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

Amendment B fails – where does this leave us?

April 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

This past weekend, two presbyteries voted against Amendment B – the Book of Order amendment to G6.0106b that would have removed the fidelity/chastity rule – making it easier to ordain lesbian and gay people as deacons, elders or ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  This time around the vote was much closer than in the past, indicating a shift in cultural and scriptural beliefs on the subject.

I’m going to write two articles on this – this one and one to come.  Today’s article is about where we are left (in my personal interpretation) by the combination of this amendment failing and the changes to Authoritative Interpretations made by the 218th General Assembly in 2008.  The next article will be on where we should go from here politically, with my recommendations for the progressive, conservative and moderate factions.

What happened?

The 218th General Assembly took three important actions related to ordination standards:

1.  Removal of all prior Authoritative Interpretations.

As part of the same resolution that sent Amendment B to the presbyteries, the General Assembly stated:

Interpretive statements concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the 119th General Assembly (1979) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and all subsequent affirmations thereof, have no further force or effect.

That has the net effect of throwing out all prohibitions on gay ordination other than G6-0106b.  It also throws out all PJC precedents that are not based on G6-0106b.  We are left with the Authoritative Interpretation on ordination standards that was part of the PUP report, stating that ordination standards are not defined nationally, but that each ordination decision is a local decision and individual to the person in question.  Plus, there is one new AI ….

2.  Authoritative Interpretation on ordination standards

The General Assembly passed a new Authoritative Interpretation:

That the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve the following authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order:

the requirements of G-6.0108 apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).

Some call this a codification of “local option”.  I think it’s simpler than that.  It’s a codification of “individual option” – the classical Presbyterian idea that each ordination decision is made based on the individual to be ordained.  Each of us is sinful – none of us are perfect.  The question that Sessions and Presbyteries face is this – can this person do the job, is there a call, and are this person’s particular sins so heinous as to preclude their ordination?

It’s important to remember that each presbytery or session gets to make this decision based on the candidate in front of them.  And it’s also important to remember that this is done in person – with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

In a GA PJC case from earlier this year, the PJC made it clear that G-6.0106b was a mandatory standard in the Book of Order.  The decision practically warned that any future cases involving a clear departure from this standard (should it survive, which it has) would preclude ordination.

It is my sincere hope that this AI will stop the “fly-over” disciplinary cases that have been filed by the most extreme conservative members of the denomination.  Some cases have been filed by people who do not know the candidate, did not attend the meeting, and are at most only peripherally affected by the ordination decision.

3.  Amendment B
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The General Assembly sent to the presbyteries the following amendment to G-6.0106b:

b. Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.

I’ve only included the G-6.0106b amendment – there were corresponding amendments to G-14 regarding instructing Candidates on the rules.

This is the amendment that failed.  It was closer than ever (at this point 69-89 with voting continuing) but it still did not pass.  In my second post, I will talk about the climate that exists today to cause this near-success, and what that means for the future.

So Where are we now?

At this point, we need to turn to case studies.

Case 1 – a straight candidate for an ordained position, who is married and faithful to the spouse but unchaste at some point in the past (before marriage, perhaps even with the current spouse).  It is highly unlikely that this candidate will be asked about prior sexual practice.  It is also highly unlikely that the candidate will self-acknowledge this sin, or even consider it a sin.  If the issue does not come up, this person is ordainable.  If the issue does come up in the examination, the examining body would be required to decide whether or not the sin is a sufficient departure from standards.  Other bodies/people could only challenge through a disciplinary case alleging continuing conduct or lack of repentance.

Case 2 – a straight candidate for an ordained position is either married and unfaithful or single and engaging in sex.  This is a continuing practice.  It is highly unlikely that this candidate will be asked about prior or current sexual practice, unless someone has first-hand or hearsay knowledge.  It is also highly unlikely that the candidate will self-acknowledge this sin, or even consider it a sin.  If the issue does come up, the person is not ordainable.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a disciplinary case alleging conduct, or via a remedial case alleging insufficient examination.  As a practical matter, the remedial case could only be filed by a church member or other session against a session, or a member of presbytery or other presbytery against a presbytery.  The immediately higher governing body could also investigate and take administrative action.

