The General Assembly Special Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage has approved its final report — ending its journey with civility and mutual respect, but also with the clear possibility of a minority report.

The committee did not recommend any change in the definition of Christian marriage currently in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  That definition — that Christian marriage is between a man and a woman — was off-limits to the committee, according to its mandate from the 2008 General Assembly.

Nevertheless, three evangelical members of the committee voted against the committee’s recommendations, expressing concern they might lead to some form of “local option,” and insisting that the church needs to speak a strong message that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong.

“Let us boldly proclaim that God has a place for sex,” said a substitute proposal offered by one of the dissenters, the Rev. Tracie Mayes Stewart, a pastor from South Carolina. “It is within marriage between a man and a woman and that commitment is for life.”

The recommendations the committee did pass do not call for dramatic changes in PC(USA) policy, but move more in the direction of urging further discussion and the development of resources that could help presbyteries and congregations know what they are and are not allowed to do in the complicated areas of  civil unions and gay marriage, and in ministering to gays and lesbians and their families.

It is possible, however, that the 2010 General Assembly could be asked through overtures to take on some of these issues more directly — such as clarifying whether Presbyterian pastors in states that allow same-gender marriages can perform them.

The committee voted late Sunday (Jan. 24) to approve its report and recommendations, with eight members voting yes and three no. Those three — all of whom have said they support the current definition of Christian marriage in the PC(USA) constitution — voted no on the report and recommendations, and reserved the option of submitting a minority report in the coming weeks, although they could ultimately decide not to do that.

The Rev. Bill Teng, a pastor from northern Virginia and one of those who voted against the recommendations, said a minority report could serve the broader church by giving it alternatives, and does not reflect a splintering of the committee.