When it comes to matters of religion and faith, I don’t like labels, because of the baggage they carry with them. I try not to label others, and I don’t like to be labeled.
        I have not found a single term that describes who I am. I am more comfortable with adjectives than with nouns. On social justice issues I am usually on the liberal side. Morally I am conservative. Politically I consider myself to be quite independent. Theologically I would call myself confessional and in some respects radical, but I’d want to describe what I mean by that. Faith-wise I am evangelical, but I don’t want to be called AN evangelical, or A liberal, or A conservative, or A radical, because not one of those terms by itself defines who I am.
        There is a huge difference between being evangelical and being an evangelical. The adjective evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good message,” or “good news.” The corresponding Anglo-Saxon word was god-spel, which was contracted, as is the way with words, in English to “gospel.” So the adjective “evangelical” means pertaining to, or characteristic of, or devoted to the gospel or the good news, specifically the good news of Jesus Christ. How could any
Christian preacher not be evangelical? But I don’t call myself an evangelical, and I have very little in common with those who do, when it comes to politics, or social justice, or theology, or biblical interpretation, or even matters of faith.
        Of one thing I am certain: Christian faith has to do with faith in Jesus Christ, faith that must be expressed in words and deeds. Christians are those who believe in Jesus Christ, and who are called to be disciples of Christ. We recognize our need to help one another fulfill that calling. We try to make sense of the amazing claims Jesus made about himself, including his claim to be “the way, and the truth, and the life” —the way to God, the truth about God, and the life in God.
        We don’t, or at least we should not, claim to have the truth. Rather we feel we have been encountered by the truth in Jesus Christ. We recognize, or at least we should recognize, the right of people of other faiths to believe what they believe, and we welcome opportunities to engage in interfaith dialogue. Regardless of our religious affiliation, should not all seekers after truth be willing to embrace truth wherever they encounter it?
        Genuine dialogue requires that the participants confess their faith assumptions at the outset. When we do that, we discover that we can indeed share our experiences of God in meaningful and mutually helpful ways.
        In the process we discover how inappropriate and inadequate are the labels people often pin on one another.

* * * * * * *

WHAT WOULD ISAIAH SAY? (A Preelection Sermon) 

[This is a shortened and slightly modified version of the sermon I preached yesterday to the Pennswood Village Interdenominational Congregation, in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where I am in my thirteenth year as Minister of Worship.].

