Special committee to study issues of civil union and Christian marriage releases preliminary report

Group seeks feedback and suggestions from wider church

September 21, 2009

Louisville

The General Assembly Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage has released the draft of its preliminary report to the 219th General Assembly (2010).

The group approved the draft late into the final evening of their September 14-17 meeting.

The report addresses the particular issues in its mandate from the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): "the history of the laws governing marriage and civil union, including current policy debates; how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed and broader Christian tradition; the relationship between civil union and Christian marriage; the effects of current laws on same-gender partners and their children; and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community."

As it did previously, the committee is requesting feedback and suggestions about their work from the church at large.

"We are grateful to the nearly 1000 individuals and groups that responded to our earlier invitation to answer the question about the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community," said the Reverend Jim Szeyller (Charlotte Presbytery), committee moderator. "Those many comments helped to inform our conversations over the course of our deliberations."

Szeyller continued, "Now we are asking the church to prayerfully read and study our preliminary report and share suggestions on how we as a denomination can co-exist in the midst of our disagreements. We are also interested in hearing from congregations where folks are actually living that out."

As before, the committee is asking that responses be limited to 1000 words.

The deadline for responding is November 15, 2009.

The committee’s meeting appeared to reflect the broad range of perspectives on the issues surrounding civil union and Christian marriage.

"We fought, argued, disagreed, laughed, and cried together," said Szeyller. "In spite of our significant theological differences that still reside among us, everyone was welcomed, respected, and appreciated as brothers and sisters in Christ."

The committee’s daily scheduled included the singing of hymns, times of prayer, occasional check-ins, and worship with Communion.

One of the central features of the committee’s preliminary report is a covenant entitled, "Those Whom Christ Has Joined Together, Let No One Separate," a title that paraphrases a common line used in marriage services to reflect a Christological interpretation.

Leading up to the covenant are these words from the committee’s report:

Throughout our time of prayerful deliberation — and sometimes difficult disagreement — [the committee] has been marked by a remarkable degree of mutual respect, commitment to one another, and Christian love. We can only attribute these gifts to the living presence of Christ among us, and to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
[Our] covenant grows out of the gifts of unity, respect, commitment, and love that we have received, all welling up from our baptism in Christ. We long to share this experience of communion in Christ with our sisters and brothers throughout the church. Therefore, we commend this covenant for use in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), particularly when governing bodies meet together to discuss divisive issues.

The actual covenant begins, "We acknowledge and confess that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) displays Calvin’s marks of the true Church (the gospel is rightly preached and heard, and the sacraments are rightly administered). Christ has chosen each one of us here, and has called us to this place. Those whom Christ has joined together, let no one separate."

It continues, "By the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, with the love of God, and in the communion of the Holy Spirit, we covenant together:

  • to honor the truth that Christ has called and God works through each member;
  • to listen to one another with openness and respect;
  • to support and pray for each other and for one another’s ministries;
  • to earnestly seek and carefully listen to each person’s discernment of God’s will found in the Scriptures;
  • to struggle together with perseverance to find God’s will for us even when the way is difficult;
  • to love one another even when we disagree, and to commit ourselves to the reconciliation of any broken relationships we have with one another;
  • to honor who we are as Presbyterians by respecting the fallible discernment of the body, bearing in mind that individual conscience cannot be thus bound.”

Szeyller said, "This covenant is at the center of our life together as a committee, and it is our hope that it would find wider use in the PC(USA)."

He said, "We as a committee have a strong communal commitment to everyone being welcomed at the table, not just in spite of, but because of our differences. We’re wondering how this might take root across the entire church."

In its final paragraph, the report says, "We now offer to the church the work that we have done together. That work takes two forms — a report and a call to covenant. We commend this report to you, our sisters and brothers. But far more than this, we entreat the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to affirm the covenant relationship into which Christ calls all of us by praying through and seeking to live into the covenant life that Christ provides for us, a covenant life marked by reconciliation."

While the group looked briefly at some tentative recommendations, they agreed to postpone discussion and action on recommendations until after November 15, when feedback has been received from the church. Such recommendations are expected to be a major agenda item for the committee’s final meeting in January.

In addition to Szeyller, the members are the Reverends Clayton F. Allard (Grace Presbytery), Emily J. Anderson (East Tennessee Presbytery), Earl Arnold (Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery), Margaret Aymer Oget (Greater Atlanta Presbytery), Tracie Mayes Stewart (Salem Presbytery), William Teng (National Capital Presbytery), and Derrick Weston (Pittsburgh Presbytery); and elders Luis Antonio De La Rosa (Pacific Presbytery), Stephen L. Salyards (San Gabriel Presbytery), and Lisa Cooper Van Riper (Foothills Presbytery). Emily W. Miller (Shenandoah Presbytery) also serves as a member.

Comments, suggestions, and questions can be directed to the committee.

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