Overtures on same-sex marriage submitted for consideration by PCUSA General Assembly

samsexWhile the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is still seven months away, business for it to consider when the assembly does convenes is beginning to accumulate.

As of Nov. 19, 21 overtures have been submitted to the Office of the General Assembly, and two of those concern one of the major issues facing the denomination: Same-sex marriage.

This fall, two organizations that support same-sex marriage both in the PCUSA and the nation laid out their political plans for getting their agenda accomplished at the 2014 General Assembly.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians have agreed to jointly pursue an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of the PCUSA constitution and an amendment to the constitution in support of same-sex marriage. Those are two things “that this assembly must pass,” said Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network, in an address to the More Light Presbyterian’s national conference.

According to More Light and Covenant Network representatives, if passed by the General Assembly, an AI would go into effect immediately, while the overture, which they say would “enshrine marriage equality in the Book of Order, if passed by the assembly would have to be ratified by a majority of the PCUSA’s 172 presbyteries.

The overtures that initiate those plans have been put into motion and if approved by the General Assembly will allow same-sex marriage in the PCUSA by June 21, 2014.


Overture to change marriage

Cascades Presbytery has approved an overture (Ovt. 021) that completely re-writes the Book of Order’s section on marriage – W4.9000, to “to allow marriage between ‘two people’ rather than limiting marriage to ‘between one man and one woman’ and to allow PCUSA church officials to perform marriage ceremonies between same sex couples,” according to the overture’s rationale.

If approved by the assembly and a majority of the presbyteries in the PCUSA, the new definition of marriage for the PCUSA would read:

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 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.

In civil law, marriage is a contract that recognizes the rights and obligations of the married couple in society. In the Reformed tradition, marriage is also a covenant in which God has an active part, and which the community of faith publicly witnesses and acknowledges.

If they meet the requirements of the civil jurisdiction in which they intend to marry, a couple may request that a service of Christian marriage be conducted by a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), who is authorized, though not required, to act as an agent of the civil jurisdiction in recording the marriage contract. A couple requesting a service of Christian marriage shall receive instruction from the teaching elder, who shall agree to the couple’s request only if, in the judgment of the teaching elder, the couple demonstrate sufficient understanding of the nature of the marriage covenant and commitment to living their lives together according to its values. In making this decision the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session, which has authority to permit or deny the use of church property for a marriage service.

The marriage service shall be conducted in a manner appropriate to this covenant and to the forms of Reformed worship, under the direction of the teaching elder and the supervision of the session (W-1.4004-.4006). In a service of marriage, the couple marry each other by exchanging mutual promises. The teaching elder witnesses the couple’s promises and pronounces God’s blessing upon their union. The community of faith pledges to support the couple in upholding their promises; prayers may be offered for the couple, for the communities which support them, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness.

A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the statements made shall reflect the fact that the couple are already married to one another according to the laws of the civil jurisdiction.

“Cascades Presbytery stands with those in the PCUSA who believe that the teachings of Jesus call for radical inclusion of all people and that the actions of Jesus, passed down in scripture, showed unconditional love and equality for all people. We believe that God created each of us with many differences, including sexual preferences, and that those differences are to be celebrated as part of the creative plan of God,” states the overture’s rationale. “Support of marriage equality is consistent with our faith tradition. The covenant of marriage requires love and commitment; qualities which are in no way gender specific.”


Marriage overtures from Heartland Presbytery

Two other overtures on marriage have been approved by Heartland Presbytery, but have yet to be placed on the Official list of overtures to the 221 General Assembly (2014).

Heartland Presbytery has approved overtures supporting both tracks of the Covenant Network, More Light plan. Heartland’s overture to redefine marriage includes the same language as the Cascades overture, but states a different rationale for changing marriage.

“This overture lifts up love and commitment as the primary values of a marriage rooted in faith. As such, it excludes no couple from receiving the guidance and blessing of the church in their marriage,” it states among other reasons.

The presbytery also approved a recommendation that asks the 2014 General Assembly to issue an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) on marriage (W4.9000) to affirm pastoral discretion in performing marriage ceremonies, stating that clarifying the PCUSA constitution in such a way “will contribute to the peace and unity of the church.”

The text of the proposed AI reads:

Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God (W-6.3001, 6.3010) in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology. Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the place where the couple seek to be married, teaching elders* have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform. Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, if approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Authoritative Interpretation of this section by the 203rd General Assembly (Minutes 1991, at 21.124-128), and the subsequent Authoritative Interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it, are withdrawn and replaced with this Authoritative Interpretation.

Heartland’s recommendation for an AI states that “The constitution protects a minister’s obligation and right to exercise pastoral discretion in matters such as whether or not to officiate at the marriage service of any particular couple.”


