbytery Council found it beneficial to use the 2 hour marriage study as a group. It was a very positive experience and enabled presbytery leaders to feel equipped to encourage their own sessions to use the study. The group did not feel like there was a political agenda to the materials at all.”
Other feedback on the report has been helpful in planning future studies to be more effective. Many study participants have said that they wish that the study had focused more exclusively on same gender marriage, rather than Christian marriage in general (as the General Assembly had directed). Some wish that the study had covered the issues surrounding sexual integrity more explicitly. Advocacy groups like Covenant Network and the Lay Committee offered constructive critiques of the study and contributed additional questions that congregations have appreciated. Still others have suggested that structuring the study using insights from the social sciences would also have made it more meaningful.
In retrospect, however, it seems one of the great values of the study has been to offer congregations and mid-councils the opportunity to talk about this difficult issue in an environment where no votes will be taken and no decisions made. Participants could hear others’ perspectives without feeling the need to convince their colleagues of the validity of their own viewpoints. In every single case we have heard about, the discussions were uniformly civil. While many in leadership throughout the denomination have been leery of conducting these studies, those who have actually undertaken them have largely been surprised at how constructive they have been. The ability to discuss these issues calmly and faithfully has been a witness to the ways that Christians do not need to follow the culture by escalating the volume, tension, and even hatred as we debate issues about which we disagree.
Organizational studies on polarity management (an approach which promotes discussions like these which do not try to resolve the tensions between two points of view, but rather simply articulate them) show that this approach typically allows for less contentious discussions when votes are finally taken and decisions must be made. Groups are often able to maintain unity in ways which would have been impossible without these prior discussions.
Depending on the actions resulting from the 221st General Assembly (2014) in Detroit this summer, presbyteries and congregations will have the opportunity to discover whether or not this approach will bear fruit. It is, of course, foolhardy to forecast what commissioners will decide concerning our understanding and practice of marriage. After all, no one has gotten rich predicting what a particular General Assembly will do! However, here are five major options before the Assembly. The assembly could choose more than one of these options.
Option one: do nothing
The first option is that commissioners could decide not to take any action at all that relates to the section on marriage in the Directory for Worship (the middle part of the Book of Order) that includes: “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship” (W-4.9001). The last several General Assemblies have considered proposals for recognition of same-gender marriage, and commissioners at each of those assemblies have declined to change our constitution or practice of marriage.
Option two: form a committee
A second option is that the commissioners could decide to form a special committee or other body that would report back to a subsequent General Assembly in order to help the church sort out the complex and quickly changing landscape of civil marriage law. Marriage laws now differ from state to state: there are states where same-gender marriage is legal, others where it is illegal, some where it is illegal but courts have ruled that the state must recognize legal marriages from other states, and places where civil unions are legal but marriage not. We even have the situation where some presbyteries that cross state lines have legal same gender marriage in parts of the presbytery but not in all. Follwing the US Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government recognizes all legal marriages, even when the state does not. A Special Committee on Civil Unions and Christian Marriage reported to the 219th General Assembly in 2010, but their recommendations were commended for study and not adopted.
Option three: issue an authoritative interpretation, empowering pastors to decide for themselves whether or not to perform same-gender marriages in a state where it is legal
The third option is that commissioners could decide to issue an authoritative interpretation on the section on marriage in the Directory for Worship. The assembly makes an authoritative interpretation (AI) when a request is made to clarify the meaning of a part of our Constitution. An AI does not change the Constitution, so a ruling only requires a simple majority of the commissioners of the assembly. Likewise, an AI can be changed or overturned by a simple majority of a subsequent assembly. This AI would allow teaching elders (pastors) to follow their conscience and understanding of Scripture and decide for themselves whether or not to perform same-gender marriages in a state where it is legal. Because authoritative interpretations do not actually change the language of the Book of Order, no ratification by the presbyteries is required. One of the points of debate with this proposal will center on whether or not such action is a legitimate authoritative interpretation or whether it actually constitutes an amendment to the Book of Order.
Option four: change the definition of marriage
The fourth possibility would be for commissioners to send to the presbyteries a change to the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship from “a man and a woman” to “two persons.” Such a proposal failed narrowly in 2012. Any change to the language of the Directory for Worship would require a majority vote of the General Assembly followed by ratification through a simple majority of the presbyteries. Presbyteries would have one year to complete the vote.
Option five: get the church out of the business of civil marriages altogether
The fifth and final possibility would be for commissioners to send to the presbyteries a more thoroughgoing revision of the marriage section. One proposal retains the language of marriage as “a civil contract between a man and a woman” and thus reasserts that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman. However, it directs Presbyterian teaching elders not to be agents of the state in legal marriage. It provides a new section on covenants between two persons with no reference to the legal status of that covenant. This move would apparently allow for services of blessing for covenants between persons that we associate with marriage, but with no legal standing. The legal status of same-gender marriage within a state would then be irrelevant to the church’s practice of blessing covenants between two persons.
As we approach these important discussions, our most important impulse should be to pray—not necessarily that our perspective would win the day, or that those we sometimes consider our opponents would be defeated, but that God’s will would be done—that the still small voice of the Spirit would speak, and that Christ’s servants would listen.
Charles Wiley is the coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship. Chip Hardwick is the director of Theology, Worship, and Education.
Download the Study on Christian Marriage at pcusa.org/marriage. It is available as a six-session version and a two-hour version, each in English, Spanish, and Korean. A number of supplementary resources are also available.
Go to pc-biz.org to read the complete overtures regarding marriage at the 221st General Assembly (2014).
Presumably everybody has a line somewhere in the sand which they will not step across with this denomination. For many it has already been crossed with the removal of all sexual purity requirements from the standards of ordination. For many others, that amendment wasn't quite the tipping point, but a change in the definition of marriage would be. I am one of those people. And for me, just finessing the issue by issuing an AI empowering pastors to decide, or by "getting the church out of the marriage business altogether", would be a cop-out and I would respond in exactly the same way as I would have if the definition of marriage were changed in the book of order. So, for me, any option other than Option 1 will probably result in me deciding to leave the PC-USA.
Gary, I appreciate the opinion that there are other issues we face as a denomination. But, that doesn't mean the issue of marriage is "wallpaper." It may not affect you (or me) personally, but I know fellow brothers and sisters in Christ for whom this is a primary issue. If nothing else, the project of unity encumbers us to (at least) discuss the things that we, personally, might not see as important.
I can see that this will get pushed into another committee for more votes and sent down the line again and again with nothing actually getting done. We know the questions and arguments. With that said it is time the church get out of granting civil contracts and give to Caesar what its Caesar's. It's not the church's business to declare legal standing between two people as it is not the state's business to tell the church whom to bless or sanctify - lest the state distinguish the legitimacy of sacramental forms of marriage or non-sacramental forms. Dump that core issue and the theological problem can be more clearly discussed.
Another example of describing the pattern of wallpaper while the house is crumbling around you. You sound more like lawyer than a steward of the mysteries. How tragic!