The Covenant Network of Presbyterians [www.covnetpres.org], since its founding, has focused on a twin mission for the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): To work for the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the church; and to work for the unity of the church. Though these two parts of our mission may sometimes seem in tension—changing the church’s ordination standards was a controversial step—we have always believed that both were essential for either to have meaning; that is, a church that excludes some of God’s children can not truly be said to be united, while there is no point in including anyone in a church that is itself a testimony to brokenness and separation.
With the passage in 2011 of Amendment 10-A (the new and historically grounded ordination standards now found at G-2.0104b. in the Book of Order), the church—and the Covenant Network—entered a new phase of life. Certainly, all can agree, there is much work left to do in helping the church live into this opportunity to ordain all those whom God calls. But this new day left other questions: Besides the now removed constitutional language, what else is serving as a barrier to a fully welcoming church? And how can we best devote our time and energy in the years ahead?
There are probably many answers to those questions. But one answer stands out above the others: Same-sex marriage is emerging as both the civil rights issue of our day and the next test of the church’s commitment to justice and hospitality in the model of Jesus Christ.
Consider the signs of the times. A majority of Americans now believe same-sex marriage should be legal and recognized by state governments, with all the rights and privileges as opposite-gender couples. At the last election day, all four states with marriage equality measures on their ballots voted to affirm gay and lesbian couples. And last month, the president’s inaugural address, in an historic first, evoked Stonewall alongside Selma and Seneca Falls as a stop on the nation’s long journey to equality. There, in America’s great quadrennial celebration of democracy, he said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), however, has not spoken such a clear gospel word. The Book of Order, in passages reaffirmed at the 1983 reunion and rooted in language adopted much earlier, when gay marriage was hardly on anyone’s radar, stubbornly maintains that “Marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman,” even though the statement is flatly inaccurate in nine states and the District of Columbia. It proceeds to limit its definition of covenantal love to a woman and a man, without articulating why it must be exclusively so. The widely used liturgy for a “Service of Christian Marriage” in the Book of Common Worship likewise reflects its 1993 publication date, waxing poetic about the purpose and blessing of marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms.
Repeated efforts at successive General Assemblies to bring greater openness have been unsuccessful. Supporters have sought various solutions. Some sought an authoritative ruling that the 1983 language should not be held as binding on teaching elders and sessions in today’s changed legal and social environment, protecting them from disciplinary charges in cases where they sought to be faithful pastors to their gay members seeking to be married. Others sought to change the outdated language altogether, replacing talk of “a woman and a man” with “two people” regardless of gender. Still others sought both, or variations thereof. In both 2010 and 2012, these substantive responses were spurned in favor of continued “study,” widely seen as a tactic delaying an inevitable just outcome, and in both cases adopted after long, tiresome debates in the course of long, tiresome days of deliberation. Even in 2012, those debates still included unseemly references to bestiality and polygamy and further reinforced how far the church has to go.
Which brings us to today. The world and the church are in a new place. Every month, pastors call my office asking for guidance: What do I do when I get asked to perform a same-sex marriage? How can I call myself a faithful pastor when I refuse to perform this most basic pastoral function—blessing, in the presence of the faith community, a sacred commitment between two people to love each other in faith and faithfulness and so, together, to live the life of discipleship? What must I risk to serve as Christ served? It is a dilemma, we believe, that pastors should not have to face. It is a false choice forced by our outdated Constitution, not by the demands of the gospel—indeed, the gospel demands that the conflict be resolved in a new way.
This year, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians will devote itself to a major focus on same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Just as the church, over the years, wrestled with the biblical, theological and polity issues around ordination, we must now confront what we believe about marriage with the same depth and erudition. And this year, leading up to the General Assembly in 2014, seems to represent the ideal confluence of events and conversations to bring about transformation in the church.
This week here at ecclesio.com, we want to lay some groundwork for that conversation. Tomorrow, my colleague Tricia Dykers Koenig will offer a thorough review of how the church’s policies have developed—through General Assembly decisions and judicial rulings—to their present place. She’ll illustrate some of the logical fallacies of the status quo and talk about the very real way it undermines our welcome of all people.
On Wednesday, we’ll present excerpts of an address by Mark Achtemeier, who formerly taught biblical studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. A self-identified evangelical, Dr. Achtemeier was a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church. Their report in 2006 was instrumental in changing the tone of conversations around ordination. His participation in that task force was significant not only for the task force’s work but for him: He came to believe that the church’s policies needed to change. In these lectures, delivered at Covenant Network regional conferences last fall, Dr. Achtemeier makes a biblical case for same-sex marriage—suggesting not only that familiar passages should not preclude two people of the same-sex from marrying, but also that the overarching message of the gospel and our interpretive tradition actually supports our allowing it.
On Thursday, we’ll let things get personal. Last summer, the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe was appointed and confirmed as Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly. Three days later, she resigned the office amid growing contention over her participation in the wedding of two women in the District of Columbia. In the months since, she has been part of a disciplinary process, culminating last week in her rebuke by National Capital Presbytery, a mutually-agreed outcome in which she and her prosecutors found common ground. For the first time, Tara will share her reflections on that process and its impact on her faith. She offers one case where dialogue on same-sex marriage really could move the church toward deeper unity.
Finally, on Friday, we’ll hear from one who never thought this would be a debate that would affect him. The Rev. David Maxwell never planned to get married. When a friend suggested it, and he and his longtime partner, another man, decided to take the plunge, he had little anticipation of it changing much in their relationship in his life. But even in the few weeks since the wedding, he has come to see he was wrong—marriage really does matter, and in ways he couldn’t have known without being able to experience it.
These posts are only, of course, a beginning. But like Selma and Seneca Falls, like the assemblies and presbyteries that first voted to ordain women or LGBT people … every beginning matters. May the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) come to affirm the equality of all “the love we commit to one another.” And may this week’s reading here be a blessing to the church, that we might more fully display the oneness that is God’s gift and the inclusive fullness that is our destiny.
Brian D. Ellison is executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians [covnetpres.org]. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @PTSBrian. The Covenant Network may also be followed @CovNetPres or liked on Facebook.