Good morning Mr. Moderator, commissioners and advisory delegates. I’m Ralph Carter, ruling elder, Third Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, Genesee Valley Presbytery. My Presbytery asked me to serve as an Overture Advocate because my life illustrates the background and harm caused by the current policy.
I am a gay man who grew up in the church believing the song “Jesus Loves Me.”
In 1980, I fell deeply in love with Van, who shared my Presbyterian roots. We became soul mates and before God pledged our mutual commitment to one another as life mates. The congregation where we worship embraced us completely and has supported my further service on committees of presbytery.
Four years ago Van suffered a long, debilitating illness. It was the loving care and practical help of the Deacons that sustained us. But the severity of Van’s illness was sobering and during one visit from our pastor, John Wilkinson, we asked if he would officiate at our civil marriage registration; to be there as our pastor, and witness to our faith community. John checked PCUSA policy and determined he could not officiate as our pastor, only attend as a friend.
We wept for John, as I’m sure he did for us, that he had to deny us his pastoral care at the time of our marriage to honor the decisions of those in the church who do not know us.
Last year, John led a spirit-filled worship service in celebration of our years of commitment. Over 400 friends, family and congregation members attended. Our joy was diminished only by the awareness that the wider connectional church that makes us Presbyterian could not rejoice with us in spirit.
I’m June Carlson, ruling elder, Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Oregon, Cascades Presbytery. Two years ago, the 220th General called for “serious study and discernment” on Christian marriage. My congregation took this to heart. We studied scripture. We prayed together. Our pastor preached on the meaning of Christian marriage. Our “serious study and discernment” led us to conclude that because our faith calls us to live out the inclusive message of the Gospel, we must work for marriage equality in the PCUSA.
Accordingly, this overture seeks to replace Directory for Worship section W-4.9000 with the language you have before you. The overture originated in Cascades Presbytery. Sixteen others concurred. We represent all these presbyteries. We are here to advocate for our belief that your committee’s affirmative recommendation of this overture to the assembly is a faithful action to take.
In our Reformed tradition, working in the world for peace, equality, reconciliation and social justice is an expression of faith. The Book of Order urges us to honor diversity in our church councils. So is it consistent with our heritage to listen to the voices of those who have been marginalized in society, and especially within the fellowship of the church. Jesus modeled inclusivity, welcoming all, excluding no one from his blessing. That inclusivity has made a claim on our hearts, causing us to see that the church’s blessing of the covenant of marriage is meant not just for some, but for all our members. The current Directory for Worship language excludes same-gender loving couples like Ralph and Van who are full, vital, faithful members of our Christian family.
Over the last several years, the pace of social change has accelerated dramatically. Many of us struggle to make sense of this change. Some of us are confused or dismayed by changes in patterns of family, church, and culture. But these changes also offer opportunities to follow more faithfully that path of radical love and inclusivity that Jesus demonstrated in his ministry.
Thank you for undertaking the important task before you. Our deep concern is for what will become of those faithful Presbyterians who have been very patient with our church while we engage in years of “study and discernment” about whether they and their families shall receive our full blessing. It’s likely that whatever your committee and this Assembly decide, some people will feel disappointed. There is no comfortable resolution to the question before you, but we believe this amendment is the way forward by which the church can minister inclusively to all God’s children, while preserving freedom of conscience for individual members and ministers.
In our collective presentation today, we will make our case based in scripture, polity, and church mission; and share examples illustrating how our church marriage policy limits our ministry to those who seek the church’s guidance and care in making the lifelong commitment of marriage.
I’m Tim Hart-Andersen, Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area.
As a pastor in a marriage equality state, our present interpretation of the Book of Order prevents my treating all members alike.
Don and Kent. An elder and a deacon. Together for over a decade.
Rick and Terry. Choir member and usher. In worship every Sunday. Together for thirty years.
Sara and Carrie. Young adults, new members with a daughter just baptized. Together for five years.
I serve a growing 3,000 member church in downtown Minneapolis. These are my people, and there are many, many more. They worship. They teach Sunday School. They give generously. They visit the sick and pray with the grieving.
And they love one another.
Nothing in scripture or in our reformed understanding of the wide-open grace of God stands in the way of their lifelong commitment being recognized by the church as marriage, except the way the church interprets the Book of Order.
When I do weddings I always talk about the Presbyterian emphasis on the covenantal nature of marriage. I talk about the gift of love enjoyed by the two being wed, and the Giver of that gift.
