By Brian Ellison
Change is all around us.
Control of the U.S. Senate has changed hands, representing the kind of political shift that is repeatedly part of shaping our history. Scientists have announced the newest evidence of climate change; 2014 was the hottest year on earth ever recorded. And just this week, the Supreme Court finally agreed to settle the matter of same-sex marriage–whether states may prohibit it and whether they must recognize marriages performed in other states.
And as happens after each General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA) presbyteries are well underway addressing another sort of change—they are voting on constitutional amendments, with the Assembly’s debates replicated in 171 microcosms around the country. Change comes when a majority vote in favor of an amendment. And sometimes things change because of the conversation—in attitudes, in a community’s spirit, in our relationships with one another—regardless of the vote’s outcome.
Among the amendments being discussed in the next few months is Amendment 14-F, which streamlines and updates the Directory for Worship’s description of marriage, lifting up marriage’s foundational purpose in individuals’ and communities’ lives of discipleship. Significantly, it would describe marriage as involving “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” updating (no longer accurate) language describing marriage as “a civil contract between a man and a woman.” In addition to offering greater clarity on the relationship between church and state, the new section offers a more Reformed understanding of what takes place in marriage, in which a couple marry each other by exchanging promises, not by being awarded a special sacred status that only the church can grant.
Together with fellow leaders, congregations, pastors and supporters of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians throughout the church, I am hopeful that the presbyteries will approve this amendment. What is on the line is far more than “winning” some votes, or joining in a broader societal debate about equality:
- At stake are fundamental Christian values. By honoring the marriages of all people, we lift up the value of covenantal commitment, which reflects qualities of the relationship between Christ and the church. We encourage demonstrations of faithfulness, which honor God’s faithfulness. We strengthen lives of discipleship through mutual support, encouragement and accountability. And we emphasize the role of the church in helping couples keep the promises it has witnessed.
- At stake is the quality and content of the Church’s mission. Across the theological spectrum there is general agreement that this change will come to our church eventually. Wrapping up the legislative phase of this conversation allows us to move forward together in mission—devoting our energy not to heated debates but to collaboration and mutual engagement on matters of evangelism, service, worship, theology and the rest of what the world sees when it sees the church.
- At stake are the lives of people. This is not an exaggeration. Families have left our congregations in droves—sometimes for other churches, but sometimes giving up on church altogether—because their desire to express love and faithfulness would not have been honored by their own church. It is time for our constitutional documents to acknowledge the lives—and valid faith—of all families, including the many families formed around same-gender couples in our churches.
My hope and my prayer is that change will come, and not just to the church’s Constitution. My hope that we will grow in the strength of our witness, our devotion to one another, and in the depth of our relationships. My hope is that we will honor the fullness of the very special relationship of marriage—and all marriages—more deeply than we ever have before. May this be the change we seek and the change we see.
Brian Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. (Updated January 2015. This post originally appeared in a different form on ecclesio.com in September 2014.)