Another key to watch will be the change in attitude of the Assembly now that the “fidelity and chastity” language is gone from our Book of Order. Will the commissioners work to find compromise language to stave off the rapid exodus of churches seeking dismissal, or will they aggressively pursue full inclusion in all aspects of denominational life – to the exclusion of minority voices?
Forrest Norman recently wrote that we are facing a watershed moment for our country and our denomination. No issue highlights this more than same-gender marriage. The committee handling this topic (ironically labeled #13) will be one of the most closely watched of all the committees at General Assembly (GA) this summer.
The Civil Unions and Marriage committee will hear overtures on both sides of the issue: those seeking to bring same-gender marriage to the church and those seeking to protect the definition of traditional marriage currently found in the Presbyterian Church (USA) constitution.
Proponents of same-gender marriage have sent two kinds of overtures to GA, those that seek to amend the Book of Order and those that seek to establish Authoritative Interpretations (AIs).
The first set (Items 13-01, 13-04, 13-06, and 13-11) seeks to change the Book of Order’s Directory of Worship (W-4.9001 ff). All references to “a man and a woman” would be replaced with “two persons.” As with all changes to the Book of Order, if these changes are passed by GA, they will be sent to the presbyteries for ratification.
None of these overtures seek to change the many places within the Book of Confessions that refer to marriage being between one man and one woman. This may be partly because it would be extremely difficult to get two-thirds of the presbyteries to pass changes to all three confessions that refer to marriage as between a man and a woman (Second Helvetic, Westminster, and Confession of 1967).
In addition to the constitutional changes, proponents of same-gender marriage have also proposed a series of authoritative interpretations (items 13-02, 13-03, 13-05, 13-08, 13-09, and 13-10). Item 13-09 from Baltimore is one example. It explains that language in the Book of Order is descriptive rather than prescriptive — just because the Book of Order uses male/female language, it does not mean it has to be a man and a woman. Therefore, the overture reads, “In those jurisdictions that recognize same-sex marriage, the Book of Order must be understood to mean two persons who may be legally married.”
While some have suggested that these authoritative interpretations would be a compromise position, Jack Haberer in The Presbyterian Outlook disagrees, pointing out that the authoritative interpretations essentially change the constitution without the benefit of the checks and balances of the presbyteries voting to approve. If one of these AIs passes in Pittsburgh, then with a simple majority vote we could have same-gender marriage in the PCUSA by July 7.
The Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) has recently posted their advice and agrees with Haberer, saying “If the assembly seeks to amend the definition of marriage in W-4.9000, it would be more appropriate” to change the constitution rather than issue an authoritative interpretation.
Committee #13 will also hear from advocates for traditional marriage in support of three overtures which seek to establish an authoritative interpretation to maintain that marriage is indeed between one man and one woman (Item 13-07, 13-12, and 13-13). Item 13-07 from Mississippi adds that the “church’s definition of marriage may be changed only through amendment of both W-4.9001 and the confessional passages upon which it is based.” Item 13-13 from Foothills Presbytery is similar to Mississippi’s, but it seeks to require the two-thirds voting requirement on changes to the Book of Order regarding the definition of marriage.
What will be the result of these debates? One key to watch will be how Scripture and the Confessions will be treated – are they still our foundational documents or are they one of “a multitude of voices” as the GAPJC’s recent Parnell decision states. Another key to watch will be the change in attitude of the Assembly now that the “fidelity and chastity” language is gone from our Book of Order. Will the commissioners work to find compromise language to stave off the rapid exodus of churches seeking dismissal, or will they aggressively pursue full inclusion in all aspects of denominational life – to the exclusion of minority voices?
We will know the answers to these questions in just a few weeks, but it may take years to see their full consequences.
For further reading, check out the Presbyterian Coalition’s Advisory on Marriage and Civil Unions, and Theology Matters’ recent editions on marriage, including the May/June 2012 issue, March/April 2012 issue, March/April 2010, and January/February 2010.
Carolyn Poteet is Associate Pastor for Education at First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Hendersonville, NC. She holds a BA and MDiv from Duke. This article first appeared at The Layman online and is used with the author’s permission.
[Editor’s note: One or more original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid; those links have been removed.]