The biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in Detroit this week (ending June 22) took action by a margin of 4 to 1 to permit pastors to perform same-sex marriages in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal. These marriages are governed by the same rules as other marriages. Namely, it is up to the pastor, guided by the Holy Spirit, to determine whether the marriage ought to be conducted; it is up to the session of the congregation to agree to the service; and it must be in the form of a worship service.
This is not an uncontroversial stand the Presbyterian Church has taken. Furthermore, the General Assembly approved a proposal to change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman: to “traditionally between one man and one woman”. This has to be confirmed by the presbyteries over the next several months to be placed in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA. There was discussion about taking out the phrase entirely, but recognizing the long tradition was hoped to signal continuity rather than a radical break. This will not satisfy conservatives who insist that heterosexual monogamy is mandated by the Bible and is not open to change. Apparently the General Assembly was persuaded that Presbyterian Church USA policy must not be an obstacle for pastors to exercise pastoral care at the time a couple is embarking on marriage. Thus the Presbyterian Church joins a growing number of denominations who have yielded to the tide of openness to homosexuals as legitimate members of society.
Perhaps it would be best to simply applaud what the General Assembly has bravely done, and pledge support for the future when still another backlash leads to congregations leaving the denomination. There is pain ahead. But the stand is a right one. We who are gay and we who are engaged in pastoral care of LGBTIQ people are relieved and ready to celebrate the end of the painful discrimination about marriage that the Presbyterian Church has insisted upon.
But I cannot refrain from hoping for still greater understanding. As this action makes clear, the Presbyterian General Assembly and the American people are not fluent about the terms being used. It would be very helpful to agree that there is a difference between a wedding and a marriage. A marriage is the description of a relationship. A wedding is a ceremony to institute that state formally and to seek God’s blessing upon it. If the Presbyterian Church and all of us would stop calling weddings marriages a lot of heated argument could be avoided.
What the General assembly agreed this week is for pastors with approval of their ruling elders to be permitted to conduct wedding services. These services are worship events. The phrase “in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal” is confusing and unnecessary as it pertains to weddings. The state or national government has nothing to say about worship services. But in the USA, following European tradition, this worship service involves a legal exchange of promises which constitutes a legal contract. The pastor officiating is acting in behalf of the state government, and then signs a certificate testifying to that. This is what the General Assembly was talking about when its action limited “marriages” to where they are “legal”.
Here’s a way out: weddings are legal everywhere in the USA and most of the world. The aspect of the wedding that is under state control is the exchange of vows if that is the forging of a legal agreement. It is time for the church (and by that I mean pastors and sessions) to stop being state agents. When a couple wants to praise God for their married relationship and implore God’s guidance and blessing there is no need to report it to the state or to issue a marriage certificate that is any more a legal document than a baptismal certificate or an ordination certificate.
If you are a pastor in a state or country that does not permit same-sex marriages, or even if they are allowed where you live, bypass the state. You are under no legal obligation to do the state’s job. The state has no legal authority to prevent you from conducting worship services. Just make it clear that it is up to the couple to get their marriage approved by the state any way they want to.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.