We urge sessions and clergy to have conversations now about whether or not officiating at and/or hosting same gender marriages will be part of their ministry and if so, to be clear in that proclamation and witness.
The State of the States (and DC)
In the last seven months, the number of states with marriage equality has doubled, with 24% of the states plus the District of Columbia, representing 25% of the US population, having approved same gender marriage through the courts or legislatures. When the Prop 8 case before the Supreme Court is settled, most likely in a way that strikes it down, California will re-join the list, and nearly one third of the US population will live in jurisdictions with equal marriage protections. Even without California, there are today 33 PC(USA) presbyteries in these jurisdictions in which 3,666 Teaching Elders are in ministry, representing approximately 17.4% of all TEs in the denomination.
If you add states where civil unions are available to same gender couples, nearly 26% of all clergy in the denomination are facing the question of whether or not they may officiate at a wedding or holy union of same gender couples, whether in the church or in some other location. Sessions are responsible for determining whether or not church facilities may be used for these liturgies, so their work is impacted, also. Many PC(USA) clergy and ruling elders have signed our Stand for Love witness affirming their willingness to preside at and provide space for same gender weddings. Many people signed the statement in solidarity with others, because there was no legal marriage in their jurisdictions at the time. For some, this has changed very quickly.
Presbyterian clergy and sessions in the newest marriage equality states, RI, DE, and MN this month, WA, MD, and ME last November, are seeking to determine what kind of pastoral care they will offer to the same gender couples in their congregations, as well as what kind of welcome and witness they can offer to unchurched couples seeking the blessing of God on their marriages. We encourage sessions and clergy to have these conversations as soon as possible, so that they are not telling couples who have already waited decades to be married that they’ll have to wait six months while a task force studies the matter.
The State of the Church
Denominational policy on same gender marriage, determined by interpretations of the constitution in General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission rulings, is muddled and unclear. The church does not speak with one clear voice on this matter. The GAPJC, the church’s highest court, acknowledged this in Pby of Newark v. McNeill, (2012), Disc. Case 221-02: “In light of the number of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided, it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious.”
The Covenant Network of Presbyterians has an excellent analysis of the PC(USA) marriage court cases and the practical meaning for Teaching Elders, Ruling Elders, and sessions as a whole in interpreting the legal landscape. While the majority of the document lays out which actions are considered permissible and impermissible under current rulings, it also notes:
Finally, for those who reject applying the fine distinctions suggested above, but who instead decide to provide the same service of marriage to same-gender couples, accusations and charges likely will come. It is likely, however, the practical consequences from such a charge would not be severe. Experience from other cases has been that Investigating Committees and Prosecuting Committees will apply only the mildest form of discipline, a Rebuke, to teaching elders who are found guilty of the offense of officiating at a disapproved same-gender wedding ceremony.
To date, no clergy member has lost a pastorate or their ordination for officiating at same gender marriages or blessings, and to our knowledge, no session has ever been charged for affirming the use of church facilities for these blessings. Of course, this does not mean that these harsher sanctions for clergy or remedial actions against sessions aren’t possibilities, but given that so many more find themselves in this pastoral quandary, it seems unlikely the GAPJC would raise the level of reprimand at this time. By the time of the 221st General Assembly in Detroit in 2014, there will likely be many more states, and many more sessions and clergy in the situation of determining how they will minister with same gender couples. We encourage you to have these conversations sooner rather than later, and put in place policies that reflect those conversations.
What Will You Do?
Until the GA, or the presbyteries, or the GAPJC clarifies the current tortuous situation regarding officers and same gender blessings/marriages, we are simply asking clergy and sessions to have the conversation about Christian marriage called for by the 220th GA, and determine whether or not you will host and officiate at same gender weddings or blessings. We are asking you to pray together and clarify the ministry to which you have been called, counting the cost in the current PC(USA) climate, which is muddled and unclear.
If your marriage policy only allows members to be married in the church, might it include members who are same gender couples? If you have a broad policy of allowing non-members to use your church facilities for weddings, might it be an opportunity for evangelism to overtly extend that welcome to unchurched same gender couples?
If your congregation has already had these conversations, and you’d like to share your process and wisdom with others, please send me a note at Patrick@mlp.org. Likewise, if you would like to be connected with clergy and sessions who have been through this process, please let me know.
We at MLP are grateful for all the good work and powerful witness of Presbyterians across the country, both in the church and in civil society. May we all continue to work and pray for the day when justice for all people is a reality in our time.