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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Almost, But Not Quite, on Same-Gender Marriage

Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues chair the Rev. Aimee Moiso told the Assembly, as she began her report, how her committee has received urgent, impassioned entreaties from Presbyterians from every part of the theological spectrum.  Most of them, she said, told the committee the time is critical, so they need to act decisively – now – to settle the present uncertainty about the nature of marriage.

She said she believes her committee’s recommendation is the closest thing possible to a middle way, in this severely conflicted situation.

The Rev. Michael Wilson, from Donegal Presbytery, presenting a minority report, spoke of the value of listening to one another in “this tender time.” He declared that sending a constitutional amendment to the presbyteries does not constitute listening.

Opponents of the committee’s recommendation began by raising a point of order, asking the moderator to rule that the proposal is out of order, because it conflicts with several passages in the Book of Confessions on the nature of marriage. These opponents cited the fact that, in every situation in which the confessions speak on marriage, it is marriage between a man and a woman.

After receiving advice from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and from the Stated Clerk, the moderator ruled that the committee’s proposal is indeed in order – based on the understanding expressed in the Introduction to the Book of Confessions and in the Confession of 1967 that the confessions represent a broad historical heritage and are not meant to be cited as a rulebook. The Form of Government, by contrast, is meant to be used in such a way.

I predict that the usual anguished voices from the conservative side of the church will decry this ruling, claiming that it holds the Book of Order up as a higher authority than the Book of Confessions, and demonstrating that the PC(USA) has strayed from confessional faithfulness into legalism.  I’m quite sure this is not what the Stated Clerk was saying.  In his comments, he made it clear that this is a matter of function.  In no way did he imply that this reverses the usual order of precedence that places the Scriptures first in authority, the Book of Confessions second, and the Book of Order third.

We Presbyterians, from the mid-20th Century onward, do not interpret either scripture or confessions in a literalistic fashion. Unfortunately, there are some among us who still believe that we do, and who believe that the highest form of authority is a literalistic interpretation.

There was a motion to appeal the moderator’s ruling.  It failed, but with only 70% support – a shockingly low percentage, given the fact that the church left a subscriptionist understanding of the Confessions behind more than a generation ago.

There is a human yearning for certainty in things spiritual, that sometimes finds idolatrous consolation in literalism, whether of scripture or confessions.

Then followed, for nearly an hour, a time of wrangling over various motions that would restrict debate on this issue. None of them succeeded, but collectively they all had the effect of burning up precious time, to little good effect.

When debate finally began in earnest, there were some moments of significant personal drama. A YAAD came out on the floor of the Assembly as a lesbian, speaking movingly for full inclusion of GLBTQ Christians who wish to have their committed relationships blessed by their church.  Another minister, a well-known activist, rose to admit that she is an “out lesbian,” and that she has performed a number of same-sex marriages and will continue to do so.

There was a question about the impact upon our relationships with our ecumenical partners, should we change our definition of marriage.  The Rev. Hunter Farrell of the General Assembly’s Mission Program spoke of the impact of our recent change in ordination standards on our relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Mexico.  That denomination responded by breaking relations with us. This led to the recall of nearly a dozen mission workers, and the closing or handing-off of numerous projects to ecumenical partners. This, too, put a personal face on the decision.

(Surprisingly, no one spoke up on the floor to point out that if, in fact, the universal acclamation of all our ecumenical partners is an essential criterion for every decision we make, nothing would change in the church, ever again. Someone has to be first.)

A woman minister spoke of her desire to perform the marriage of her gay son someday, and of her desire for an AI (Authoritative Interpretation) that would protect her from church disciplinary charges.  “I apologize in advance for costing the church tens of thousands in legal fees,” she said – not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

When it came time, at last, to vote on the minority report, it failed, but only barely: Yes, 323 (48%). No, 346 (51%).

Then there came a second minority report. Bill Thro, Ruling Elder from Eastern Virginia Presbytery, presented a report that was, if anything, slightly more conservative than the first.  Predictably, this one failed by an even larger margin: Yes, 266 (40%). No, 397 (60%).

Having survived those two energetic challenges, the committee’s recommendation at last came to a vote.  It failed: Yes, 308 (48%). No, 338 (52%).

Now, here’s the kicker: 75% of YAADs (Young Adult Advisory Delegates) voted yes. These young Presbyterians, ages 17-23, are heavily involved in their churches.  If three-quarters of these highly-churched young people want to see the definition of marriage expanded so as to include same-gender couples, then what about the legions of their contemporaries who presently have nothing to do with the church?  Polls by Gallup and other organizations reveal that approval of same-gender relationships is nearly universal among this age group. Will the Presbyterian Church have even the remotest chance of winning this generation without changing our definition of marriage?  And, since we’ve largely failed to attract the GenX and Millenial generations in significant numbers, there’s a real question about our long-term survival.

Not that this sort of demographic calculation ought to inform us, of course. We are Reformed Christians, people of the Book (Scripture) and the living confessional heritage that interprets it.  Yet, the theological progressives among us are by no means lacking in scriptural justification for their positions (although many conservatives would dispute that, believing not only that their interpretation is the only correct one, but denying that they themselves in fact do any interpreting at all). I fear that the conservatives’ dogged adherence to their interpretation to the exclusion of all others amounts to a scorched-earth tactic in the fields of the Lord, and that the next generations will have little interest in settling in such a barren landscape. They will go elsewhere.

After reconvening following dinner, the committee continued with an item of new business, that the church “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage in the two-year period” between this Assembly and the next. This was approved.

A further proposal asked the Assembly to issue an authoritative interpretation that, while not changing the church’s definition of marriage, would allow for immunity from prosecution under the Rules of Discipline for teaching elders and churches that conduct same-gender marriages in states where that is legal.  That failed, 307-334.

There was one more attempt to bring the AI idea to the floor, but that failed by an even larger margin of 76% to 24%.

This Assembly, therefore, will be a disappointment to those Presbyterians who would like to see a broadening of marriage to include every sort of couple. Considering that this is the first time this has been before the General Assembly as a real possibility, it does, in fact, represent  an extraordinary shift.  The vote margins this year have been so close that it seems likely that there will be some sort of change in 2014.
Can’t Everyone Just Get Along?

Recently, there was a news story reporting on the death of Rodney King, the African-American man whose brutal beating at the hands of white Los Angeles police officers sparked a destructive round of rioting.  One quotation that went down in history ass associated with Mr. King was this plaintive question: “Can’t everyone just get along?”

Based on what I’ve seen so far, this Assembly may go down in history as the “Can’t Everyone Just Get Along?” Assembly. After the ripples – no, rolling waves – of anxiety that have been crashing through the denomination ever since our change in ordination standards, this Assembly appears to be motivated from a deep-seated desire not to change anything.

One commissioner said it best: “This is not the season to have the church go through a long, arduous and divisive debate.” So far, the 220th General Assembly could well have adopted that statement as its motto.

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