The Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Unions and Christian Marriage has acknowledged what has been clearly demonstrated in debates, governing body votes and judicial decisions throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Presbyterians are not of one mind on the role of same-gender relationships in the church.

The special committee, authorized by the 2008 General Assembly, unanimously approved its preliminary report to the 2010 Assembly here Sept. 17, answering the central question before it — What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community? — with a three word response: “We cannot agree.”

Though it reached unanimous agreement on the preliminary version of its report — the group will receive feedback from the church until Nov. 15 and prepare a final report at its Jan 22-25, 2010 meeting — it tabled action on any recommendations it might make.

In convoluted parliamentary maneuvers, the committee decided to discuss possible recommendations that had already been included in publicly distributed papers prior to the meeting after it had voted not to take any votes on them until January. At the request of the chair, the Rev. James Szeyller of Charlotte Presbytery, the Presbyterian News Service relinquished its copy of the draft recommendations.

Those recommendations would reaffirm the PC(USA)’s current constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman; would advise ministers and commissioned lay pastors not to officiate at same-gender marriages even in states where they are legal but would continue to permit appropriate religious services to same-gender couples; and would continue the church’s longstanding support for full civil rights for same-gender couples that married couples enjoy; and ask the General Assembly Mission Council’s Theology and Worship office to examine the PC(USA)’s constitutional provisions regarding marriage in light of the legalization of same-gender marriage in several states.

“We see no agreement in the laws around this issue, on any level of government, and these very laws have changed even as we have embarked on this study,” the preliminary report states. “We have reached no consensus on a faithful response to the changing nature of civil marriage.”

The complexity of the relationship between church and civil law is particularly troublesome, said special committee member the Rev. William Teng of National Capital Presbytery.

“I believe we have to address two issues,” he said, “Practical help on how to deal with ministers and sessions in states where same-sex marriage is legal and the whole relationship between church and state. Personally, I think we should encourage ministers not to serve as agents of the state [in formalizing civil marriage contracts] as a practical solution.”

The report states, “We acknowledge that current law, in which clergy act as agents of the state, is a source of confusion. On behalf of the state, ministers are granted the authority to officiate at marriages, and yet no authority is granted them to dissolve such unions. Some argue the church should relinquish its state-sanctioned power to marry. Others feel that, even in confusion, it should be retained to further the cause of the gospel.”

The report poses three prevalent perspectives it says are held in the church, with “proponents of each view believing that their position is rooted in Scripture”:

  • That “laws that fail to give benefits equal to marriage to same-gender couples and their families violate the standards of social justice/equal protection,” noting “the different cultural settings between modern society and biblical times ...”
  • That differences in benefits don’t violate social justice/equal protection norms because “traditional marriage is foundational” and that it’s not true that “all family formations are equally stable and nurturing for children ...”
  • That the church should not be complicit in “further separating appropriate sexual activity from marriage between a man and a woman” because such sexual activity is “explicitly proscribed by Scripture.”

As with other PC(USA) bodies that have debated human sexuality over the years, the special committee’s report includes a plea that the church stay together in the face of stark disagreements. It urged the whole church to adhere to a covenant it labels “Those Whom Christ Has Joined Together, Let No One Separate.”

The covenant calls on Presbyterians “to listen to one another with openness and respect”; “to honor the truth that Christ has called and God works through each member”; “to support and pray for each other ...”; “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 ...”; “to love one another even when we disagree and to commit ourselves to the reconciliation of any broken relationships ...”; and “to honor who we are as Presbyterians by respecting the provisional discernment of the body, bearing in mind that individual consciences cannot be bound.”

But special committee members acknowledged that won’t be easy, given the strong feelings in the church.

“I do have a conscience problem with encouraging same-gender couples,” said the Rev. Tracie Mayes Stewart of Salem Presbytery in North Carolina.

The Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget of Greater Atlanta Presbytery urged greater reliance on individual conscience and less on church disciplinary procedures. “We’ve gone from discipline to discipline as a way to bind the conscience,” she said. “This report is theologically and biblically grounded and Christ-centered. I’m not arguing against discipline, but I perceive this denomination as trying to bind the consciences of those who are trying to stay in the church and at the table, on both sides of issues.”

“What is forbearance?” asked the Rev. Clay Allard of Grace Presbytery. “What is the limit of forbearance? How far can I bend before I break?”

And Elder Tony de la Rosa, an attorney in Pacific Presbytery, predicted that the 2010 General Assembly will receive overtures proposing a change in the PC(USA) constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

“I harbor no illusions that [the report] will be a turning point,” acknowledged the Rev. Earl Arnold of Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery, “but maybe it can be a tool for greater understanding.”