From a Bible card published by
the Providence Lithograph Co.
(c. 1904)
        If Isaiah were alive today, I doubt that he would win the most popular preacher award. He would be in too much hot water with those who think the church should keep out of politics.
        Isaiah was not too popular in his day either, for the very same reason. I can imagine the reaction when he attacked King Hezekiah’s foreign policy and denounced the politicians who were advocating an alliance with Egypt. One of the leaders was a foreigner named Shebna, who had risen to a position of power and influence in the court. Isaiah rebuked him publicly for his arrogance and presumptuousness in building an ostentatious tomb for himself.
        This, incidentally, is the only time in the Book of Isaiah that we find the prophet condemning an individual by name, and I’m sure Shebna’s supporters were infuriated by such blatantly partisan politics. Other prophets, like Amos and Jeremiah, did the same thing on occasion, but most of the time the prophets were dealing with issues and policies and general conditions. That was meddlesome enough, and they often paid a severe price for it.
        The setting has changed since Isaiah’s day, of course, but the issue of politics and religion has not. With a mid-term election about to take place, this is a good time to consider again the role of the church in the political process. Those who take the attitude that the twain shall never meet often quote the familiar words of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). This is one of the most misunderstood and misused sayings in the entire New Testament. Jesus could not possibly have meant that God’s authority applies only to the church and not to the state. That would contradict everything he taught about God, who is Lord of all life, and about the kingdom of God, which term refers to God’s all encompassing reign and God’s universal realm. To interpret Jesus’ words to mean that there is a dimension of life in which the power of the state is above that of God is not only wrong but blasphemous!
        Nor should this saying be used to defend the notion that Christians should support any government, no matter how unjust, or corrupt, or evil. On the contrary, a Christian’s first allegiance is to God, whose commandments must always take precedence over the edicts of earthly rulers. The temptation has always been not to give God the things that are Caesar’s but to give Caesar the things that are God’s. Caesar too often gets the lion’s share and God the left-overs.
        The Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus by asking him whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar. If he said Yes, he would infuriate the Jews, who viewed Roman taxation as an offense to God. But if he said No, his enemies would immediately accuse him of treason against Rome, even though they themselves were opposed to taxes. Does that sound familiar?
        It was a clever trap, but Jesus didn’t fall for it. He was aware of their hypocrisy, and he knew they were putting him to the test. So he asked for a coin and made them tell him whose likeness and inscription were on it. Caesar’s image and title on the coin were the recognized symbol of Rome’s rule and Caesar’s right to collect taxes. So Jesus had forced them to answer their own question.
        Then he silenced them with his powerful charge: Give Caesar his due, therefore, but render to God the worship and obedience which belong to God alone. Thus Jesus acknowledged the legitimacy of civil government within the context of the higher authority of God. In so doing he was taking a stand on a highly controversial political issue, so that his own example serves to contradict those who deny the church’s right to address itself to political issues!
        This text alone would be sufficient to establish the right, indeed the responsibility, of Jesus’ followers to engage in politics, beginning with their responsibility to vote.  In a democracy it is the right and the responsibility of every citizen to vote. And because it is the duty of a Christian to be a good citizen, it is the duty of Christians to vote.
        Some may think that statement is self-evident, but it is not. There are Christians who because of their commitment to the separation of church and state believe that Christians should not vote. And there are people who because of their commitment to a particular losing candidate in the primaries have declared they would not vote in the general election, as a form of protest. And there are people who are too lazy to vote, or who are not interested enough to vote, or who think the midterm elections are not important enough to vote.
        More reprehensibly, there are people who want to vote but will not be able to because of the restrictive voting laws in their states. So do not assume everyone knows the importance of voting or will be able to vote.
        To those people who could but don’t vote it needs to be said that not to vote is to shirk one’s responsibility to come to a decision and to voice one’s opinion in the democratic manner. Not to vote is to leave this responsibility to others. People should never express their disapproval, or anger, or resentment by boycotting the polls. That is irresponsible. It is our Christian duty as well as our civic responsibility to be interested, informed, and involved in the political process. So vote as you please, but vote, please.
        You would have expected me to say that, and Isaiah would certainly agree, if he were living in our times, once he had been introduced to democracy. He would expect us to consider all the issues and to base our decisions on a careful appraisal of the party platforms and the history of their performance, as well as the qualifications of the individual candidates. He would want us as people of faith to express our views without bitterness or rancor, and to be tolerant of those who happen to be on the opposite side of the political fence.
        In that connection, I’m pretty sure Isaiah would say that with regard to presidential elections, the successful candidate, whoever it is, needs and deserves our support and our prayers. All Americans should want their president to succeed for the good of our country and its role in the world. That, unfortunately, has not been the case with our current president, and I have no doubt that Isaiah would have plenty to say about that.
        If such comments are to be expected from a preacher, why are so many people always sounding off about the church’s involvement in politics? The church is people, and if its members are involved in politics, the church is involved. When they vote, they are part of the political process. When they serve as a party workers, or in public office at any level, or on some civic task force or commission, they are engaged in politics. When they take part in a political discussion, or attend a political rally, or sign a petition, or support a candidate financially, or display a sign or a bumper sticker, they are involved and the church is involved in partisan politics.
        Nobody can deny a person’s right to do that sort of thing. So what’s all the fuss about? Obviously the problem is not a church member’s right to engage in partisan politics. The problem is rather the church’s right to address itself to political issues as a corporate entity. Some churches have traditionally claimed the right to influence their members in political elections, even to the extent of urging support of a particular candidate from the pulpit.