It breaks my heart as their pastor that our church will not allow me to use that language, rooted in our tradition, in a service of worship uniting parishioners in marriage. It’s time for us to catch up to the gift God has given them, to name it, and to bless it.
I’m Heidi Peterson, Teaching Elder in Heartland Presbytery, Kansas City.
The rhetoric of the contemporary marriage debate in society might predispose us to think that the question this overture seeks to answer is whether the church affirms or condemns any individual’s sexuality. But that is not what this overture is about. It does not render a moral opinion. It gives us new language that we believe will better serve the mission of the church today.
Specifically, this overture seeks to accomplish 3 things:
First, it will change the gender specific language of “a woman and a man” in describing a married couple, to remove the text that seems to fence same-gender couples outside the ministry of the church; and also seems to deny the church its traditional role in the marriages of some of our members. So rather than focus on the gender of a married couple, the overture emphasizes the heart of Christian marriage as covenant, making this rite of the church available to all loving couples, and freeing pastors to follow their conscience in ministering to committed couples.
Second, it will correct a factual error in the Directory for Worship language that states: “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man.” Currently 19 states plus the District of Columbia permit two people of the same gender to enter into a civil marriage contract. Assuming the traditional relationship between civil marriage and marriage celebrated by the church, in which ministers officiate both as pastors, and as agents of the state, this overture defends the right of teaching elders and sessions in any civil jurisdiction to follow their conscience with regard to their role in any couple’s wedding.
Third, it condenses pages of detailed wedding rubrics in accord with the New Form of Government which does not attempt to address “every uncertainty” but rather calls us to apply “the broad principles of our polity with creativity and flexibility” (Office of the General Assembly, “Overview” of New Form of Government).
GUIDANCE DRAWN FROM SCRIPTURE, CONFESSIONS AND THE REFORMED TRADITION
I’m Will McGarvey, Teaching Elder from San Francisco Presbytery, serving a Presbyterian-UCC union congregation.
The Word is fundamental to our faith, so we must consider what Scripture says about marriage. Biblical marriages come in many different forms. But there are three consistent, underlying principles throughout the Biblical record that inform the theology and practice of Christian Marriage.
First, in the Creation stories, we’re told that God wants people to live together rather than in isolation.
Next, God’s commandments enjoin us to live in community where we can mutually care for each other.
Last, emerging with the story of Ruth and culminating with Jesus, God invites all people to participate in the inclusive fellowship built on God’s boundless love.
Putting these principles into practice in particular cultural settings, the people of God developed several different patterns of marriage. Many of the original rules governing marriage were meant to ensure the survival of God’s people and to protect against outsiders, or “others,” who might subvert the faith of the people of Israel. Today, many of those ancient Biblical practices are forbidden, unnecessary or understood as outmoded. Broadly and Biblically stated, scripture bears witness that all who trust in Christ stand in the circle of God’s grace and scripture charges us as believers to do justice, act with kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6.8)
In light of these enduring principles, the concept and practice of Christian marriage has been redefined often in response to changing cultural norms. People of faith have interpreted the institution of marriage and adapted to the prevailing customs as they discerned God speaking to their time. Yet we have not wavered from the Biblical principles of fellowship, community, family, and inclusiveness, summed up in Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13: 34).
The meaning of marriage was at the heart of the Reformation. Martin Luther declared that priests could marry: a group to whom marriage was previously forbidden and now authorized – indeed, encouraged – to marry. John Calvin held that the regulation of marriage was not the province of the church, but of the state, with guidance from the church, of course, where the actual marriage ceremony was performed, and a minister acted as an agent of the state.
I’m Sharon Wright, Ruling Elder, Church of the Covenant, Boston Presbytery, also a federated congregation. Our Confessions prove that at different time Presbyterians have needed to clarify our understanding of marriage and reaffirm the Biblical principles. The Second Helvetic Confession cautions, for example, against making celibacy a mark of spiritual merit and explicitly condemns polygamy, a practice that is common in Hebrew Scripture. The Westminster Confession’s original provision on marriage concerned bigamy and stated that: “Marriage is to be between one Man and one Woman: neither is it lawful for any Man to have more than one Wife, nor for any Woman to have more than one Husband; at the same time” (Ed. 1647 Chap. XXIV.i).
