On February 20, 2012, a deeply-divided GAPJC affirmed the rebuke of the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr for having performed marriages for same-gender couples. We stand in solidarity with Rev. Spahr, and with all teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders who desire to extend the church’s celebration, recognition, and nurture to same-gender couples just as they do to heterosexual couples in civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage is authorized.
Though pastors have considerable latitude in officiating same gender unions, this most recent decision re-emphasizes that pastors must not represent that same gender unions are marriages recognized by the PCUSA, even when they are civil legal marriages. As we have long advised, the GAPJC’s authoritative interpretations going back to 2000 require pastors to make clear the union’s status under PCUSA polity. A pastor could provide this clarification as a statement of solidarity rather than a legalistic disclaimer. For example, the pastor might declare at the beginning of the service that “While we lament that the Presbyterian Church does not regard this relationship as a marriage, we pledge to support and nurture this couple in their commitment just as we support all whom we marry,” and/or add similar language to the bulletin.
Of course, each state is different in its requirements, and officiants need to focus carefully on the secular (as well as ecclesiastical) rules in deciding how to proceed. Covenant Network stands ready to support clergy who are requested to preside over services that bless these relationships in states where such marriages are legal.
Our church’s highest court has been forced to confront the issue of same-gender marriage services at least four times over the past 10 years, producing many dissenting and concurring opinions. Thus, even at the highest levels of the PCUSA, there is persistent disagreement – compelling evidence that the current Constitution can be, and is, interpreted very differently. While some have challenged authoritative interpretation as a legitimate means of proceeding, and have argued that only a constitutional amendment would be proper, this case makes clear that authoritative interpretation of our Constitution’s provisions is a proper means of addressing these pressing issues.
We thus urge the 220th General Assembly (2012) to issue an authoritative interpretation making clear that teaching elders and commissioned ruling elders may perform same sex marriages, where civil law provides for those, without fear of discipline.
Mary Lynn Tobin and David Van Dyke, Co-Moderators
Covenant Network of Presbyterians