Thoughts on Officiating at Same-Gender Blessing Services

The Board of the Covenant Network has analyzed the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decisions in cases where teaching elders have been involved in same-gender marriages, and offers thoughts for those who are concerned with providing pastoral care that is consistent with the GAPJC’s authoritative interpretation of the PCUSA Constitution:

Blessing Same-Gender Relationships
Advice from the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

May Presbyterian ministers officiate at weddings of same-gender couples?
May Sessions give permission for such ceremonies to be held on their premises?

Now that 13 states and the District of Columbia have authorized same-gender couples to enter into lawful, civil marriage, and other jurisdictions are considering similar measures, these questions have become more common and more pressing.

There are no certain, straightforward answers to these questions. Teaching elders and Sessions should carefully weigh the following considerations if they are asked to participate in or make their facilities available for a licensed same-gender wedding ceremony.

There is no definitive authority comprehensively addressing issues arising with same-gender wedding ceremonies, but decisions in church courts have not looked favorably on Presbyterian ministers officiating at such ceremonies. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) has addressed same-gender unions and marriages five times over the past dozen years.[1] It has repeatedly observed that the Constitution nowhere expressly addresses same-gender relationships. In the absence of a definitive description or ruling, the Constitution’s definition of Christian marriage as between “a man and a woman” (W-4.9001) has been called upon to provide the basis for evaluating conduct concerning same-gender ceremonies. The GAPJC has recognized this provision in the Book of Worship was not designed to address the questions now being pressed.[2] Nevertheless, in the absence of direct address to these questions, the definition has generally been used to weigh against same-gender wedding services being conducted by teaching elders or hosted by Presbyterian churches.

Some pastoral acts have been affirmed as permissible:

  • Teaching elders may hold a religious service to bless a same-gender union, including the union of a couple that has been civilly married, and Sessions may authorize the use of church facilities for such a purpose.  Such a ceremony, however, must be liturgically distinct from traditional PCUSA liturgies of marriage, such as those found in the Book of Common Worship.  The GAPJC decisions have not explained what constitutes a sufficient liturgical distinction, but in the view of the Covenant Network, the GAPJC likely will honor any good faith effort to avoid hallmarks of the traditional Christian marriage service (e.g., as in the concluding pronouncement of marriage).
  • Teaching elders may participate in a civil ceremony of marriage for a same-gender couple.  Nothing in the Constitution or polity prohibits a teaching elder from signing a legal certificate or license of marriage or acting as a witness to the civil marriage.[3]  The Commission has made clear that the Directory for Worship only applies to services “conducted under the auspices of the PCUSA.”  McNeill, at 3.  Teaching elders also may provide pre-marital counseling to a same-gender couple to the same extent as would be expected with a traditional dual- gender marriage.  Such counseling probably should include information concerning the PCUSA’s definition of Christian marriage.  Teaching elders (and others) may refer accurately to the couple as “married,” so long as they do not state or imply that the civil marriage is recognized as a Christian marriage by PCUSA polity.   See McNeill, at 3 (PCUSA officer who was civilly married in a same-gender relationship did not commit an offense by describing herself as “married”).

Caution is urged here, however. Because same-gender marriages, civil or Christian, are highly controversial, public engagement with same-gender marriage ceremonies may provoke accusations and even charges.[4]  In the absence of clearer guidelines, teaching elders who desire to provide pastoral support to a same-gender couple and celebrate the couple’s decision to enter into a commitment of civil marriage may be vulnerable to accusations.

Some pastoral acts seem to be ruled out by GAPJC decisions:

  • Teaching elders may not represent or imply that a religious ceremony of blessing for a same-gender couple “is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages.”  Southard, at 4.  What this admonition means in practice, however, is far from clear if the religious ceremony coincides with the same-gender couple’s civil marriage (as is commonly the case with traditional dual-gender marriage).

In cases not covered by these rulings, there may be room for pastoral discretion, though the way is not entirely clear.  The hard and murky question is whether it is permissible for a teaching elder to combine a civil marriage ceremony with a service of religious blessing, even assuming the pastor is careful to distinguish the liturgy from a traditional service of marriage and not to imply or represent that the marriage, though legal, is not sanctioned by the PCUSA.  The GAPJC has never directly confronted this issue.[5]

The Covenant Network believes that a teaching elder may officiate at a civil marriage with a religious blessing without running afoul of the Constitution, provided that the officiant steers clear of traditional liturgical forms and issues a statement in connection with the service that sets forth the PCUSA polity.  This view is supported by the GAPJC’s observation that its authoritative interpretations are meant to avoid the misrepresentation that the PCUSA “recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church.”  Spahr (II), at 4.  If the PCUSA’s view of marriage is clearly represented, there would be no misrepresentation that the “marriage,” though legal and blessed by the Church, is not “an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity.”

