As everyone probably knows by now the breaking news out of General Assembly yesterday was the passing of two overtures from the Committee on Civil Unions and Marriage. The first overture that passed, overwhelmingly, was an “Authoritative Interpretation” (AI) on the Directory for Worship. The AI gives Teaching Elders (Pastors) permission to perform marriage ceremonies for all people, in states where it is legal. The AI is not binding, which means a pastor may, out of personal conscience, decline to perform a marriage ceremony. In addition, the Session of each church may approve or disapprove of a ceremony for a same gender couple being performed in that church’s building. The pastor would then be free to perform the ceremony in another appropriate setting.
The second action taken was to recommend a change to the wording in the section on marriage in the Directory of Worship. Specifically, where it says that marriage is between a man and a woman, the wording would be changed to “two people (traditionally a man and a woman)”. The words “(traditionally a man and a woman)” was, in fact, an amendment moved on the floor of the General Assembly, by John Wilkinson, of Third Presbyterian Church, in Rochester. He made the amendment out of pastoral concern for those churches who are deeply troubled by the overture. This particular overture, since it is a change in our constitution, will be sent to every Presbytery over the next12 months, for approval or disapproval.
While the overture to change the wording in the Directory for Worship must go to every presbytery to be voted on, and, if approved by 3/4 of the presbyteries, wouldn’t take effect for 12 months, the Authoritative Interpretation takes effect immediately. In the event that the overture being sent to the presbyteries fails, the Authoritative Interpretation will still stand. A majority of presbyteries must approve the overture for the change to be made to the Directory of Worship.
The actual wording of the overture is that “when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction in which the marriage is to take place, teaching elders (or commissioned ruling elders serving congregations) have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married, and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform. Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may perform a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian marriage. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
If that is as clear as mud, I understand. The media is not being all that helpful with its misinterpretation of what was actually passed. The General Assembly is also preparing a FAQ, and as soon as I have that I will share it with you. This is an important discussion for all of us to have, and will be easier to have in person, after I return from GA.
By now, you must know, that I support this overture, as I supported the overture from 2010 on the ordination of Gay or Lesbian Teaching Elders (Pastors). Pastorally, I know that not everyone agrees with or supports this Authoritative Interpretation. So, my strong concern is that we talk, that we share our opinions, our feelings and our faith positions on this, and that most importantly we continue, as we have in the past, to live together in our diversity.
The GA also passed important overtures from other committees as well, including efforts to strengthen ecumenical relationship with other denominations and religions, an overture on gun violence, an overture to strengthen the Peacemaking offering, and many others. If you go to pc-biz.org, you can see all of the committee’s overtures presented and what action was taken by the General Assembly.