Tuesday, January 15, 2013


        I want to address the issue of same sex marriage from my Christian perspective. I said “my” Christian perspective, not THE Christian perspective, as if all Christians could agree on such an issue! Christian churches and individuals differ widely in their theological beliefs, in their liturgical practices, and certainly in their political and social convictions and involvements.
        A brief background sketch will help to explain how I got to where I am today on this issue. I was baptized, confirmed, and raised in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. I was a church-hopping Episcopalian, when I had a “Damascus Road” experience (see A Sense of Being Called) that changed my life and set me on a path to becoming an ordained minister. That path led me through some miraculous twists and turns to Princeton Theological Seminary, and since my wife was a Presbyterian and we had been worshiping in a Presbyterian Church, I decided with the encouragement of the rector of my boyhood Episcopal church, to become a Presbyterian.
        The more I studied and learned about the Reformed tradition the more confirmed I felt in my decision. Fast forward to 1980, when I found myself on the Faculty of the Seminary from which I had graduated twenty-two years earlier. As a new professor, I faced the daunting task of preparing six courses I had never taught before, two of which were Presbyterian Polity courses, one for UPC (USA)[1] students and one for PCUS[2] students.
        Teaching those courses necessitated intense study of the history and the constitutional documents of those two denominations. When they reunited in 1983 to become the Presbyterian Church(USA), our one course could focus on the new Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), consisting of The Book of Order and The Book of Confessions.
        Presbyterian polity has the same built-in tension between its various judicatories as our Federal governmental system, which indeed was influenced considerably by if not modeled after the Presbyterian system.[3] In the Federal system a constant issue is whether particular Congressional legislative acts transcend or infringe upon States’ rights.
        Although the PC(USA) Constitution spells out the rights and responsibilities of each judicatory, the built-in conflict occurs, for example, between General Assembly’s[4] right to set the standards of ordination for the denomination and the Presbytery’s[5] right to ordain ministers, or the Session’s[6] right to ordain church officers.
        In the Federal system it is the judicial branch of government that rules on issues of States’ rights and civil rights, the Supreme Court being the highest and ultimate determining authority on constitutional matters. Likewise in the Presbyterian system of polity, each judicatory above the Session has a Permanent Judicial Commission to interpret and apply the Presbyterian Constitution in matters of conflicting rights, the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission being the highest court of appeals.
        The Federal Courts to this date have considered marriage a States’ right. Each State has its own rules about who may perform marriages and the requirements of those who wish to get married. State laws usually authorize any recognized member of the clergy (such as a Priest, Minister, Rabbi, Imam, Cantor, Ethical Culture Leader, etc.), or a judge, a court clerk, justices of the peace, and ship captains, to perform marriages. Military, prison, and hospital chaplains are also authorized to conduct marriages, as ordained clergy members of their respective religious communions.
        In most states, however, even the clergy must first be certified or licensed to perform a marriage.  The license must be signed by the couple, two witnesses, and the officiating person, and returned to the County Clerk’s Office or City or Borough Office that issued it within a certain number of days. In other words, it is the State that authorizes a marriage and makes it official! No license, no marriage! Even if a couple have exchanged their vows in a religious service in their church and have been pronounced husband and wife by their Minister, without a signed license they are not legally married.
        Some states have laws that permit others to apply for permission to perform marriage ceremonies on a limited basis. For example, California law permits anyone to apply for permission to become a Deputy Commissioner of Marriages -- the grant of authority is valid for one day -- and thus officiate at the wedding of a family member or a friend on that one day. Massachusetts has a similar provision.
        Until recent years it has always been assumed that a marriage is between a man and a woman. Now that the issue of same-sex marriage has arisen, Christian laypersons and clergy alike, in struggling to be faithful to their understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit, have found themselves sharply and often bitterly divided in their views. Some of our Presbyterian congregations have split off from our denomination in protest against what they perceive to be a departure from, if not a betrayal of, the traditional teachings of the church regarding homosexuality. Still smarting over the issue of the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors and church officers, they view the advocacy of same sex marriages as the ultimate  apostasy. For them it is the last straw.
        Throughout all this controversy over same sex marriage I have been wrestling with my own conscience as to where I stand on the issue. I have always taken seriously and been guided by the pronouncements of our General Assembly, and I have respected and abided by the Constitution of the PC(USA). The Historic Principles of Church Order listed in the first section of the third chapter of the Book of Order (F3.01) are particularly relevant to the present discussion, especially the affirmations that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” that “every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion,” that “truth is in order to goodness,” that “there are truths and forms with respect to which men (sic) of good characters and principles may differ,” and that “the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners.”[7]
        While I sympathize with those whose interpretation of the Scriptures leads them to insist that marriage should be between a man and a woman, I am impressed by those who feel that the inclusive and gracious love of Christ constrains them to honor the faithful commitment and genuine love that two persons of the same sex can have for each other. 
        Throughout my ministry I have used the Service for the Solemnization of Marriage in the Book of Common Worship. At the conclusion of that service the Minister declares to all present: “By the authority committed unto me as a Minister of the Church of Christ, I declare that (name) and (name) are husband and wife, according to the ordinance of God, and the law of the State, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” [8]
        Here’s where the conflict arises. Marriage is a State’s right and hence a civil right.  For religious persons, however, marriage is a holy union to be blessed by God. In the Roman Catholic tradition it is one of the seven Sacraments of the church. In most Protestant denominations, including my own, it is a sacred ordinance of the church.
