Letter to PCUSA Special Committee on Same-Sex Marriage

September 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Religion 

The last PC(USA) General Assembly created a committee to study the issues of civil union and same-sex marriage and to make a report and recommendations to the next General Assembly, which meets in June 2010.  They recently released a preliminary report without recommendations, and requested comments and recommendations from all parts of the denomination.   Information on how to submit comments is found in this press release.

I have written a letter to the committee and e-mailed it.  I present it below for you to read.  You are welcome to comment on it here, but I would also suggest sending your own opinion to the committee.

September 29, 2009

General Assembly Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage
Presbyterian Church (USA)
100 Witherspoon Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Dear Members of the Committee,

I would like to begin by thanking you for your service on this committee, with its very difficult charter and topic.  Your ability to work together amicably gives me hope for the resolution of troubles in our denomination.

I am a member and deacon at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville NJ.  I would like to make it clear that my words represent only myself, and not the opinions of my congregation.

I would also like to make my position on these issues clear before making the requested recommendations and comments on your document.  I am strongly in favor of the position that homosexuality is not a sin, and therefore believe that gay people (I use that term to include all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people) should be ordained in Presbyterian churches and should be able to fully participate in Christian Marriage in the PC(USA) as defined in your document.

I would like to add some on-the-ground information to your knowledge.  Here in New Jersey the law provides for civil unions for gay couples.  An analysis of the implementing statute shows that those civil unions were intended to be identical to civil marriage in all but name – the statute clearly shows an intent to define these relationships as equal to marriages in all parts of State Law.  Our experience has been that while these rights are often granted, there are cases where through ignorance or intentional acts those rights are denied.  This includes denial of visitation in hospitals and denial of medical benefits for civil union partners because those benefits are provided under the ERISA law.  The interim report of the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission http://www.state.nj.us/lps/dcr/downloads/1st-InterimReport-CURC.pdf details these issues.

I, too, believe that our denomination is not yet of one mind on this issue.  I do not believe that we will ever be unanimous on nearly any issue, but I do believe that we will someday – through a move to agree or through departures – form a concrete opinion on gay marriage that may be implemented throughout the denomination.  We are in that “middle time” that always accompanies the discernment of proper interpretation of Scripture in the face of new information and new revelations by the Holy Spirit.

One question before us is this:  Will we choose to inhibit those new ideas as being contrary to some people’s interpretation, or will we try them out as expressions of others’ interpretations before ultimately accepting or rejecting them?  At various times in our history we have done both and someone is always unhappy.
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Another problem that our current rules and policies create is the Catch-22 situation of both affirming the right of gay couples to civil unions (216th General Assembly in 2004) and prohibiting them from exercising those rights in the church.  We have told them on the one hand that we WANT them to form life-long partnerships between two people and that they CAN’T do so inside the church.  In this we act to drive a wedge between the church and those couples.  Whether or not you support gay marriage in the church, I think that we can all agree that driving people farther away from the church and farther away from God is a bad idea.  Those who oppose homosexuality lose the ability to influence these men and women, and those who are in favor of gay rights lose the ability to support stable families.

Last, we have long affirmed the right of our members and leaders to differ and still be faithful.  We have also placed the decision-making power over individual marriages with Ministers of the Word and Sacrament (on whether or not to perform the ceremony for a given couple) and Sessions (on whether or not to allow the ceremony to take place within the building).

Therefore, I commend the following recommendation to the committee for action:

That the Committee recommend to the General Assembly an Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order as shown below:

  1. That the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 is advisory and does not constitute a restriction on the performance of marriages or civil unions between members of the same gender in those states of the United States of America that permit them by anyone authorized by the Book of Order and the state to perform marriages (W-4.9002, G-14.0562d).
  2. That the definition of marriage in W-4.9001 is advisory and does not constitute a restriction on the use of church property for marriages or civil unions between members of the same gender in those states of the United States of America that permit them as long as they are authorized by the Session using similar procedures as those used for heterosexual marriage (G-10.0102d,o).
  3. That no Minister of the Word and Sacrament or Commissioned Lay Pastor is required to perform a marriage or civil union that the Minister or CLP feels is contrary to their conscience. (W-4.9002)
  4. That no Session is required to allow the use of church property for a marriage or civil union that it feels is contrary to its conscience. (G-10.0102d,o)
  5. That no Presbytery or Synod may pass a rule restricting the Ministers or Commissioned Lay Pastors or Sessions within its jurisdiction from performing or allowing the use of property for a marriage or civil union, due to the freedom of conscience protected by the Book of Order and our polity (G-1.0305, G-6.0108, Bush et al v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh – Remedial Case 218-10).
  6. That any part of any prior Authoritative Interpretation or General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission opinion contrary to this Interpretation no longer has force or effect.

It is the intent of this Authoritative Interpretation to provide a compromise position.  This would expand the definition of Christian Marriage to include those between members of the same gender, but would not require any Minister or Session to be involved in such a ceremony.  Since marriage is not explicitly required for to perform any function in the church, it is not necessary for someone who does not support same-gender marriage to recognize such a marriage performed by another Minister or in another church.  There is a strong case that ordination requires a very specific type of marriage, but it is unlikely that a Session or Presbytery would find an officer-elect being examined to be acceptable due to their actual or presumed sexual practice if they were concerned about that party’s involvement in a same-gender marriage or civil union.

I thank you for your time and consideration and apologize for this letter exceeding the requested 1000 words.  I wish you well in the remainder of your work.

Yours in Christ,

Mark Smith