        A Pew Research Poll released in September indicated that a growing number of Americans believe churches should express views on political questions of the day. There are more people who feel that way than there those who think churches should stay out of politics! What is even more surprising is that a growing minority of Americans think it would be good thing for churches to endorse particular political candidates!
        At a time when the church has been relegated to the sidelines as an opinion leader with regard to non-religious issues, I see those new survey results as a positive sign. Although I have my own political opinions, I have studiously avoided expressing my purely partisan views from the pulpit. But just as Isaiah did in the case of Shebna, I have never hesitated to address the moral or spiritual implications of any political issue, from Richard Nixon’s lying about Watergate, to Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions, to the Bush administration’s deceptive justification for their preemptive invasion of Iraq, an action I strongly opposed, even before it was taken.
        If Isaiah were alive today he would say that it is my right as a preacher, indeed my responsibility, to present a biblical, theological perspective on the moral, ethical, and spiritual issues of the day in whatever dimension of life I can discern them, including politics. He would probably say especially politics, for politicians draft the laws that define public morality, determine our nation’s priorities, delineate policies to guide our commercial, social, and public life, and enact programs to meet the needs of people and organizations. A preacher can bring the gospel to bear upon the issues, while leaving the technical aspects to the experts. In so doing we preachers face the constant challenge of helping our congregations to distinguish between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s, and we need their prayers to help us do that faithfully.
        Some political questions are largely programmatic in nature and should be answered on purely pragmatic grounds. Other questions have definite ethical and moral implications which demand the most sensitive theological insight and moral integrity. The issue, therefore, is not whether the church should keep out of politics, but whether the church can be faithful to its calling to speak for God to the issues of our time. After being at it for nearly sixty years I would say that most people feel it’s okay for their preacher to speak out on social or political issues —as long as they agree with him or her! When they don’t agree, it’s meddling!
        It is one thing for a minister to take a stand on an issue. It’s another thing for an entire church, or a denomination, or a council of churches to do so. But if the church of Jesus Christ is going to have any impact on the political, social, and economic structures of our society, it is going to have to bring its corporate witness to bear upon the issues that affect our common life. How should a church do this?
        Of one thing I am sure. You don’t decide moral issues by polling your constituents. Isaiah didn’t study the Gallup Polls before taking his stand. What he stood for was hardly ever the popular point of view. I’m equally sure, however, that he kept himself well informed. He wasn’t speaking out of ignorance. He knew what was going on, as his prophecies clearly indicate. Preachers would do well to follow his example, therefore, if they hope to speak with the same prophetic authority. That requires our best biblical/theological insight and spiritual sensitivity, as well as our practical knowledge of the issues themselves. It calls for responsible dialogue among those who can discern and articulate the underlying values and principles and the ethical implications of particular political issues and those whose expertise is needed to solve the problems that are raised.
        When a denomination or a particular church addresses a controversial issue, it is bound to offend some people, whose partisan views often cloud their moral judgments. Politics has been called the art of compromise, but the line between compromise and corruption is sometimes very thin.
On major issues I find myself having to compromise almost every time I vote. The issues are seldom defined exactly as I would want them to be. There have always been distinctions between the political philosophies of the two major parties. Those distinctions are sharper than ever these days, it seems to me, and because of that it makes it easier for a truly objective person, that is a person who is able to put principle above party loyalty, to make a decision.
        Every major national issue —immigration. gun control, campaign finance reform, the Keystone pipeline, fracking, Ebola, ISIS, abortion, the national infrastructure, climate change, voters’ rights, women’s rights, same sex marriage, unemployment, education, taxes, whatever— is at heart a theological issue. Most of them are stewardship issues. Nobody’s perfect, but it behooves us as Christians, before we go into the polling booth, to ask ourselves which party and which candidates better reflect the teachings of Christ.
        Many of us have been disturbed by the degree of negativity preceding this mid-term election. We need to listen carefully to the candidates’ criticisms of each other in order to assess the validity of their claims. I strongly object when a candidate grossly misrepresents his or her opponent’s point of view. It’s the old “straw man” ploy: deliberately misstate your opponents position and then attack what your opponent never said. Politicians —and theologians— are always doing that to one another.
        One thing is sure: God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah and the other prophets made that abundantly clear! We need to keep that in mind, when we vote. Biblical truth should guide a Christian’s thinking in any and every election. The prophets and Jesus remind us that God is on the side of those who are concerned about the future of this planet and those who live on it, that God is on the side of the peace makers and those who are faithful stewards of God’s earth and of all life.
There are, to be sure, men and women of integrity on both sides of the political aisle. They may agree on some things and disagree on others, and in sorting it all out, we voters, we Christian voters, may well disagree in our assessments. But surely Isaiah and Jesus would expect all of us to vote not for our economic self-interest, but for the candidates we think will move our society towards greater justice and peace, more responsible stewardship of our resources and power, more concern for the poor and the oppressed, and for those who are the victims of hunger, and disease, and homelessness, and any kind of abuse or neglect. 
        We need to pray humbly and earnestly, with an open mind and heart, before we vote, that the Holy Spirit will enable us to choose those whose ideas best reflect what it means to be, and whose character and style of leadership can help us to be, what we claim to be, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

