Same-sex marriage: what Presbyterians did today

I am attending the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church(USA) in Detroit. The theme for this meeting is “Abound in Hope” which is a call for both this city of Detroit and the Presbyterian Church.  We are, in several ways, on parallel tracks as the city rebuilds itself and the denomination seeks to restore itself.  The following article is a sharing of my reflections and thoughts about this event and the business that has taken place.

Commissioners and Advisory Delegates to the 221st General Assembly in Detroit voted today (June 19) on two significant measures regarding marriage.

First, an Authoritative Interpretation was approved allowing a minister to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony in a jurisdiction where state statute allows such marriages to take place. It is also important to note that ministers have the freedom of conscience to decline to perform same-sex marriage.

What is an Authoritative Interpretation?
Here’s the explanation of an Authoritative Interpretation from the website of the Presbyterian Church: (http://oga.pcusa.org/section/committees/acc/authoritative-interpretations) Authoritative interpretation (AI) is an interpretation of The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that carries the authority of the General Assembly and is binding on the councils of the church… these interpretations are made:

by the action of a General Assembly upon the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC),
or, through a decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly in deciding a remedial or disciplinary case.

The most recent interpretation of a provision of the Book of Order shall be binding.

Second, a proposed change to the Book of Order, specifically the portion of the Directory for Worship, W-4.9000 defining marriage. The language of this section has defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The new proposed language now defines marriage between “two persons, traditionally a man and a woman,…”

What’s next?
The proposed language changing the definition of marriage will be submitted to the 172 presbyteries for their vote on the change. A majority of the presbyteries must approve the proposed language before it can become part of the denomination’s constitution. Voting on this language will begin early next year and will be complete by June 2015.

What does this mean for my congregation?
It is important for us all to recognize that some of the details about these measures are unknown or being developed.

Here’s what we know right now: a pastor is allowed to perform a same-sex marriage if the marriage is conducted in a state where same-sex marriage is legal.

I would recommend that Sessions discuss and plan to offer opportunities for the congregation to study and discuss the subject of marriage.

If your congregation is located in a jurisdiction where same-sex marriage is allowed, the Session should engage in conversation about the use of church facilities for ceremonies.  Once a policy has been determined, it should be shared with the congregation and I recommend that you inform the presbytery of your decision.

Finally, I would ask that you be in conversation with the presbytery leadership and to consider inviting them to join you in your discussions and study.  I encourage you to be in prayer during these very important days.

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