By Tricia Dykers Koenig
Would it be permissible for the PCUSA to interpret and/or amend the Book of Order section on marriage to reflect the reality of same-gender marriage, even though The Book of Confessions uses the language of “a man and a woman”?
Based on the way the Confessions have functioned in the church – especially since 1967, when a collection of documents was substituted for the Westminster Confession – yes. The Book of Confessions is not a compilation of proof-texts from which to glean answers to questions not contemplated by the authors, and contains numerous examples of assertions that are no longer appropriate or necessary expressions of our faith. General Assemblies have taken actions in the past that are directly contradictory to the letter of the Confessions.
The General Assembly decides what is constitutional
At the last General Assembly, in Pittsburgh in 2012, those opposed to Presbyterian involvement in same-gender marriage argued at length that an amendment to the Book of Order replacing instances of “a man and a woman” with “two persons” or “the couple” would be unconstitutional, because it would conflict with the sections of The Book of Confessions that declare that marriage is between a man and a woman. Further, because Robert’s Rules of Order states that “No main motion is in order that conflicts with the by-laws (or constitution) or rules of the organization or assembly,” it was asserted that even considering such a recommendation from an Assembly committee would be out of order, absent a prior amendment of The Book of Confessions.
When the question was raised at the GA, the Moderator and the Stated Clerk called upon the Advisory Committee on the Constitution; ACC Moderator Paul Hooker responded on behalf of the Committee, pointing out that the question assumes that the Constitution is of a uniform character, and reminding the GA that the collection of documents in the BOC has many theological perspectives and internal differences; therefore its nature is as the primary repository of our basic theological commitments, and it cannot be treated as a rulebook. The ACC advised that it is not necessary to amend the BOC in order to amend a corresponding portion of BOO.
Some have continued to make the “unconstitutional” argument in post-Assembly articles in the Presbyterian press, insisting that the 2012 GA’s decision to consider a Book of Order amendment was an abandonment of the PCUSA’s commitment to being a confessional church.
One of the problems with that assertion is that it assumes an obvious answer to the question of whether or not something conflicts with the Confessions – a matter of interpretation. “A man and a woman” are “two people” and “ a couple.” Furthermore, the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States prior to Reunion had a section on marriage (Chapter 15) without any gendered language, and apparently nobody thought that that section was in conflict with the Westminster Confession held as the PCUS confessional standard.
Confessions are a help in faith and practice without precluding new understandings
Prior to the adoption of a Book of Confessions – in 1967 by the United Presbyterian Church (USA), the northern stream, and at Reunion in 1983 by the whole, reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – both the northern and southern churches had amended the Westminster Confession, though it was rare. Once a collection of confessions was adopted, we changed our relationship to confessions. One confession might be internally consistent – but several are obviously not. The 2002 General Assembly specified a Preface to be printed in the Book, and while the Preface does not have constitutional status, it does explain how the Confessions function for us; here’s an excerpt:
The creeds, confessions, and catechisms of The Book of Confessions are both historical and contemporary. Each emerged in a particular time and place in response to a particular situation. Thus, each confessional document should be respected in its historical particularity; none should be altered to conform to current theological, ethical, or linguistic norms. The confessions are not confined to the past, however; they do not simply express what the church was, what it used to believe, and what it once resolved to do. The confessions address the church’s current faith and life, declaring contemporary conviction and action. [emphasis added]
As this Preface points out, we no longer take the step of amending the historical confessions when portions of them no longer reflect our understanding of God’s will. Since the adoption of The Book of Confessions, the only changes have been the addition of the Brief Statement of Faith, and differing translations of existing documents – the Nicene Creed, and the pending fresh translation of the Heidelberg Catechism.
When the church decided on a collection of confessional documents, it acknowledged that there would be internal contradictions, and some passages that do not express current theological and ethical commitments. For example, women were already being ordained at the time of our adoption of the Scots Confession, but we did not remove this phrase: “indeed they even allow women, whom the Holy Ghost will not permit to preach in the congregation to baptize.” [3.22] The Brief Statement of Faith later gave confessional status to women’s ordination, but the Book of Order and PCUSA practice were inconsistent with The Book of Confessions in the meantime, and the Confessions are still in conflict with one another.
