Presbyterian Church approves Book of Order amendment permitting ministers and sessions to use their own discernment to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies where allowed by law
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
We, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have been in a long period of discernment around the issues of inclusion of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people in the life of the church. Beginning in 1978 in the former UPCUSA and 1979 in the former PCUS, the position of the church as determined by the highest council, the General Assembly (GA), was that homosexuality was not God’s gift for humankind. The GA also stressed that homosexuality was not a bar to membership in our congregations. In the following years our discernment centered around three broad areas: civil rights, ordination as a teaching or ruling elder, and civil union and marriage.
The PC(USA) has consistently advocated for civil rights for LGBT people in housing and employment. Many in the church often noted that there was a tension between the church’s advocacy for human rights for LGBT people and its limitations on LGBT persons’ participation in church leadership. The council of ruling and teaching elders through the General Assembly discerned that it could live faithfully with that tension.
The PC(USA) has had multiple General Assemblies where the issue of ordination of LGBT people was discussed. Ultimately a Book of Order amendment was approved in 1996 that expressly allowed only the ordination of persons who lived either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. In the years following, many people wrestled with the tension between a governing body’s responsibility to discern the gifts of persons for ministry and a national standard limiting that responsibility through various studies, task forces, and proposed amendments. Brothers and sisters in Christ with very different views put in many hours, days, and weeks trying to find ways to stay together and allow some discretion for individuals.
The 219th General Assembly (2010) put forward a Book of Order change and approved a proposal to remove all of the previous authoritative interpretations on ordination and LGBT persons. The Book of Order change was adopted and the expressed prohibition was removed and replaced with giving the discernment of individual’s gifts for ministry to presbyteries and sessions.
The PC(USA) has had many times of discernment at the General Assembly and in the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) around issues of same-sex civil unions and marriage. The GA in 1991 did not prohibit ministers and sessions from approving and participating in civil union ceremonies. It did, however, prohibit teaching elders from conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies. The use of marriage liturgy in civil unions also was prohibited by rulings of the GAPJC. The General Assembly discussed and debated the responsibility of teaching elders and sessions to plan worship ceremonies and discern who should be married, and putting limits on that responsibility by the GA.
Many states within the U.S. have approved same-sex marriage. The 221st General Assembly (2014) listened to previous guidance of the church, scripture, the Book of Confessions, and stories of teaching elders and sessions who wanted to be able to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in their congregations. The discernment of those discussions resulted in the approval of an authoritative interpretation and a Book of Order amendment permitting ministers and sessions to use their own discernment to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies where allowed by law. That GA also included in those changes clear language that no teaching elder or session can be forced to conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony if they do not believe it is appropriate.
General Assembly commissioners are charged with deciding controversies brought before it and advising and instructing in cases submitted to it, in conformity with the PC(USA) constitution and authoritatively interpreting the most recent edition of the Book of Order (G-3.0501c).
The decisions above were reached after the discernment of teaching elders and ruling elders gathered in thirty-one General Assemblies and Book of Order amendments approved by the presbyteries. These decisions have been welcomed by some and a disappointment to others. Let us pray that we can allow the Spirit to continue to create in us a common call to follow Christ while respecting each other’s convictions.
The Reverend Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)