By Brian Ellison
Clergy confidentiality. The uses of church property. Voting by email or on a conference call by presbyteries or sessions. How candidates for ordination are to be examined. The meaning of marriage.
They’re all more or less important pieces of church life and governance. They’re all matters where contemporary practice outpaced what was anticipated when the church’s constitutional documents were written. And they are all areas where General Assemblies have made statements—known as authoritative interpretations—about how the Book of Order is to be understood in light of new situations and changing realities.
This summer, we at the Covenant Network are encouraging the 221st General Assembly to make decisions that will deepen and enhance the church’s understanding of marriage—clarifying that its blessings are available to all people, including couples of the same gender. One way we hope the assembly does this is through an authoritative interpretation—a binding ruling by the church’s highest council about what the constitution does and doesn’t say. There’s a fair amount of confusion in the church about what an AI is… but there doesn’t need to be.
An AI is Normal, Common, Appropriate
Some have portrayed an authoritative interpretation as an unusual step, or some sort of abridgement of a full Presbyterian process. Nothing could be more inaccurate. The church’s constitution can be interpreted in two ways, both equally valid and deriving from the same authority: The Permanent Judicial Commission can issue decisions in particular judicial cases, or the Assembly can issue an AI. It is not unusual. The PJC is not a separate branch of government in our system; there is no constitutional crisis when one form of interpretation modifies or updates the other. Both bodies can and do freely speak for the General Assembly.
Every two years, the General Assembly issues authoritative interpretations on matters great and small. (The Annotated Book of Order, which is available online and a frequent tool of stated clerks, provides in its many notes ample evidence of the frequency and normalcy of the practice.) These do not require presbytery ratification votes. They are made with representation of the whole church, as the General Assembly includes commissioners from every presbytery. And the process includes ample opportunity for churchwide participation (including an early deadline for recommendations on constitutional matters and open hearings at the Assembly). By the time an Assembly issues an AI, it is rightly seen as a true exercise of the discernment of the whole church.
On the subject of marriage, some have objected that the Assembly has no business making such a ruling without the more involved process of an amendment to the Book of Order. While we do support an amendment as a way of ensuring the church’s long-term witness to full participation for all its members, we heartily disagree that an AI is somehow inappropriate on a topic as important as marriage. In fact, the first word the Assembly spoke with regard to same-sex marriage was—you guessed it!—an authoritative interpretation, issued in 1991, before same-sex marriage existed anywhere in the U.S. No one suggested at the time that the Assembly should be required to put the vote to all the presbyteries in the country. The Assembly had the authority and a worthy process for action, and it still does.
The reality is that the situation before the church with same-sex marriage is exactly the kind of situation an AI is designed to address. It is a situation that the Book of Order didn’t anticipate, but where its guidance can still be applied, with some interpretation. The Directory for Worship as currently crafted reflects a reality much different from our current context. We as a church can address our practice of marriage without changing our fundamental understanding of it, and an AI allows us to move forward in a faithful way.
An AI is Needed … Right Now
Every month, I hear from more pastors and elders on sessions, calling or emailing with the same problem: Two of their church members—active, wonderful church people, baptized, perhaps ordained as deacons or elders—love each other and want to express their commitment and faithfulness through making vows to one another in the presence of the congregation, invoking God’s blessing and offering themselves in marriage as an act of Christian discipleship. It is a serious problem because the pastor is faced with a crisis: Honor her ordination vow to serve the people, or honor the vow to abide by the church’s discipline as the Book of Order has previously been interpreted. Trying to do both in the present environment could put ministry and churches at risk.
An AI at this summer’s General Assembly would resolve this crisis. It would allow for weddings in states where same-sex marriage is legal; it would also ground that act in the same deep foundation set forth in the Book of Order that is offered for all other marriages: “a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family… a covenant… a lifelong commitment… publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith” (W-4.9001).
What happens if this Assembly does not act? It would be 2016 before the Assembly will convene again. In those two years, how many couples will leave the church or be forced to see something they regard as sacred vows necessarily expressed in a park or courtroom? How many ministers will have to look beloved members of their flock in the eye and tell them they can’t serve them, can’t treat them the same as their sisters and brothers in the next pew? How many pastors will be forced to choose between love and legalism, between the hearts of people and the stability of their ministry? How many of the church’s resources will be squandered in contentious judicial process? The General Assembly can fix this, and we hope it will do so this summer.
An AI Preserves the Conscience of All
One of the most disheartening conversations I had recently was with a friend who disagrees with me on these issues but who is committed to staying in the PCUSA. She expressed the hope that the AI would be defeated because it would be seen by evangelicals in the church as forcing same-sex marriage on them. Others have frequently expressed a fear—frequently named but never supported by actual threats—that in time churches and ministers would be forced to perform same-sex marriages.
This is not the goal, it is not the language proposed in any AI before the assembly, and it is not something the Covenant Network would ever support—in fact, the proposed AIs explicitly preserve conscience for those who do not approve of same-sex marriage. What we stand for is pastoral discretion and freedom—the ability of ministers to do what they always do with marriages, discerning the appropriateness of a marriage, offering counseling and prayer, and officiating at those weddings they feel are God-honoring and wise. No church would ever be required to host any wedding. No minister would be forced to perform one. On the contrary, this authoritative interpretation would best preserve our traditional affirmation that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” trusting the Spirit to lead our ministers and councils, on a case-by-case basis, to know what is best.
Since the approval of changes to the church’s ordination standards in 2011, no one has—to my knowledge—tried to force a session or presbytery to ordain anyone. They simply have had the freedom to ordain or install whomever they discern to be called, following examination on their gifts and lives of faith. In a similar way, this authoritative interpretation would free pastors and sessions to do what they have always done, exercise discretion in leading God’s people. Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage are free to remain opposed, living out their leadership and faithfulness in a different way.
The Covenant Network remains committed to both inclusion and unity. Our prayer for the PCUSA is that these necessary changes in how we live out our understanding of marriage will provide a way forward for us to be church together—preserving the conscience of all and living out our ministry in faithfulness and justice and grace.