* * * * * * *

For starters, here’s a  question worth pondering:

Why can't preachers, who are mortal,
     when they speak of things infernal,
know that words to be immortal
     do not have to be eternal?

Here's another:

If prayer is essential
     in tough times like these,
why aren't more clergy trousers
     worn out at the knees?

And another:

Is it writ into law? Has there been a decree?
     Has it been canonized in a song?
How did so many church members come to agree
     that a service is one hour long?

    And Other Church Rhymes)

               * * * * * * *


There is hope for the Church
     in these trouble-filled days.
There is hope, since the One
     in whose name the Church prays
is still Lord of the Church
     and the Church cannot fail,
for he said that the gates
     of hell shall not prevail.

There is hope for the Church
     in this world of great need.
There is hope for the Church
     that will follow the lead
of the Suffering Servant
     whose good news the Church bears.
And there's hope for the world,
     if the Church really cares!

(from Enough, Already! and Other Church Rhymes)

                           * * * * * * *

                         WHERE ELSE?

Such a sweet, loving couple were Charlie and Ann.
They were always in church Sunday morn,
in the very same pew when the service began,
where they'd sat since before I was born.

Just to see them together was always a joy,
for whether they'd sit or they'd stand,
they were just like teenagers, a girl and a boy
who were worshiping God hand in hand.

How distressed we all were when Ann suddenly died,
and was buried one cold Saturday.
Even so, Charlie sat without Ann by his side
in their pew on the very next day.

"I'm so glad that you came today, Charlie," said I.
"What a witness you have been to me!"                              
Charlie smiled and then said, with a tear in his eye,
        "On a Sunday where else would I be?"

From Enough, Already! and other Church Rhymes
by Richard Stoll Armstrong

                               THIS WAY, PLEASE! 

Have you noticed how some ushers show
the people to their pews?
They go sailing down the aisle without
permitting folks to choose
where they might for some good reason have
a preference to sit.
It is obvious some people don't
appreciate one bit
being taken to a front pew when
they much prefer the rear.
It can ruin their experience
of worshiping, I fear.
It would seem that common courtesy
demands that ushers ask
where people want to sit.  Is that
too difficult a task?
It can sometimes be amusing and
embarrassing to boot,
when an usher loses contact with
the ushered one en route.
I once saw an eager usher turn
and gesture with a flare,
and discover that the person he
was seating wasn't there!

(from Enough, Already!)
 * * * * * * *


The resident "butters" on every church board ---
what a thorn in the flesh they can be!
With unanimous votes they are not in accord;
they'd rather be wrong than agree.

They give you the feeling you simply can't win.
They'd vote against God, if they could.
Their forte is the one unforgivable sin:
attributing evil to good.

Deliver me, Lord, from people like that.
Their "butting" is driving me nuts.
"Yes, but," and "No, but" and "But this" and "But that" ---
they're sliding to hell on their "buts"!

(from Enough, Already!)

 * * * * * * *


There are certain clever preachers
who can cultivate the knack
of avoiding issues so they're
never subject to attack.
If they ever face a problem,
they will never take a side,
saying that "It's up to every
individual to decide."
From atop their pulpit platform
on a diving board they stand,
poised to jump into their topic,
but they never seem to land!

(from Enough, Already!)

 * * * * * * *


         There is an alarming amount of evidence that the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract methane gas from shale is seriously endangering the environment. In an effort to halt the practice local communities in upper New York State are taking to court the big oil companies, who in turn are spending millions to defend their right to use the controversial technique.
         Local congregations have members on both sides of the issue, while other members are uncertain and confused. It is a time for leadership within the churches and by the churches within their communities. 
First Presbyterian Church
Cooperstown, NY
         In Otsego County, New York, the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown is providing just that kind of leadership. An ad hoc committee of the church made a thorough study of the issue and brought their findings and recommendations to the Session, which then adopted a resolution. The Session is the ruling body of a Presbyterian congregation, consisting of a certain number of elders elected by and representative of the congregation, and the pastor, who serves as the moderator.  
         The resolution was then presented to the congregation for their edification and support, and to the local media. It stands as a beautiful example of the way a church should address such a controversial issue, and the pastor and the elders are to be commended for their courageous leadership and responsible citizenship.
         This is churchmanship at its best!

