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Staying at the table

Atlanta Presbyterians ponder Civil Unions/Christian Marriage report

May 7, 2010

Atlanta

A small group of pastors, elders, and students gathered recently at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center to explore the final report to the 219th General Assembly from the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage.

The Rev. Margaret Aymer, assistant professor of New Testament at ITC's Johnson C. Smith seminary, and a member of the special committee, led the conversation.

The committee appointed by Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008), was, as mandated, very diverse. "We were well split on gender, race and age," Aymer explained. "Ten members were ministers, five were elders and one was a candidate for ministry. Additionally, members were split virtually half and half concerning views on ordination and marriage for gay and lesbian persons."

The committee first developed a covenant for their work together. "Just as marriage is a covenantal relationship, so life in the faith community is covenantal," Aymer explained. Intentionally reflecting traditional wedding language, the covenant, which appears on page 24 of the final report, is titled: "Those Whom God Has Joined Together, Let No One Separate."

The seven-point covenant begins: "We acknowledge and confess that the Presbyterian Church (USA) displays the marks of the true Church (the gospel is rightly preached and heard, the sacraments are rightly administered, and ecclesiastical discipline is rightly administered). Christ has chosen each one of us here, and has called us to this place. ‘Those whom God has joined together, let no one separate.'"

"One member had to leave the committee for health reasons," Aymer said, "but the rest of us stayed at the table despite the painful challenges of this conversation."

The committee divided into subcommittees organized around the five bullet points of their original mandate to study:

  • 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 (14 ff.).

"Our mandate," Aymer noted, "definitely did not include changing the Book of Order definition of marriage!"

"We met four times over 10 months," Aymer explained. "The final report is organized around the original bullet point sections."

Aymer ackknowledged that the foundational issue underlying the document, as well as the debate which sparked it, "is that well-meaning Christians interpret the Bible differently." She also pointed out that "the biblical understanding of marriage changes as one moves from the Hebrew to the Greco-Roman culture."

According to Aymer, "It was eye-opening for many members to realize that people disagreed for biblical and theological reasons. We are called by our denomination to read the Bible, taking seriously the issues of language and structure of scripture, and the context of the texts. It was a little strange for me, being from the PC(USA)’s smallest and least remembered seminary, to be the only biblical scholar in the room!"

"We are facing a new time," she continued. "The utility in this report is in what it describes — especially the changes in our civil laws about same-sex marriage. The PC(USA) has really never looked at these laws before. There are important issues outside the church with benefits and rights and even custody of children in same-sex parent families. It becomes about people. It’s not just a big theological issue out there. It’s on the ground [in the lives of] human beings."

At the suggestion of the Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly, the report outlines the positions on civil unions and Christian marriage of other denominations, especially those with which the PC(USA) is in full communion.

And it raises the question of whether — considering the current legal situation in which five U.S. states and the District of Columbia, along with Mexico and Canada, permit same-sex marriages — "the church should relinquish its state-sanctioned power to marry."

Of the final report, Aymer said, "We told the truth. We are divided. The legal issues changed even while we were working. We worked very hard to represent both sides of the issue fairly ... to be honest and open and descriptive rather than prescriptive. We didn’t want the language to be slanted."

"The hardest work I did all year," she continued, "was to work on this report and not leave the table — to love the way I wanted to be loved as best as I was able."

Responding to questions about the minority report coming from three members of the committee, Aymer admitted, "I haven't read it. Realizing that, despite all our efforts at covenant community, there was going to be a minority report was extremely painful but still, we all stayed at the table."

"The minority report," Aymer added, "may consist only of things which were considered and voted down by the committee."

Responding to questions about parallels between the early church and our time, Aymer said, "The issue, at the bottom line, is orthodoxy. In the early church it was about circumcision and table fellowship. In our time it's about ordination and same-sex marriage. The times and laws of the country are changing too quickly ... It's not just this issue. Other things will come up. If we don’t address them we’ll become anachronistic very quickly."

"As a committee, we did good work," claimed Aymer. "We tried to be fair to all sides of the issue. And it was no small accomplishment that we stayed at the table. No one knows how the Spirit is going to move."

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