Authoritative Interpretation on Marriage – Overture Advocates’ Presentation

Presentation on Background and Intent
Authoritative Interpretation Overtures 10-03, 10-04, 10-06
Civil Unions & Marriage Committee – 221ST GENERAL ASSEMBLY (2014)

Good afternoon, Mr. Moderator, commissioners and advisory delegates.  Thank you for your work at this General Assembly and your faithful commitment to the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I’m Brian Ellison, a teaching elder from Heartland Presbytery, which originated Item 10-03, and I’m here today with colleagues representing overtures 10-04, and 10-06 or concurring with one of these overtures –  26 overtures and concurrences in all – seeking a new authoritative interpretation of the marriage section of the Book of Order.  We are here to offer you background on these AI overtures, which have the most presbytery support given any request made to the General Assembly on any subject, and to speak to you about their intent.

Our presbyteries have sent us to you today because of a pastoral crisis in the church.  It is a crisis for pastors, and also for the pastoral care we give and receive in our church family.  Today nineteen states plus the District of Columbia have legally recognized same-gender marriage.  Pastors and sessions in 75 presbyteries in nine synods currently live where same-gender marriage is available.  As of today more than nine thousand clergy and four thousand sessions may find their consciences constrained by the disconnect between state laws and our church’s policy.

In our churches, members who were baptized as babies, who came up through our Sunday Schools, who committed themselves to Christ at their confirmation, who went off to college with the blessings and prayers of their church family, are now coming to us with a request:  that we give them the pastoral care they need when it comes time for them to pledge their lives to another in marriage.  Our same-gender couples expect this of us no less than all the others.  Throughout their lives we have told them that they are God’s own, that they are loved, not just by God, but also by us.  We have told them that they are worthy in God’s sight.  But under current Presbyterian rules, pastors and sessions are in a bind, because we have had to tell our same-gender couples who want to be married in their own church, among their church family, by their own pastor, that they are the exception, that their marriage vows may not be celebrated by us – that in the eyes of our church, their families are not sanctioned by God.

You can imagine the impact on these children of God, and how it has torn the fabric of our congregations.  Some of our members have gone to other denominations where they feel more welcome.  Others, especially young people, have just turned away from the church altogether.  According to a Pew Research Study done last year, seven out of ten young adults in our country believe that gay men and lesbians should be able to marry.  Perhaps our refusal to do so contributes to the opinion of ninety-one percent of so-called unchurched young adults that the church is homophobic.  How can we minister to them if they see us refusing pastoral care to lesbian and gay couples who are their friends and members of their family?

For eleven years, my partner Troy and I have remained with the church, still waiting to marry, choosing not to go elsewhere or to put my Presbyterian colleagues at risk by asking them to officiate a wedding that the church I love – the church to which I’ve devoted my life in service–would not embrace. But many others will not wait any longer. And many have left already.


Hi, I’m Mary Speers, pastor of the Setauket Church in Long Island Presbytery.  And this is Michael Kirby, pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Chicago Presbytery.  How did we get to this point?  In 1991, when civil unions were becoming available, although same-gender couples could not legally be married anywhere, the General Assembly issued an Authoritative Interpretation of our constitution which said that sessions “should not allow the use of the church facilities for a same sex union ceremony that the session determines to be the same as marriage ceremony,” and that, because the Directory for Worship describes Christian marriage as a civil contract between a woman and a man, “it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same-sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.” Note that even in 1991 the language said “should not” and “would not be proper.” The Preface to the Book of order states that “SHALL and IS TO BE/ARE TO BE signify practice that is mandated.” Likewise, “should” and “not proper” signal only a strong recommendation.

Our proposed Authoritative Interpretation is not asking you to amend the Book of Order – only to interpret the current provisions concerning marriage the same way we interpret the rest of the Book of Order—that something is mandatory only if it uses mandatory language.  The Preface to the Directory for Worship says:  “In addition to the terms defined in the Preface to the Book of Order, this directory also uses language about worship that is simply descriptive.”  A review of W-4.9000, the marriage section, reveals no language that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.  When those paragraphs were adopted back in 1983, there was no thought at all of marriage as otherwise.  The language was not meant to exclude anyone, but simply to describe what was.

During the past decade as same-gender couples began coming to teaching elders asking them to preside over their vows, some responded pastorally by doing the weddings.  In a few cases complaints were made against these ministers, and some of them were brought to trial in our Presbyterian judicial system.  In April 2008, in a case involving the Rev. Jane Spahr, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission pointed to the 1991 Authoritative Interpretation and to the description of marriage in our Directory for Worship,  ruling that “officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage.”   That was a new Authoritative Interpretation.  Since that ruling by the GAPJC in 2008, it has been against our church law to marry gay and lesbian couples.   Teaching elders who continue to do so are subject to being charged in church courts. Sessions are similarly prohibited from exercising their discernment and discretion concerning use of church property, even for weddings of long-time church members.