* * * * * * *
First Presbyterian Church
Cooperstown, New York 13326
Session Resolution on Horizontal High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing
Whereas, as people of faith, we believe that God is the creator of the earth, its abundant resources, all humankind, and the rich diversity of life that inhabits this world;
Whereas, we are entrusted by God to be good stewards of the planet, which requires that resources of land, air, and water be managed responsibly and sustainably, without destroying or despoiling God’s creation;
Whereas, consistent with the teachings of Christ, we have a moral obligation to prevent harm to our fellow human beings, including future generations who will inherit the earth;
Whereas, horizontal high-volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is a recently-developed technology for the extraction of methane gas from shale rock, involving the injection of large quantities of water or other fluids, toxic chemicals, and propants into the ground under explosive pressure to create and hold open fractures in gas-bearing shale;
Whereas, new information has emerged regarding the significant dangers of fracking, causing independent experts to conclude that the technology poses a serious risk of immediate, long-term, or even permanent harm to land, air, and water resources; said harm occurring through the migration of methane and toxic chemicals into groundwater supplies, airborn gas and chemical emissions, induced seismic activity, disposal of fracking fluids, and the widespread fragmentation of ecosystems and loss of wildlife caused by large-scale proliferation of drilling sites and related infrastructure;
Whereas, new information has emerged regarding incidents of contamination and sickness in Pennsylvania and other areas where fracking has occurred, leading medical professionals to question industry claims that natural gas can be extracted safely without endangering human health;
Whereas, an industrialized landscape created by the large-scale proliferation of fracking threatens to supplant existing and emerging economies which offer hope for a more sustainable future, protective of the earth and people, including but not limited to locally-owned family farms, wineries, organic agriculture, outdoor recreation, ecotourism, and businesses rooted in the rich history and rural heritage of upstate New York;
Whereas, due to the political, legal, and regulatory framework in which the fossil fuel industry presently operates, communities that have been subjected to intense and widespread fossil fuel extraction, including fracking, disproportionately suffer the consequences of extraction through environmental injustice and social-economic exploitation, without equitably sharing in the financial benefits enjoyed by industry;
Whereas, recognizing that natural gas has existed within shale formations since early geologic time and will continue to reside there should alternative technologies be developed for its safe extraction in the future, it is imprudent and morally objectionable to proceed with current methods of fracking in light of the inherent and significant risks posed to the environment, human health, and society.
Now, therefore be it resolved this 21st day of May, 2012 by the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown the following:
1.      The Session opposes current methods of horizontal high-volume hydraulic fracturing and supports local and statewide bans on use of the technology.
2.      The Session encourages the development of sustainable economies, renewable energy, and conservation measures so that New York State may serve as an example of good stewardship for the earth and an advocate for the well-being of its inhabitants.
3.      The Session urges the members of the congregation to support this resolution with concrete actions and encourages other faith communities to join with us in its support.

 * * * * * * *


For many years I've asked around
about church music, and I've found
that plain folks don't appreciate
songs some musicians think are great.
Why don`t more church soloists choose
their music for those in the pews?
The kind of solo folks desire,
is one intended to inspire,
a song that makes their spirits rise,
not just some vocal exercise.
They don't want soloists to wail
like someone practicing a scale.
Nor do they want solos that sound
like some poor howling Basset hound.
A melody that moves the heart
will stay with them, when they depart.
So many people wonder why
church music has to be so dry.
Musicians (that is, some, not all)
believe it is their special call
to raise their congregation's taste
for "better" music.  They don't waste
their time on sentimental tripe.
What do they care if people gripe?

(from Enough, Already!)

* * * * * * *


Those with preaching capabilities
  need good terminal facilities!

(from Enough, Already!)

 * * * * * * *


Ordination confers upon preachers the right
        to proclaim from the pulpit God's Word.
                 Though they may have been given the right to proclaim,
they must merit the right to be heard!

* * * * * * *

Some church members have the notion                                                          
that their level of emotion
is the mark of their devotion
and on that their kingdom standing must depend.

Some are much too braggadocian,
and their cocky self-promotion
may just get them a demotion,
when the roll is called up yonder in the end!

* * * * * * *


        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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