Case 3 – a homosexual person who is celibate.  It doesn’t matter how it comes up, only that the celibacy is on the record of an examination.  This person is ordainable.  Other bodies/people could only challenge this decision by a disciplinary case alleging that the candidate lied about celibacy – if that were to happen it might be beyond the pale of what Presbyterians would accept from an investigation given that it would require proof of sex (people would be mad that privacy was invaded to the degree necessary to allege this).

Case 4 – a homosexual person who is not celibate, but who is not questioned about the issue during examination.  This person is ordainable, though there will be a disconnect between his/her personal beliefs or practices and the Book of Order.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a disciplinary case alleging conduct (also very ugly), or via a remedial case alleging insufficient examination.  See above for who could file a remedial case.

Case 5 – a homosexual person who is not celibate, and who is questioned during examination and makes a statement as such.  This also fits the case where a homosexual candidate is self-affirming of practice.  This person is not ordainable.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a disciplinary case (based on self-acknowledged conduct) or a remedial case alleging violation of G-6.0106b.  This is the biggie – and the likely test case.  I believe that no matter what the presbytery or synod do, the GA PJC will rule that the person is not ordainable – based on their early warning in a prior case.

Case 6 – a person who states that they refuse to abide by G-6.0106b when making ordination decisions for other people.  This person is ordainable or not, depending on the ordaining body’s decision.  Other bodies/people could challenge this decision by a remedial case alleging violation of G-6.0106b.  I believe that such a case would ultimately fail at the General Assembly level.

Case 7 – a person who states that they refuse to ordain others who are elected who would violate G-6.0106b.  This person is NOT ordainable normally as a solo pastor, based on the new Authoritative Interpretation, because the person is unable to perform the constitutional function of ordaining a local officer.  I believe that special arrangements could be made with a temporary leave from their position and a Stated Supply in the extremely unlikely case that a solo pastor with such convictions would be leading a congregation that chooses to elect such an officer.  However, it would show a serious problem between the church and pastor and should come to the Committee on Ministry’s attention.  There are many other roles that this person could perform in an ordained role (pastor or associate pastor on a multi-clergy staff, teaching, mission, etc) that would not cause this problem.  If this ever happens, it’s gonna be a mess.

It should be noted that nothing above REQUIRES that a governing body find that a person is ordainable.  I believe that case 3 would be an interesting case if an elder-elect were refused ordination solely on G-6.0106b grounds – I don’t know which way the GA PJC would rule but I believe it would rule that the person should be ordained.  In all of the other cases where the person is ordainable the ordaining body has sufficient latitude in their decision to decide to ordain or not without challenge.

I know of at least one very chilling case where a person was not voted ready for ordination by his Committee on  Ministry based solely on the fact that he wanted a gay preacher of another denomination to give the charge at his ordination.  This action, and others like it nationwide, make me very concerned for the ability of the church to remain together.

New Member Class – Day 2

October 28, 2006 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

Today, we all struggled out of bed into the driving rain and heavy winds to reach Lawrenceville Presbyterian and the 2nd day of new member class.  At one point on Route 206 the road was partially flooded due to leaves blocking the storm drain.

This time, we started with each person telling a story of their experience with church.  Most (if not all) were positive stories of their experiences in church during a previous life.  A few were non-church stories involving church camp or even a special Christian performance.  A surprising number of people indicated a fondness for the formal ritual of church, but this isn’t surprising as many of the group had experience in a Roman Catholic or Byzantine Rite church (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc) church.

After that we took a tour of the church buildings.  Normally this would end the second session, but Temple Micah (a Jewish temple sharing the church building on Fridays and Saturdays) had a Bat Mitzvah  (congratulations, Rachel!) scheduled for the morning so we had to get our tour in early.  We heard about the history of the church and saw most of the church rooms.

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Next week will be on stewardship and we will do Lectio Divina.  Pastor Jeff will be in Israel and Palestine with a presbytery group, and won’t be able to attend.  Joan Semenuk will be joining us.

There were a few faces missing this week.  I’m hoping that they were unable to make the class rather than deciding not to join.  We were also blessed with whole families this week because the terrible weather cancelled soccer games.