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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What God Has Joined Together

“Why are we here? We are here because, just like your families, we want the best for our children.”

Those were the words of David Wall, Presbyterian Certified Christian Educator, member of the administrative staff at Princeton Theological Seminary, partner in a same-gender couple – and father.

David told the General Assembly’s Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee of the daughter whom he and his partner, Bob, adopted as an infant, and who has now grown up to become a student at one of our Presbyterian colleges. He also told the committee how he and Bob recently got “unionized” according to New Jersey’s civil union law – or, he quipped, maybe the better word is “civilized.” That got a laugh.

David also spoke of how important it would be for him and his family, as Christians, to be not only unionized (or civilized), but actually married. He asked the committee to recommend that the Assembly adopt the majority report. That report actually takes no position on the question of same-sex marriage, but recommends further study of the issue, leaving the door open to change at some future time.

This was an open hearing time, with speakers pro and con. Sue Cyre, a longtime advocate of conservative causes, asked the committee to interpret Genesis 2 as a divine prescription of marriage between a man and a woman as normative for the human race. She urged the committee to support the minority report, which asks the Assembly to adopt a traditional statement defining marriage in just that way.

In the report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage that followed, Clayton Allard spoke movingly of how the members of that deadlocked group finally realized they had lost sight of the forest for the trees. In holding rigidly to their individual positions, they risked doing damage to the unity of the church as the Body of Christ.

“While we may not like or appreciate the views of others,” he observed, “we have no right to tell God who belongs at the table. Someone once said, ‘Anyone who starts to burn books ends, eventually, in burning people.’”

A covenant statement included in the committee’s majority report quotes the famous line from the marriage ceremony: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” It has a different sense, and a peculiar power, when applied to a church task force divided over the theological understanding of marriage.

Allard quoted Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39, as he advised his fellow Pharisees to leave the new proponents of Christianity alone, “because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Is it possible, I wonder, that the conservatives who are so theologically dug-in on this issue can find their way to a place where they can exercise the magnanimity of Gamaliel? Can they allow sisters and brothers in the faith whose conscience leads them in a different direction to co-exist with them in the same body, the Body of Christ?

As another special committee member presented the majority report, she brought up the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the high court declared “a fundamental right to marry.” Loving v. Virginia was a “miscegenation” case – a word hardly ever heard anymore that refers to interracial marriage. The couple asking the Supreme Court for permission to marry was an interracial couple: one African-American, the other white. Now, 43 years later, we have a U.S. President who is the product of such a marriage – one that would have been considered illegal under the old Virginia statute. It’s easy to see how far we have come as a country, in a comparatively short time. No one would dream of challenging the legality of interracial marriage today – and that’s as it should be.

Will it likewise be the case that, 43 years from now, no one would dream of challenging the legitimacy of a Christian marriage between two people of the same gender?

What happens (or does not happen) at this General Assembly may be a part of the answer to that question.

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