The Advisory Committee on the Constitution has cautioned you to pay attention to a “perceived tension between Scripture, the Confessions, and the Book of Order” if the amendment we propose is adopted. Our response is that interpretation of Scripture varies widely among Presbyterians and the PC(USA) accepts this latitude of interpretation. The understanding of the Scriptural and confessional warrant for offering Christian marriage to same-gender couples is shared, not by all, but by a large percentage of Presbyterians. The principle that “God alone is Lord of conscience” (C6:109; F-3.0101a) protects both groups. But in the absence of a constitutional amendment like the one before you, the rulings of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission presently force teaching and ruling elders who share our inclusive understanding to betray their conscience by withholding marriage from many couples in their congregations. This amendment would unbind the conscience of everyone, leaving room for varied interpretations of Scripture and the Confessions. It reaffirms pastoral discretion about the advisability of marriage for any couple.
I am John Merz, teaching elder at First Presbyterian, Granby, MA, Southern New England Presbytery. On January 6, 2009, Bill Starkowski and I were married by law in the state of Connecticut. A Presbyterian minister officiated at the joyous celebration. Subsequently, that minister faced charges for performing the wedding. My husband and I were devastated and felt responsible for jeopardizing this pastor’s livelihood. He endured a public rebuke in front of his colleagues so that he could transfer to another Presbytery. I also was charged with violating my ordination vows because I took part in my own wedding. It felt like a witch-hunt, the accuser grasping at theological straws at my expense. At trial, I was stunned and disheartened to have to sit before a Permanent Judicial Commission comprised of presbytery colleagues with whom I had worked for over twenty years, those colleagues now forced into an adversarial role they did not want. My trial alone cost the Presbytery $4,500 and cost me $65,000 worth of pro bono services for my defense – limited, precious energy and resources that could have been directed towards evangelism, mission and ministry. Ultimately I was found not guilty, but the process took its toll.
I am still a proud Presbyterian – born and bred. I strive to be a Book-of-Order- abiding Presbyterian minister, and to be of service to my Presbytery, my congregation and all loving couples. I want to do it faithfully and without equivocation. So I long for this change in the Directory for Worship to language that includes me and my family.
I’m Scott Clark, Teaching Elder from Redwoods Presbytery and chaplain of San Francisco Theological Seminary. I’m also an attorney who has done hours pro-bono work defending cases like John’s, in which the only offense committed was love.
While Scripture and the confessions guide our lives as Christians, as Presbyterians we order our life according to the Book of Order and the constitutional process of interpreting it. Since states began recognizing the marriage of same-gender couples in 2004, the relationship between civil contract and covenant has come into question.
Because previous General Assemblies have failed to act, resolution of the question has fallen to the sixteen members of General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). This is the least representative process for addressing constitutional questions.
On the question of marriage, the church’s inaction has forced the GAPJC not merely to interpret the constitution, but to create policy. In February 2012, a sharply-divided GAPJC held, by an 8 to 6 vote, that PCUSA ministers are prohibited from celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples, thus creating prohibition of these marriages by judicial decision.
The six dissenting members the GAPJC wrote passionately about the injustice of the narrow majority decision. AND SEVEN of the members of that Court, including one who voted with the majority, implored this General Assembly to amend the Book of Order to correct this injustice.
Even one member of the majority opinion wrote, “By retaining that definition of marriage excluding same-gender couples despite the increasing number of jurisdictions recognizing same-sex marriage, the church creates a form of second class citizenship for faithful Christians, despite all the other places in the Book of Order where the full equality of persons regardless of sexual orientation is affirmed.” A member of the majoritywrote that. (Spahr v. PCUSA, GAPJC, No. 220-08. Feb. 20, 2013, pp. 5-6)
The current policy forbidding the marriage of same-gender couples in the PC(USA) is contrary to the expansive and inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ, and to important principles of non-discrimination in our Book of Order. In its “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” section, the Book of Order affirms that the church is to reflect the rich diversity of all people, specifically stating “there is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person” (F-1.0403). Rather, the church is to become:
in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit. (F-1.0404)
The church’s current policies excluding same-gender couples from the church’s pastoral care in marriage are contrary to these fundamental, constitutional principles of inclusion and non-discrimination.
You—on this committee and as General Assembly Commissioners— have the constitutional authority to correct these harmful policies. An Authoritative Interpretation affirming the Book of Order principle of pastoral discretion will bring immediate relief by reducing the threat of judicial action. Ultimately, however, the Book of Order needs to be amended. The process of amendment ratification by each presbytery’s vote is lengthy, so the General Assembly needs to begin now. Accordingly, with half the members of the GAPJC we ask you to recommend an amendment to the Book of Order that will clarify that the marriage of same-gender couples is not prohibited, and that pastors may – but are not required to — extend the church’s pastoral care in marriage to all people.