And more on marriage

The Presbytery of Lehigh has a different idea on what the PCUSA should do about marriage. It proposes an overture that, if approved by the General Assembly, would “prohibit teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders from presiding at the legal civil marriage of a couple, that is, solemnizing on behalf of the state, but permit them to bless covenant partnerships as they are called to bless, and to refrain from blessing as they are called to refrain.”

The overture (Ovt. 011) proposes extensive changes to the Book of Order’s section on marriage – W-4.9000-W-4.9009, including changing the words “Christian marriage” to “Blessing of a Christian Covenant.”

Lehigh’s overture contends that the “state has framed issues of marriage, and the church has been forced to respond. Teaching elders in a particular jurisdiction may find their freedom of conscience threatened by current law, or challenged in anticipation of changes to the law. Like-minded sessions may find themselves facing discontent and fervor over an issue largely settled in the congregation they serve because of the settled, or unsettled, condition in the state where they live. Whole denominations may be torn asunder because of questions asked solely in the legal and legislative branches of government.”

The overture’s rationale calls this situation “untenable. While the state’s authority is to be respected in its sphere … the church’s role in marriage has waxed and waned over the centuries, frequently under the influence of the state. Without diminishing the role of the state in its determinations, the church must consider its role as an agent of the state.”


More overtures submitted for GA consideration

The 2014 General Assembly’s business web site – PC-biz – includes the list of the 21 overtures submitted so far for consideration by the General Assembly. The first eight overtures on the list were submitted before a new rule went into effect requiring a second presbytery’s concurrence.

As of July 7, 2013, all presbytery overtures must receive a concurrence from at least one other presbytery before it will be submitted to the General Assembly. Only four of the overtures in the list below that are required to have concurrences have one at this point.

The individual overtures, the presbytery that submitted it and any concurrences are listed below:

  • Ovt. 001: On amending G-2.0104b, by replacing “guided by” with “obedient to” in reference to Scripture and the confessions, East Tennessee Presbytery
  • Ovt. 002: On amending G-2.0504b to require participation in the benefits plan of the PCUSA, Kiskiminetas Presbytery
  • Ovt. 003: On issuing a request to teaching elders to participate in the administrative costs of the church by paying per capita, Albany Presbytery
  • Ovt. 004: On directing the Board of Pensions in the distribution of pension benefits of church leaders and administrators of churches leaving the PCUSA, Tropical Florida Presbytery
  • Ovt. 005 : On amending G-3.0106 to allow presbyteries to limit payments of per capita, Detroit Presbytery, concurrence Western Colorado Presbytery
  • Ovt. 006: Amending G-4.0206a, regarding the sale or encumbrance of property given to a local congregation as a gift, Lake Michigan Presbytery
  • Ovt. 007: On taking meaningful action to reduce gun violence, National Capital Presbytery
  • Ovt. 008: On publishing the current list of churches certified as relief of conscience churches, National Capital Presbytery
  • Ovt. 009: On Amending G-2.0509, Renunciation of jurisdiction, Greater Atlanta Presbytery, concurrence Glacier Presbytery
  • Ovt. 010: On Amending G-2.0803, the call process and background checks, Greater Atlanta Presbytery, concurrence Glacier and Western Reserve presbyteries
  • Ovt. 012: On Amending G-2.0509, Renunciation of jurisdiction, Western Reserve Presbytery
  • Ovt. 013 : On reviewing General Assembly policy regarding the two-state solution in Israel Palestine, San Francisco Presbytery
  • Ovt. 014: On divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola, San Francisco Presbytery
  • Ovt. 015: On entering a two-year season of reflection on the plight of unwanted children, and appointing a special committee on abortion review, South Alabama Presbytery
  • Ovt. 016: On encouraging use of the code of conduct for the protection of children from sexual exploitation, New York City Presbytery
  • Ovt. 017: On Engaging Presbyterian to Witness for Palestinian Human Rights and for Ending the Occupation of Palestine, Grace Presbytery, concurrence by the Synod of the Covenant
  • Ovt. 018: On divestment from fossil fuel companies, Boston Presbytery
  • Ovt. 019: On Amending G-3.0301 regarding the minimum number of operating sessions and teaching elders in presbytery, Eastern Oregon Presbytery, concurrence by Boise Presbytery
  • Ovt. 020: On Amending G-3.0500 to give YAAD’s voice and vote and to rename them to “Youth Adult Commissioners, Covenant (S)


Related articles:

‘Calendaring’ toward Detroit and the 2014 General Assembly meeting of the PCUSA

The Layman Online’s 2014 General Assembly (PCUSA) news index

Coming to the 2014 PCUSA GA: Rainbow wedding rings and myths of ancient same-sex martyrs

A look ahead to the 221st GA in Detroit

Business for the 2014 General Assembly begins to accumulate

Paula R. Kincaid