        Legal marriage and holy matrimony are not the same. Holy matrimony requires a legal license, but a civil ceremony does not require or presume a state of holy matrimony. Conscientious ministers expect the persons they marry to take their wedding vows seriously. That’s why they meet with them ahead of time to discuss the service and the implications of their new relationship. I certainly cannot speak for all ministers, but for myself I can say that I was not particular about whom I buried, but I was very particular about whom I married. It was never an automatic decision on my part, when a couple came to see me about getting married. Why did they want to be married? Why by a minister instead of a Justice of the Peace? Where did God and the church fit into their relationship? Were they willing to meet together with me to talk about these and other crucial questions? Their responses determined my decision whether or not I would agree to marry them.
        Ministers do not have many rights of office. Their ordination confers upon them the right to administer the sacraments and to preach. The state grants them the authority to perform marriages. Denominational polity defines the pastor’s role in church governance. In my own denomination, for example, the pastor is the moderator of the Session, which is the governing body of the local church. The limits of the pastor’s authority are defined by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Within those constitutional constraints, pastors have two freedoms which they zealously guard against the infringement of lay officers and members of the church: the freedom to choose their own sermon topics, and the freedom to decide whom they will marry. Conscientious ministers do not take those freedoms lightly.
        During the premarital sessions I would have an opportunity to evaluate the couple’s readiness for and seriousness about marriage, and if there appeared to be problems that needed to be worked out, perhaps I would refer them to an appropriate professional counseling service, if that seemed necessary, or to another pastor, or to a Justice of the Peace. At one time ministers were supposed to consult the appropriate committee of Presbytery before marrying divorced persons. The decision to marry a couple was never automatic on my part.
         It is important to understand, therefore, that a denomination’s decision to approve same-sex marriages, does not impose upon individual pastors the obligation to perform those marriages. Some pastors are so adamantly opposed to the idea that they have led their congregations to withdraw from the denomination.
        The long-standing position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and its predecessor churches was that homosexual acts were sinful. It was not homosexuality itself but the practice of it that was considered sinful. The constitution therefore proscribed the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.  
        That proscription has been repeatedly challenged over the past several decades, with those favoring the ordination of homosexual persons gaining more support at successive meetings of the General Assembly, until in 2010  the General Assembly voted to amend rhe wording of The Book of Order to allow the ordination of homosexual persons. That decision was upheld by a majority of the Presbyteries and a year later the amendment was officially adopted.
        In the meantime the push for the approval of same sex marriages continued. At the biennial meeting of the General Assembly in Pittsburgh in July, 2012, the commissioners by a narrow vote of 338 to 308 rejected an amendment to define marriage as between “two people.” The change of wording would have meant the church’s approval of same sex marriage. It is inevitable that a similar amendment will be offered at the next meeting of the General Assembly in 2014, and I predict that it will pass. It will also require, of course, the approval of two thirds of the Presbyteries, which it will likely receive.
        If so, the ruling, while approving same sex marriage, does not constrict the conscience of a pastor whose interpretation of Scripture precludes his or her performing such a union. Yet such pastors will have to take seriously their church’s guidance, as they continue to wrestle with what for many has been an extremely difficult theological issue.
        It is true that some people may be homophobic, but I have never appreciated the indiscriminate application of that pejorative term to everyone who opposes same sex marriage. Not everyone who is opposed to same sex marriage is homophobic. Some people oppose such unions on religious grounds. Their understanding of the Scriptures proscribes what they consider to be “unnatural relations,” to use the Apostle Paul’s expression (Romans 1:26-27). To label them homophobic for being true to their religious convictions is unfair and inappropriate.
        In the meantime, a growing number of states are approving same sex marriage. Given that reality, churches and individuals who oppose such unions on religious grounds, need to recognize  the distinction between marriage as a civil right and holy matrimony as a sacrament or ordinance of the church. In my opinion persons of the same gender who love each other and have committed themselves to a monogamous relationship should be entitled to the same civil rights as a heterosexual couple.
        If a same sex couple for religious reasons want to be married by a minister or rabbi in the context of a community of faith, where they can exchange their vows “in the presence of God and these witnesses,” then they need to find a church or synagogue where their union would be welcomed and spiritually affirmed in a religious ceremony. Those performing such marriages should be guided by the same criteria they employ in counseling any couple who want to get married, and their decision to perform the ceremony should have the same integrity, regardless of couple’s sexual orientation.[9]
        Of one thing I am convinced: monogamy is far more acceptable in God’s sight than promiscuity, whether it be homosexual or heterosexual. We must always be open to what the Holy Spirit is trying to teach us. James Russell Lowell’s powerful hymn says it well: “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth; they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.”
        And whatever one’s view may be on this or any issue where human beings’ lives and well being are at stake, compassion is more Godly than self-righteous legalism.

[1] The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America
[2] The Presbyterian Church in the United States
[3] That’s not surprising considering that there were 14 Presbyterians, including the one and only clergyman, John Witherspoon, among the signers of the Declaration of Independence!
[4] The General Assembly is the  highest judicatory, a national body of elected representatives from the local presbyteries, ministers and elders, who meet biennially.
[5] The Presbytery is a district judicatory, corresponding to an Episcopal diocese, consisting of ministers and elders from the member congregations, who meet at regularly scheduled times throughout the year.
[6] The Session is the governing body of the local church, consisting of elders elected by the congregation, with the Pastor serving as Moderator.
[7]For the full wording see The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II, The Book of Order, Section F-1.03.
[8]The italics are mine.
[9]More Light Presbyterians” is a growing network of pastors and lay people within the PC(USA) who are committed to gender inclusiveness and equality.  Their mission is stated as follows: Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA). 

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