Teaching elders who wish to proceed with the possibly permissible procedure described above (distinguishing a civil wedding with a religious blessing from a “marriage in the eyes of the church”) might steer clear of misrepresenting PCUSA polity in the context of a same-gender marriage/blessing by including the following statements made in the service or in the bulletin:

“According to the laws of the State (of _______) and the provisions of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we are gathered to bless the civil union of ___ and ___.   In all human relationships, we celebrate acts of commitment, respect, and love. So we come today with joy to recognize and bless this civil union as a sacred covenant.”

or

“We are gathered today in great joy to celebrate the love and commitment of _____ and _____.   With regret we acknowledge that the laws of _____ and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) do not recognize full marriage equality; yet we believe that this covenant is every bit as sacred as marriage, and commit ourselves to working for the day when there are no such distinctions…

or

“We are here today to celebrate a civil marriage under the laws of the State of__________ of          and               .  While we wish the Presbyterian Church sanctioned this as a marriage, and will work for the day it does so, we intend to rejoice with this couple and support their commitment, love, and mutual respect just as we rejoice with and support all who make vows of faithful love and commitment in this church.”

            We encourage ministers to work with couples to be creative in developing services that reflect and honor their relationships.  There are some suggestions, which might be adapted, in a volume published by Westminster John Knox in 1995:  Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship, Ceremonies, and Celebrations, eds. Kittredge Cherry and Salmon Sherwood.  Other resources are listed at

Although the Covenant Network believes that such a service is defensible under the Constitution, in many Presbyteries where same-gender marriage remains highly controversial, the act of providing an ecclesiastical blessing that merges with the civil marriage may provoke an accusation and a charge.   Thus, the officiant may want to consider a safer strategy:  separating the permissible religious blessing from the civil marriage.   For example, the pastor or others could hold a civil ceremony to attest to the marriage and sign the license followed by a service of blessing.   The Office of the General Assembly indeed has advised that such an approach poses less risk of judicial charges.[6]  The same admonitions would still apply – that the service of blessing must be liturgically distinct and that marriage must not be held out to be an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity.

Finally, for those who reject applying the fine distinctions suggested above, but who instead decide to provide the same service of marriage to same-gender couples, accusations and charges likely will come.  It is likely, however, the practical consequences from such a charge would not be severe.  Experience from other cases has been that Investigating Committees and Prosecuting Committees will apply only the mildest form of discipline, a Rebuke, to teaching elders who are found guilty of the offense of officiating at a disapproved same-gender wedding ceremony.

Prepared by Timothy Cahn, Esq., and the Board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.


[1] See Pby of Newark v. McNeill, (2012), Disc. Case 221-02;  Spahr v. Pby of Redwoods (2012), Disc.Case 220-08 (Spahr 2); Southard v. Pby of Boston (2011), Disc. Case 220-02;  Spahr v. Pby of Redwoods (2008), Disc. Case 218-12; Benton v. Pby or Hudson River, (2000) Rem. Case 212-11.  A brief history of the rulings is available here: http://covnetpres.org/2013/02/a-pastoral-emergency/.

[2] The GAPJC has expressed concern over the lack of clear authority addressing same-gender marriages.  The Commission recently observed, “In light of the number of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious.”  McNeill, at 5.

[3] Marriage fundamentally is a matter of state law.  The civil laws of all fifty states authorize religious ministers to act as an agent of the state to solemnize the marriage.  One would be well-advised to consult the civil law of the jurisdiction where the same-gender marriage is contemplated to determine whether or not a denomination’s view of its ministers’ authorization to perform Christian marriage under ecclesial rules has any impact on the standing of the minister to be the State’s agent in solemnizing the marriage.  See Spahr II, at 5 (Concurring opinion by B. Bundick).

[4] PCUSA polity provides a very simple, accessible procedure by which any Presbyterian member may initiate disciplinary proceedings against a teaching elder, even one located in a different Presbytery.

[5]An Advisory Opinion issued by the Office of the General Assembly has suggested that a teaching elder may not “perform a same-gender ‘marriage.’”   The Advisory Opinion’s use of “marriage”  (the quotation marks are the OGA’s) in this context is ambiguous.  The Covenant Network agrees with this statement only assuming that the OGA, by “marriage,” means a “Christian marriage sanctioned by PCUSA polity.”  A PCUSA teaching elder may not officiate a same-gender marriage that is determined and represented to be a Christian marriage service authorized by the PCUSA.   Nothing in the Constitution, however, prohibits teaching elders from solemnizing the civil marriage of a same-gender couple, if authorized by the State to do so.
[6] The OGA opined: “The blessing of a union between two persons of the same-gender previously married in a legally permitted civil ceremony may pose less risk, provided that the officiant at the blessing ceremony does not in any way state, imply, or represent the blessing to be” a Christian marriage recognized by the PCUSA.

Comments

  1. A question: If this “Teaching elders may participate in a civil ceremony of marriage for a same-gender couple. Nothing in the Constitution or polity prohibits a teaching elder from signing a legal certificate or license of marriage or acting as a witness to the civil marriage.” is true how could it be that Tara Spuhler McCabe was censured by her presbytery for doing so?

  2. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder says:

    Is the Covenant Network suggesting defiance of the PC(USA) Constitution? The last paragraph states:
    “the practical consequences from such a charge would not be severe. Experience from other cases has been that Investigating Committees and Prosecuting Committees will apply only the mildest form of discipline, a Rebuke, to teaching elders who are found guilty of the offense of officiating at a disapproved same-gender wedding ceremony”.

    This suggestion says if you choose to act in definace, it is of no risk, except for a rebuke. Such action contrary to the polity of the PC(USA) is a rejection of these ordination questions:

    Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will
    you abide by its discipline?
    Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of
    the church?

    Anyone purposely acting in such defiance should be asked by the Council of their ordination whether they should peaceably withdraw from the denomination since they cannot uphold the ordination commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.