DETROIT, Mich. — The 221st General Assembly passed two measures on Thursday afternoon to allow same-sex marriages in the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of which goes into effect immediately.
The General Assembly voted first to approve an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of the constitution that would give Presbyterian pastors discretion to conduct same-sex ceremonies in states where the practice is legal. The vote on business item 10-03 was 61 percent (371) in favor and 39 percent (238) against. It goes into effect immediately.
Not long after, the assembly also voted to approve an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a woman and a man” to “two people.” The vote on business item 10-02 was 429 (71 percent) to 175 (29 percent).
It will now be sent to the denomination’s 172 presbyteries for ratification, and if approved by 87 of the presbyteries, it could be part of the PCUSA constitution by this time next year (2015).
The assembly did approve an amendment to the first paragraph of the proposed change to the definition of marriage so that what will be sent to the presbyteries for approval reads — “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people (traditionally between a man and a woman) to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.”
PLC: An abomination
The board of directors of the Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC) were quick to respond the General Assembly’s actions, calling the actions an “abomination.”
“The General Assembly has committed an express repudiation of the Bible, the mutually agreed upon Confessions of the PCUSA, thousands of years of faithfulness to God’s clear commands and the denominational ordination vows of each concurring commissioner. This is an abomination,” the PLC statement read.
The PLC called Presbyterians to not only resist, but protest. “You should tell your pastor and the members of your session that you disapprove of these actions. You should refuse to fund the General Assembly, your synod, your presbytery and even your local church if those bodies have not explicitly and publicly repudiated these unbiblical actions.”
Lastly the PLC called the PCUSA to “repentance and reform: Repentance of those who have clearly erred at this General Assembly and reform of the PCUSA according to the Word of God.”
The final piece of business from the Civil Unions and Marriage Issues committee was a request for some kind of reconciliation process.
The motion, which was overwhelmingly approved (521-31) by the General Assembly, read:
“Direct the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly to establish a way to bring reconciliation to the church that would involve visiting each presbytery and serving as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at-large and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.”
In introducing the item, Committee Chairman Jeffrey Bridgeman from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, passionately spoke about the need for reconciliation.
“These issues have caused deep fissures and the exodus of churches and individuals,” he said, “Both the church I grew up in and the community of faith of my first call have graciously left our community in the last six months. … Far too many friends and family have broken fellowship to continue their ministries in other places … My heart is broken.”
“Our committee knew that something other than polity action needed to happen, that is why this new piece of business is before you,” he said. “As a denomination we cannot continue to take steps to be more inclusive and ignore the exclusion of others. … There must be a deliberate and concerted effort to find ways to heal this increasingly broken and fragile relationship. We need reconcilation.”
The press conference
Following the vote, a press conference was held with PCUSA leadership including General Assembly Moderator Heath K. Rada, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and the vice-moderator of the committee on Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Rebecca Tollefson, from Scioto Valley Presbytery.
During the assembly debate on the issues, concerns were raised about having an Authoritative Interpretation of the denomination’s constitution that was in direct conflict with the document, especially if the amendment to change the definition of marriage does not get ratified by the presbyteries.
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the PLC, asked the leadership what happened if the presbyteries did not vote in favor of the change? “What happens to the AI and with the new tensions that would be created?”
“The tension that was created in the assembly will be there until the tension is resolved,” said Parsons.
When asked about the potential losses of members and churches because of the denomination’s decision, Parsons said he had no crystal ball but he hoped for no losses.
The assembly’s request for a reconciliation process, he said, was “a serious request,” that the leadership will try to make happen.
Rada also spoke of the reconciliation process, saying “a significant amount of my time, especially in during my first year, will be doing [reconciliation]. … I feel that if we focus on issues of what holds us together instead of what drags us apart” that would help.
“We have the same faith in Jesus,” he said, “and from that we can recognize how we might move forward and be different.”
Questions were also asked about comments made by Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission, who told commissioners that based conversations he had with the denominations; 54 global mission partners, at 17 would break relationships with the PCUSA if same-sex marriage is approved.
Another 25 global partners said that the change would cause damage to their relationship with the PCUSA, but the partner would not completely break ties with the denomination.
“We aren’t going to joyfully say that we are sorry you want to break our relationship,” said Rada. “In my heart I want to believe that they have made strong statements, but we may have ongoing communication that may alter that.”