I’m John Pattison, National Capital Presbytery.
My church, Rockville United Church in Maryland is a union church. In 2001 we became a More Light Presbyterian church and an Open and Affirming UCC church. We added inclusive words of sexual orientation to our Statement of Faith. As a result, our church has been gifted with new members, gay and straight, singles and couples, who joined because of our Christian commitment to inclusivity. In the past two years, we have welcomed 70 new members, increasing our membership by 30% and our average attendance on Sunday to 135. Our new members have added life, energy, and resources for the mission of our congregation.
We have witnessed five marriages of same-gender couples. For the first time, these couples have the blessings, rights, privileges, and responsibilities that my wife and I have. The first wedding was for two men who had been together for 25 years. They had had a commitment ceremony long ago, not thinking they’d ever be able to marry. The exuberant and affirming cloud of witnesses that packed our church included many of our congregation as well as relatives and friends from near and far. Tears of joy ran down everyone’s faces. For my wife Beth and me, this wedding reinforced the holiness, love and commitment in our marriage of 52 years.
But current Presbyterian policy cast a shadow over these weddings of same-gender couples—the worry that our pastor might face judicial action from the church, even though the weddings were legal in the State of Maryland. I long for the day when we can step out of that shadow and all can stand equally in the light of God’s love.
ADVANCING THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH IN SOCIETY
JOHN RUSSELL STANGER
I’m John Russell Stanger, teaching elder from New York City. The Book of Order reminds us that the sixth great end of the church is “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (F-1.0304). The church has a responsibility to think and act beyond itself, pointing to and naming the work of the Holy Spirit throughout all creation. Same-gender couples who seek to spend their lives together in love are not outside of this call.
Too often the church is the source of critical words about people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, particularly couples of the same gender. This in turn creates sorrow and shame in people’s hearts. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ; their homelessness is overwhelmingly caused by their families’ religious beliefs. The church’s mission is to proclaim Good News, not render judgment that causes harm. We are called to reform the church. We are called to exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
The loving relationships of couples such as those in the cases we have just presented testify to the church about the nature of the Loving God, who creates Life Abundant, and whose Spirit persistently moves in ways our denomination is sometimes slow to recognize.
Friends, this amendment, Item 10-02, expresses the loving inclusiveness that can bring healing, justice, order, and growth to our church. Adopted, it would make clear our belief that God’s gift of married love is for all couples, and that the church rejoices in, supports and blesses this gift. This General Assembly you have an opportunity to extend the loving pastoral care of the Presbyterian Church to thousands of women, men and families whom we are excluding from God’s gift of Christian marriage, and to bring our church into useful dialogue with the 21st century American context in which we live out our Christian witness.
The eternal Good News of Jesus Christ speaks to every age, addressing the specific situation of each time and place. The Bible shows how God’s message of justice, peace and love was understood by people in the unique circumstances of their time. Our Confessions illustrate how that same message was reinterpreted over time. Once again we now are faced with a new social reality. As the Presbyterian Church strives to fulfill our mission to Christ, our members and to society, we must proclaim the message of justice, peace and love entrusted to us, that it can be received by all as the Good News it truly is. We ask you to approve and recommend this item to the General Assembly.
We remain available to you if you have questions.
Thank you for your attention. May God bless and guide you in the work before you.
PRESBYTERIES & OVERTURE ADVOCATES, MARRIAGE EQUALITY AMENDMENT, OVERTURE 21, ITEM 10-02, GA 2014
- Cascades: RE June Carlson
- Albany: RE Terry Diggory
- Baltimore: TE Bill Hathaway
- Boston: RE Sharon Wright
- Cayuga-Syracuse: TE Earl Arnold
- Chicago: TE Alex Wirth
- East Iowa: TE Diane Monger
- Genesee Valley: RE Ralph Carter
- Heartland: TE Heidi Peterson
- Hudson River: RE Elise Lemire
- National Capital: RE John Pattison
- New York City: TE John Russell Stanger
- Redwoods: TE Scott Clark
- San Francisco: TE Will McGarvey
- Southern New England: TE John Merz
- Transylvania: RE Joe Paul
- Twin Cities Area: TE Tim Hart-Andersen