This paragraph of the Preface to the BOC was added at the direction of the 2004 GA:
Specific statements in 16th and 17th century confessions and catechisms in The Book of Confessions contain condemnations or derogatory characterizations of the Roman Catholic Church… While these statements emerged from substantial doctrinal disputes, they reflect 16th and 17th century polemics. Their condemnations and characterizations of the Catholic Church are not the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and are not applicable to current relationships between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Catholic Church.
Note that the General Assembly in 2004 specifically chose to assert that portions of the Confessions are no longer binding on modern Presbyterians, if they ever had been – despite the fact that the authors of the documents in question were deliberate in making these statements. The 2004 GA took this action without attempting to amend the Confessions. Apparently that motion was in order, and the Church has happily been living with the result.
These examples illustrate the fundamental flaw of treating the Confessions as “a rule of faith and practice” rather than “as a help in both,” as Westminster teaches. [6.175]
Confessional authority on marriage must be understood in context
Anticipating that this question would arise again at the 2014 General Assembly, current Moderator Neal Presa convened a group of theologians in December to consider the issue of how the Confessions function in the PCUSA, and the confessional, constitutional, and ecclesial implications of the marriage overtures coming to this summer’s Assembly; you can find some of the presentations at http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ecclesial-and-ecumenical-ministries/gamoderator/second-conversation-unity-difference-princeton/, and perhaps more will be added.
Most of the presentations affirmed that the Confessions do have authority for us today even though we do not conform to them in every detail – they are not to be dismissed as “a museum, housing mildly interesting artifacts of what people used to believe,” nor on the other hand used as “a law code”:
It is true enough that the confessions articulate standards of faith and life, and it is true enough, as our Book of Order states, that while confessional standards are subordinate to Scripture, “they are, nonetheless, standards” that may not be “ignored or dismissed.” It is also true enough that the confessions were never intended to be registers of discrete elements that can be extracted from the whole and employed as incontrovertible precedent in a legal brief. Should the Second Helvetic Confession’s mention of the perpetual virginity of Mary dictate our understanding of incarnation? Or should the church’s social witness conform to the multiple protocols for the relationship between superiors and inferiors in the Larger Catechism’s treatment of the fifth commandment?
[Joseph D. Small, “Confessions and Confessional Authority in the Reformed Tradition,” http://oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/confessions_and_confessional_authority.pdf]
About the Confessions and marriage, Joe opined:
I think that focusing on the confessions as a way of dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage is a dead end – because… my reading is… those few places in the confessions that mention marriage assume that marriage is between a man and a woman because it’s the only thing they could have imagined. I don’t think they teach that; I think they simply assume it… The issue is not settled either by liberals or conservatives by using either the Book of Confessions or Scripture as law books.”
Charles Wiley’s presentation at the December event made this observation:
As far as I can tell, while many pastors and ordinary Presbyterians have spent considerable time reflecting on marriage, planning wedding services, discerning God’s will for troubled marriages, and while many books on pastoral care or Christian ethics have considered marriage in depth, as a tradition marriage has risen to a crucial issue for the church only four times: 1) at the time of the Reformation when we rejected mandatory celibacy for ministers and even encouraged marriage as good for the church’s ministers and good for everyone in society; 2) in colonial New England when there were disputes about the place of the magistrate and the church in establishing a marriage; 3) in the 1950’s to early 80’s when the question of divorce, particularly of ministers, came to the fore; 4) and in our current context when the somewhat unexpected question of same gender marriage has come before the church with particular force. [http://oga.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/princeton_marriage_presentation.pdf]
The question is raised – when the Confessions mention marriage, what was the presenting issue? Context shows that same-gender marriage was not in the minds of the authors; as a recent decision of a Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission, finding that a minister in a same-gender marriage was not guilty of offenses, points out, the concern in several instances was originally polygamy. [See http://presbyterianpromise.org/, News from 2013.]
Yet as demonstrated by the disclaimers from the 2004 GA about Presbyterian attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church, even if it could be shown that the “man and woman” phrase was intended to address the issue of same-gender marriage, that does not necessarily settle the matter. Presbyterians seeking to be faithful today must take seriously the confessional witness (and Scripture, of course), and listen also to the Spirit speaking in our own time, as we discern the will of Christ and pursue the course that best reflects the Gospel.
Clearly, the 221st General Assembly (2014) will be within its rights to consider and approve a change in the PCUSA’s stance on same-gender marriage by interpreting and/or amending the Book of Order, without threatening the place of The Book of Confessions in our common life.