Presbyteries Vote to Permit Same-Sex Marriage

Presbyteries Vote to Permit Same-Sex Marriage
by Carl Wilton

Wedding RingsThose who keep an eye on the news headlines heard about the recommendation of the 2014 General Assembly to amend our Constitution, the Book of Order, allowing Presbyterian ministers to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. Last week, the denomination announced that a majority of presbyteries nationwide have concurred with this recommendation, making the change official.

I’ve been aware of the inevitability of this change for some months now. I wrote about it in my stated clerk’s blog entry of March 9th. At that time, the vote tally had been 2 presbyteries to 1 in favor of the move. (Our own Monmouth Presbytery voted on February 24th to concur with the recommendation.)

Beginning this June, the Directory for Worship – the section of the Book of Order governing worship – will define marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” Previously, the Directory has described marriage as “a civil contract between a woman and a man.” The new language permits ministers – but does not require them – to preside at same-sex marriage ceremonies in states, like New Jersey, where they are legally recognized.

You can read the full text of the amended section here.

For more than 40 years, Presbyterians have been debating the question of full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members in the life of the church. With each year that’s gone by, the number of Presbyterians favoring full inclusion has gradually been increasing, a slowly rising tide.  Three years ago, a majority of presbyteries voted to remove the constitutional ban on ordaining Presbyterians living in committed, same-sex relationships as deacons, ruling elders or ministers. In the eyes of many, the move to allow same-sex marriages seems like a natural outgrowth of that action. Others are not so sure.

In many ways, it’s been a generationally-driven change. A majority of Presbyterians of older years, the pollsters tell us, tend to oppose this development, or at least have serious questions about it. Those of middle years are more likely, on the average, to favor it. Those in their 20s and 30s are overwhelmingly likely to welcome the change. Many of them, in fact, express consternation that the church is still debating this issue that – to the minds of most of their generation – is no longer even an issue.

From a biblical standpoint, the issue is complex – although no more complex than the church’s decision, decades ago, to allow for remarriage after divorce (something that appears, at first glance, to be explicitly prohibited by the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 19:9). That change in biblical interpretation – which seemed to some, back in the 1950s, to be scandalous – causes no one a second thought today. A careful, nuanced reading of that biblical text – like the several texts often cited to prohibit same-sex relationships – reveals that the matter is not as simple as it may at first seem.

Those who are interested in reading more on biblical aspects of the same-sex marriage decision will find an address delivered by theologian Mark Achtemeier at the last General Assembly to be a vivid account of how a leading evangelical seminary professor’s mind has changed on this subject.

We are at a tender time as a denomination – as well as in our congregation. Not everyone is of one mind on this issue. The actions by both our General Assembly and Monmouth Presbytery were taken with the utmost concern for the sensibilities of those whose biblical interpretation differs from that of the newfound majority. The new language makes room for individual conscience. As I’ve suggested in my blog posting, we all do well in such a time to rediscover our historic principle of mutual forbearance based on Ephesians 4:2, “bearing with one another in love.”

Dialogue is of vital importance. If you have concerns about this change, let’s talk about it. I remain committed – as does Linda – to listening closely to members’ concerns and studying the biblical texts together, with open minds and open hearts.