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A Letter from the Pastoral Leadership Team of Pittsburgh Presbytery's Staff

Marriage Matters: A Pastoral Letter about the Passage of the Marriage Amendment to the Book of Order
March 19, 2015

On Tuesday March 17 the total number of presbyteries voting to approve the PCUSA marriage amendment surpassed the majority of 86 required for its passage. The change will become officially effective on June 21. Presbytery votes on this amendment are running roughly two-to-one in favor of revamping the marriage section in the Book of Order. The most controversial change is from language that recognizes marriage as “a civil contract between a man and a woman” to a contract between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” This aligns the Book of Order with the free permission General Assembly has already granted pastors and congregations to solemnize marriages of couples who have received legal marriage licenses in states such as our own that grant such licenses to same-sex couples. Both before and after this amendment, the Book of Order section on marriage has been primarily concerned with specifying how a church may solemnize before God and the people of God a marriage that has been legally granted by the state.

Some who vote for this change in our Book of Order believe strongly that same-sex marriage comports well with biblical teaching on the covenantal partnership and life-long fidelity embodied in marriage, noting that marriage takes multiple forms even in the Bible. Others who vote for this permission are less ready themselves to affirm or officiate same-sex marriages, but believe that it is something on which pastors and congregations should be granted liberty, according to their own conscientious reading of Scripture – a liberty that is fundamental to our historic Presbyterian identity. (See Book of Order F-3.0101 and G-2.0105) Some who vote “no” believe that same-sex couples should be granted full civil benefits available to married couples, but that their civil union is not equivalent to “marriage” from a Christian perspective. And some believe that the church should never endorse social support structures for same-sex couples. People in each of these perspectives believe that Holy Scripture supports their position. Our differences are less about whether one side or another seeks to be more faithful to Scripture, than how the various sides read the Scripture we all hold in high esteem. The variety of our views on marriage reflects the various ways our church members read the Bible on many topics, a variety that has been with us from our founding days.

Put another way, this vote signifies that a majority of Presbyterians believe that our differences on this issue do not warrant dividing the church, and therefore the church should grant liberty on it. It requires us to find a way to live together with mutual respect and shared commitment to the Gospel, despite our continuing disagreement on this matter. The language of the amendment stipulates that no congregation or minister may be required to perform a marriage contrary to their conscience.

On May 14, when Pittsburgh Presbytery votes on Book of Order amendments, we will begin the day with a pre-meeting conference hour about the pastoral challenges we are encountering, whether our conscience has led us to celebrate or to prohibit same-sex weddings. The purpose of this pre-meeting conference will not be to debate the merits of same-sex marriage, but to learn better how to engage redemptively the pastoral challenges in our own congregations. Perhaps we will also better learn the hopes and concerns of members of our presbytery whose convictions about same-sex marriage differ from our own. We will have opportunity to practice the grace and humility that we consider so critical to our posture before God and one another.

Every pastor and session has struggled to determine the appropriate pastoral approach when they are requested to conduct or host a marriage ceremony for a couple they believe should not be married. The way forward is never easy. A decision to decline a wedding request has always created pastoral challenges with the couple, along with their friends and families. Those struggles and challenges can be magnified with a same-sex couple, especially when the session and/or pastor declare that they cannot in good conscience bless any such marriage. As the denomination as a whole makes room for varieties of conviction and practice on this, the struggles over the issue will fall squarely within each congregation. We urge that graciousness and love mark how we engage those challenges together. We believe that open, honest, loving conversation about these struggles is far more God-glorifying than simply walking our separate ways. As your presbytery staff, we are gladly available to help facilitate such a conversation in any congregation that asks us to do so.

While our denomination is seeking a pathway on which we can walk together even when we conscientiously differ on the marriage issue, this is no license to set aside our commitment to seek earnestly to be guided by the Holy Spirit through the words of Scripture, or to proclaim Jesus boldly as Lord and Savior. We who visit your various congregations join in affirming that wherever we go, no matter the differences we find between and within congregations on this issue, we experience in each congregation an abiding commitment to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior, to hear and be guided honestly by the Word of God as revealed in Scripture, and to do the mission of Jesus Christ in outreach to a broken world. Our experience in seeing your congregations up close and personal is deeply at odds with narratives of our fellowship that suggest our church is abandoning loyalty to Jesus as Savior and Lord, or setting aside the Scriptures to follow instead the winds of culture. Of course, all of us struggle in keeping these commitments purely, but based on our hundreds of personal visits to our congregations, we bear witness that in each one there is honest effort to grow in our faithfulness to the Word of God and the lordship of Jesus.

As your staff, we want to state as clearly as possible that we are committed to do all we can to assure that freedom of conscience on the question of marriage is upheld equally for all pastors and congregations in our presbytery. We commit ourselves to stand firmly with all our members in seeking to grow in grace, love, and peace in our lives and service, bearing with one another in the Lord as we continue our journey together while holding various views on this matter. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

We love this church family known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is not perfect, but it is the place in the family of God where our Lord has placed us. Some of us were born into this branch of the family, others were called here after having been raised in other faith traditions. All of us believe that the Holy Spirit is very much at work in us, among us, and through us in the PCUSA, even when we disagree. We long deeply for the family of God to be whole. Just as Jesus prayed that we may be one, we pray fervently for the day when all of us will acknowledge visibly and gladly that we all belong together in the kingdom of God. We continue daily to pray as he taught us, “Your kingdom come! Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” We dare to trust that this is a prayer God shall one day fully answer. May that day come quickly!

Your staff in Christ's service,
Sheldon Sorge, General Minister
Doug Portz, Senior Associate Minister
Beverly James, Associate Minister for Discipleship
Ayana Teter, Associate Minister for Outreach
Betty Angelini, Executive Director, Crestfield Camp and Conference Center
Carla Campbell, Stated Clerk

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