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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

General Assembly
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Detroit Dispatch Six

When I was called to serve Pittsburgh Presbytery, the PNC that called me gave me a treasured gift – a beautiful stole made by someone soon to become a dear friend, Jenny Gallo. On the stole she cleverly wove together a treble clef signature with a cross, and the PNC charged me, “Keep making music!” That came to mind on Thursday as I was on the dais at GA leading music from the piano, and I looked to the Moderator beside me, wearing yet another gorgeous “Jenny” stole. His is great, but I like mine better. Smile. Joining me on the dais as a singer leading the congregation was our own YAAD, Faith Bailey of the Hampton United Presbyterian Church. Double smile!

Thursday’s deliberations began with commissioners hearing brief presentations from the leaders of the Marriage committee and the Middle East committee, along with presentations from a Palestinian leader from Bethlehem and a leading U.S. rabbi. Commissioners then gathered in small groups to discuss what they heard, and finally to pray about these matters – all of this well in advance of the assembly’s votes later Thursday afternoon and Friday afternoon on these controversial issues. Listening and praying before debating and voting – what a concept!

After lunch, formal deliberation on marriage issues began. Following a lengthy debate, the assembly voted 61%-39% (371/238 delegates) to adopt an “authoritative interpretation” of the Constitution, permitting same sex weddings by pastors and in churches where it is permitted by state law, even though marriage is currently described in our Constitution as being between a man and a woman. This permission takes effect immediately. The assembly then voted 71%-29%(429/175 delegates) to recommend rewriting the Book of Order section W-4.900 (where marriage is described as between “a man and a woman”). The new language being proposed for presbytery ratification posits marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and to support each other for the rest of their lives.” After several other provisions, it concludes with this important qualification: “Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform, or compel a session to authorize the use of property for, a marriage service [that they believe contrary to] the Word of God.” This proposed change to the Book of Order will require ratification by a majority of presbyteries, so we will vote on it sometime within the next year. The full text for both resolutions can be found here.

After the vote tally was announced, Moderator Heath Rada led us in an impromptu rendition of a beloved hymn that captured well the heartfelt prayer of many, as we faced the breadth of raw emotions in the room, ranging from exultation to sorrow:

God of grace, and God of glory, on Thy people pour Thy power;
Crown thine ancient church’s story, bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour!

The same range of emotions was present in our own commissioners, so I gathered our team for prayer as that session ended, and we spent a precious few moments praying with one another. Part of my prayer for us was this: “Lord, you have seen fit in your wisdom to put us here to represent and lead your church at this crossing. Fill us with the power and gifts of your Spirit as we are called to serve you well in this place and at this time. Grant us the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to guide your people faithfully into the place you are calling them to go.”

It is important to underscore that the assembly’s action was intended to permit pastoral latitude, and not to require any pastor or church to celebrate a marriage against their conscience. In my judgment, a clear majority of the assembly believes that people of good faith, honest confession of Jesus as Lord, and commitment to Scripture and our Confessions can in good conscience have varying convictions on same sex marriage, so the church ought to make room for those variations.

One of the challenges now before us is whether we are able to bear with brothers and sisters who differ from us on a matter that generates such heated debate and polarized division in the world around us. Can we show a more excellent way by remaining together in love and forbearance amid our differences? As we receive news of these GA actions, can we model the way of living that Scripture calls us to embrace: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) – even those who feel very differently about these GA decisions than we do?

Yours in Christ,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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