Presbyterians’ procedural problems

dividedBy Joseph D. Small

The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be remembered for its approval of same-sex marriage, but its most lasting effect may be the decisive victory of proceduralism—the displacement of substantive consideration by parliamentary process in the service of prevalent opinion. The church’s reliance on legislative procedures produces, but decisions do not necessarily signify agreement. Presbyterians are divided on a number of important matters, but proceduralism overrides differences by simplifying issues, hastening legislative decisions, and producing winners and losers.


Marriage and the Church’s Constitution

The last two decades have marked a dramatic shift in American public opinion about the place in American society of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Many polls show a growing majority of Americans approves of same-sex marriage, and so it comes as no surprise that the Presbyterian General Assembly does as well.

What is (mildly) surprising is the two-fold way the General Assembly acted—first by an authoritative interpretation of the church’s constitutional definition of marriage as between “a woman and a man,” and second by a proposed amendment to alter the constitutional definition. The PCUSA constitution is composed of two parts: The Book of Confessions (eleven historic and contemporary creeds, confessions, and catechisms) and the Book of Order (rules and guidance concerning governance, worship, and discipline). Oddly, the current Book of Order defines marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man” before going on to state that, “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 . . . a lifelong commitment made by a woman and a man to each other, publically witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.” In the PCUSA constitution, marriage as a generic, civil contract precedes and encompasses what marriage means for Christians.