Only the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission and you, the General Assembly, have the authority to interpret the constitution. When those interpretations conflict, the most recent is binding.  Far from being an “end-run” around the Constitution, the power to deliver Authoritative Interpretations is clearly given to the General Assembly in G-6.02, where it is explained as one way for the church to remain “reformed, always to be reformed.”

And so, today, we ask you to pass a new Authoritative Interpretation that would provide relief of conscience for our sessions and teaching elders who believe with all our hearts that we need to provide pastoral care to all our people of faith in equal measure. The AI highlights the long Presbyterian tradition of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture and upholds pastoral discretion in the leadership of worship.  It explicitly protects the pastoral choices both of those who feel called to celebrate the marriage of same-gender couples, and those who do not.  And it withdraws and replaces the 1991 AI and the PJC decisions that rely upon it, which have left us in our current dilemma.


Hi, I’m Teaching Elder Jean Southard.  Until my retirement I was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Waltham, a small inner-city church in Boston Presbytery.  Among our members were Sara and Jenn,  seminary graduates who had left their conservative congregations because they had felt unwelcome.  We welcomed them as worthy and beloved children of God.  Sara taught the adult Bible class and assisted in worship.  Jenn taught children in the Sunday School.

When Sara and Jenn told us that they loved each other and wanted to get married, which they could do in Massachusetts, the whole church was delighted.  They wanted to get married in our sanctuary, among the community that had brought them back to Christ.   Both of them were load-bearing pillars in our church.  The session unanimously endorsed holding the wedding.  As their pastor, of course I would officiate.  The wedding took place in March of 2008.

Our Book of Order is silent on the subject of same-gender marriage.  While the Directory for Worship describes marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman, that description was no longer accurate in Massachusetts, where marriage had become a civil contract between two consenting and committed adults.  It would have made a lie out of everything we had told Jenn and Sara about their worthiness before God if I had told them that they were not good enough to get married in our church.  So we happily held the wedding.  As the married couple went back down the aisle, the whole congregation erupted in joy.

Shortly after that, word got out that a same-gender wedding had occurred in our church.  A complaint was signed by three teaching elders in our presbytery.  My judicial case took almost three years to go through the church courts.

In 2010 the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission found me not guilty, because Sara and Jenn’s wedding took place almost two months before the GAPJC’s 2008 Authoritative Interpretation.  By finding me not guilty, they were acknowledging that there was no prohibition on doing same-gender marriages until they created one with their AI.  

The three trials cost the Presbytery of Boston fifty-three thousand dollars.  My expenses were another fifty thousand dollars.  All that money doesn’t even account for the emotional toll, the strained relationships, and the distraction from the mission of the church.

Sara and Jenn stayed in our church for several years after their wedding.  Finally, still saddened by the treatment I received for marrying them and discouraged that their marriage is not yet recognized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), they have gone to another denomination.

After I retired, the pastor who followed me in that same church was approached to officiate at the wedding of two other women – one was the congregation’s treasurer and the other was the clerk of session.  As they discussed the judicial proceedings that I had gone through, the three of them decided it was best not to subject the pastor to that kind of risk.  The couple left the church to be married in the United Church of Christ, where they and their four children remain.  The loss of that family, one of the few working, middle-class families in an otherwise poor congregation, along with the loss of Sara and Jenn, started a downward spiral from which that small church may never recover.


Hello, I’m Jeff Krehbiel, pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C.

As a commissioner in 2012 from National Capital Presbytery, I had the joy of watching my friend and colleague Tara Spuhler McCabe elected Vice Moderator of the General Assembly, and then the pain two days later when she resigned over controversy related to her officiating at the legal wedding of her next-door neighbors, two women.

Even worse, after the Assembly was over, Tara was accused by twenty teaching and ruling elders – none of them from our Presbytery – of violating her ordination vows. An Investigating Committee was appointed, and Tara agreed to receive a rebuke from the Presbytery for violating the GAPJC’s Authoritative Interpretation that Ministers of the Word and Sacrament may not officiate at same-gender weddings.  The presbytery felt obliged to deliver this “rebuke,” even though the majority of our presbytery believe Tara acted with appropriate pastoral discretion.

Teaching elders where same-gender marriage is legal face an unconscionable burden, when we must decide between our pastoral responsibilities to members of our congregation and the restrictions of our polity. Do we really wish to resolve these issues by an endless string of judicial cases? Is that the witness we wish to give to the outside world?

An Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order by this assembly would return pastoral discretion to Tara and me, and to pastors throughout the denomination who struggle with our consciences on how best to respond pastorally to couples seeking marriage within the church – whatever way they decide.  Pastors’ studies, not church courts, are the appropriate place for such decisions to be made.


Good afternoon. I’m  Mark Olson, ruling elder from First and Central Church in  New Castle Presbytery, which initiated Item 10-06, and this is Arthur Fullerton, ruling elder from Westminster Church in Albany Presbytery.

Most of you know by now that there is no single form for marriage in the Bible.  From the days of Abraham and Sarah down to the days of Jesus and Paul, forms of marriage adapted and changed according to the culture and customs of the time.  Nevertheless, the underlying teaching concerning marriage in the New Testament seems to be that Christian marriage is about mutual submission, mutual esteem, and love, undertaken out of reverence for Christ.

The fact that marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationships between God and Israel and between Christ and the church shows how valued the marriage covenant is in Christian tradition – and demonstrates that the focus of marriage is about relationships rather than only gender, since, of course, neither Israel, the church, nor God literally has gender.

Today, though, it might be more helpful to note that in his Letter to the Romans, Paul said, “Let us resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”  We are asking you to interpret the constitution of our church in a way that doesn’t create a stumbling block for those who want to come close to Jesus,  but rather is life-giving to families, to sessions, to teaching elders, and especially to those who have left the church or who have not come in because they see us as against gay men and lesbians.   Jesus interpreted the religious law of his time in ways that were life-giving.  He plucked grain on the Sabbath because those he loved were hungry.  He healed on the Sabbath because the Sabbath was meant to give life, not take it away.   Our Book of Order says rightly that “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family”  – and that includes those of us who are lesbian and gay.   To acknowledge that the “man and woman” language is a description of our traditional view of marriage and not a prohibition against marriage for same-gender couples is, we believe, life-giving to our church.

Our Book of Confessions spans 17 centuries, each confession speaking to a particular time and place.   The very existence of a Book of Confessions testifies to the need of God’s people to hear God’s truth in our own context.

When teaching and ruling elders agree in our ordination vows to be “instructed and led by the confessions as [we] lead the people of God,” that does not mean that we turn to the confessions in search of proof texts to resolve current dilemmas which the authors of the confessions never contemplated. Instead, we recognize that the confessions contain the great themes of our Reformed tradition and hence can help us understand “what we believe and what we resolve to do” in our own day [F-2.01].

We follow in the tradition of the confessions when we speak a clear word of God’s love to our own world, the world Christ came to save, as it exists today.  We are advocating for inclusion of all God’s children in the rites of the church not because the world tells us to, but rather because our understanding of Scripture and the Confessions leads us to believe that the Gospel demands it.


My name is Ken Cuthbertson, a minister member of the Presbytery of Santa Fe. Later this year I will celebrate the 32nd anniversary of my ordination as a minister of the Word and Sacrament by the Presbytery of John Calvin.  Today, however, I am speaking, not so much as a minister, but as a married gay man.

Two years ago, after 25 years as committed life-partners, Doug Calderwood and I got married.  At the time we had to travel to a different state to do so.  We also had to turn to a minister of a different denomination to marry us.

It was important to us to get legally married, but it was equally important to be married in the context of Christian worship.  The PCUSA means so much to me, and to my husband, who is the son of Presbyterian missionaries.  He is also a ruling elder.

We were sad that we could not ask a Presbyterian minister to officiate at our marriage.  But, having seen the emotional cost to both ministers and couples in cases where charges have been filed, we were unwilling to do so.

When we returned home to New Mexico after our wedding, we were overwhelmed by the response of our church family, who blessed us, gifted us, and celebrated with us.

We have been surprised what a difference being married has made.  It is not a difference in our love and commitment to one another, or to God.  But, somehow, our “standing” in both church and society has changed.  We really were thrilled to be able to file our first-ever joint tax returns.  (Imagine that!)  But even more is the confidence we now have that in matters of sickness and health, in life and in death, our relationship is recognized and respected by civil authority, and honored by our home congregation and presbytery.  “In a broken and fearful world,” our experience of being able to be married has been an experience of grace, healing, and reconciliation.


Hello, my name is Kristin Hutson, and I am a teaching elder from the Presbytery of East Iowa.  We are the presbytery that brought forth Item 10-04.

For the past twelve years, I’ve been serving as the Chaplain at Coe College, a Presbyterian-related college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  When people ask me what it means to be a college chaplain, my short answer is this: “I get paid to walk alongside young adults as they discern who they are and what matters to them. It’s the best job in the world.”

I am honored to have seen nine of my students go to seminary and another two become Young Adult Volunteers.  Those called to mission service have represented our church in South Korea and in Zambia.

