Pastors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would be granted discretion to perform same-gender marriages in civil jurisdictions where they are legal if a recommendation from a committee at the 221st General Assembly (2014) is adopted by the full Assembly later this week.

The Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues voted Tuesday 51-18 to recommend an authoritative interpretation of the denomination's constitution that removes the proscription that pastors could not perform same-gender marriages.

The proposed authoritative interpretation ― initiated by Heartland Presbytery with concurrence from 19 additional presbyteries ― carefully preserves individual ministers’ freedom of conscience, saying, “In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her own understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.”

In a related action, the committee voted 49-18 to propose an amendment to W-4.9000 of the Book of Order that would change the constitutional definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people.”

If approved by the full Assembly, the proposed amendment would go to the PC(USA)’s 172 presbyteries for their ratification during the next year. A majority of the presbyteries must approve any constitutional amendment in order for it to take effect.

A 2008 authoritative interpretation by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission barred Presbyterian ministers from conducting same-gender marriages. Since then 19 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, creating what many speakers during the committee’s deliberations called a crisis of conscience for many pastors.

Teaching Elder Commissioner Brenton Thompson of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, who moved adoption of the authoritative interpretation, said, “My pastoral presence is important to my vocation, and my community and my ministry of care and presence is very important to me. Please grant me and other pastors the ability to use my conscience to fall upon Scripture, confessions and my understanding of what the Holy Spirit is calling me to do.”

Debate on the authoritative interpretation and proposed constitutional amendment was remarkably brief. Earlier in the day, a motion by Ruling Elder Commissioner Randy Hess of the Presbytery of the Pacific to delay any action on the same-gender marriage issue was overwhelmingly defeated.

That statement would have said, “The Assembly believes that the PC(USA) is not in a position to recast its teaching on marriage … God’s gift of marriage is deeply rooted, based on the scripture and exposited in confessions. The overtures this Assembly has received are not the best way to change the church’s teaching.”

With that defeat, opponents of the amendment and authoritative interpretation announced that they would file a minority report.

An amendment to the constitutional change proposal ― which originated in the Presbytery of  Cascades with 16 concurrences ― also sought to protect the consciences of pastors and sessions. Proposed by Ruling Elder Commissioner Evan Hansen of Presbytery of Eastern Oregon, the addition states, “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of the church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.”

Heeding numerous pleas from committee members that reconciliation is crucial if and when the proposals are adopted by the full Assembly, the committee recommended that the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Mission Agency engage in a program of visitation to every presbytery “to serve as a resource for each presbytery’s discussion of these actions in congregations and the presbytery at large and present voices of reconciliation for the unity of the church.”

Teaching Elder Commissioner Stuart Broberg of the Presbytery of Washington clearly expressed the concern of many: “Can …our actions can include a plan for reconciliation, to demonstrate that we’re about more than just changing the Book of Order, but about changing the heart of the church? Otherwise, it’s very predictable what will happen.”