Even before college, many of our young people were counselors at our church camps, volunteered at Montreat and Ghost Ranch, wrote and presented their statements of faith to our congregations, and taught in our Sunday schools.  Many went on mission trips, helped out with Vacation Bible School, led worship and served as deacons and ruling elders.  We know these young people.  We welcome them home from college at the Christmas Eve candlelight service and the Easter Sunday Service.

Without exception, all these young people that our church raised are in favor of marriage equality.  For them, it isn’t up for debate. It just is.  You see, they have all grown up with friends who openly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or by some other label. It is part of the fabric of their lives.  Like their peers, they don’t understand why the church, why their church, is so hung up on this “issue.”  They have studied the Scripture and they see an inclusive God who beautifully created each person, and loves each person, and who calls us to love likewise.

Please know that as these talented and gifted young adults pursue theological education, make their vows to fulfill their calls, and continue to minister in the name of Christ, they are praying for us, for the church.  They are watching how we, the church, are embodying Christ’s inclusive love, and they wait, patiently, for us – all the while watching state after state, country after country, and other Christian denominations begin to recognize the marriages of same-gender couples.

I thank God for their patience, especially as we see more and more young people – young people who also could be lay leaders in our congregations – leave their faith community behind, in frustration that we, the Church, will not yet affirm the love shared by their gay and lesbian friends. They believe it is only a matter of time.

We believe the time is now.  Sisters and brothers in Christ, let us become the church our young people trust that God is calling us to become.


Hello, I’m Pam Byers, ruling elder at Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.

I chair our Evangelism Committee – one reason I know we need our pastors to be free to serve all our members.

When two longtime members of our congregation married a few years ago, they invited a couple of hundred of their fellow singers in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus to attend the wedding and sing a blessing.  At the conclusion of the beautiful wedding service, the men filed into the side aisles of our packed sanctuary and sang in lush harmony:

In this very room there’s quite enough love for one like me,

And in this very room there’s quite enough joy for one like me,

And there’s quite enough hope and quite enough power to chase away any gloom,

For Jesus, Lord Jesus … is in this very room.

That song was a gift to our congregation.  But its message is also one I was very glad we could offer those singers – very few of them church-goers – by our welcoming witness.  Don’t we all try every day to proclaim that Jesus offers “quite enough love and quite enough hope” for everyone?


I’m Tricia Dykers Koenig, teaching elder from the Presbytery of the Western Reserve.

You may have heard it said that the civil law should have no effect on the church, or that the church shouldn’t be led by the culture.  It’s true that secular courts and legislatures don’t determine Presbyterian witness.   But the Gospel does.  We have an odd disconnect in the Presbyterian Church right now.  Teaching and ruling elders who are LGBT are allowed to serve, and indeed to be married – but not to get married in Presbyterian churches or by friends who are Presbyterian pastors.  Does that make any sense to you?  It’s heartless to send members of our Presbyterian family up the street to a Lutheran, Episcopalian, or UCC sanctuary, or worse, to a justice of the peace.  Whatever welcoming words we may say, the message is that in reality you don’t belong here.  Making this change is not a matter of yielding to the culture; it is a matter of reaching out to the world God loves with a true word about the love and justice of Jesus Christ.

Two previous General Assemblies have put off making this decision by calling for more study.  It’s understandable.   This is a hard decision to make.  It helps to remember that these overtures protect everyone: the teaching elders and sessions who choose not to do same-gender weddings as well as those who do.  This authoritative interpretation preserves the right of the pastor and session to say no as well as yes.

Should you decide to approve the previous overture to amend the wording about marriage in the Book of Order, please understand that passing this authoritative interpretation is still necessary and urgent, entirely constitutional, and serves the purpose of providing immediate relief to the church.  It is not a sure thing that an amendment will be approved by the whole assembly and a majority of the presbyteries, yet even if it is, that process will take a full year.

But the church is in a pastoral crisis right now – a crisis that was created by an Authoritative Interpretation by a divided Permanent Judicial Commission.  Remember that if no action is taken at this Assembly, it will be 2016 before we get another chance – two more years for loving couples, including faithful church members, to be turned away from the church doors, and for many others to decide the church is not a place about love and grace.  You alone at this moment have the authority to bring hope and healing to the church by recommending approval of this new authoritative interpretation.  We are asking you to act now.  

We are all here because we, like you, love the church. By recommending this AI you can help us come back together as the Body of Christ.  You can help us all to live together without betraying our own consciences.  We ask you to join us in creating a future in which we all belong.

We have been praying for you and we will continue to pray as you do this very important work.

Thank you for your time and attention.  We are happy to respond to any questions that you may have.


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