A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A Quiet Day
May 21, 2015
On May 14 Pittsburgh Presbytery gathered at the Bower Hill Community Presbyterian Church for our regular stated meeting. As with all presbytery meetings, a full report of its actions is published on our website. Among other things, our docket included voting on the amendments to the Book of Order proposed by last year’s General Assembly. Included in that list of proposed amendments was a wholesale change of the section on marriage services in the church, of which two parts are especially notable:
The description of civil marriage is changed from that of a contract between “a man and a woman” to one between “two persons, traditionally a man and a woman.” This change at one level simply acknowledges a matter of fact, that in most states marriages are now granted to same sex couples. More momentous than this technical change is the church’s recognition of the validity of all legal marriages, including those between same sex couples, and that as such they may be conducted by the church. The drama of this change, however, is tempered by the fact that General Assembly already granted this permission last June.
The new section includes a significant qualification: that no minister or church may be required to marry anyone against their conscience or policy. This has always been tacitly the case for marriage – ministers and congregations have always had the right to refuse requests to conduct particular marriage services. The force of this new language in the marriage section is to assure abiding freedom regarding same sex marriage in particular. Churches and ministers may have policies expressing either their willingness or their refusal to conduct same sex marriages.
While these changes are at one level technical, they represent a major shift in the church’s understanding and practices relating to marriage. The stipulated freedom for pastors and churches in how they engage their GLBT members and neighbors goes both ways – a freedom to marry, and a freedom to refuse to marry.
This change to our Book of Order was already confirmed by the needed majority of presbyteries by March 17, so our vote two months later was “merely” one of principle; it would have no bearing on national policy. Still, our presbytery took it very seriously and prayerfully.
Before the presbytery meeting, there was an hour of informal conversation about the pastoral effects of last year’s change in policy permitting same sex marriages in our church. Three pastors graciously responded to searching questions about the difference this has made in their congregations. The room seated only 70 persons, and it proved insufficient to handle the crowd. The tone of the conversation was respectful, peaceable, and honest – something that transferred into the subsequent presbytery meeting.
In preparing for the vote, speakers on both sides spoke their views with both graciousness and conviction. The two lines of pro and con speakers stood in the same center aisle, within arms’ reach of each other. At one point, those lined up to speak embraced each other literally across the aisle. There were no threats or accusations. Those who spoke displayed the same mutual love that I have come to know and treasure as a hallmark of our presbytery.
The “debate” was conducted and concluded quietly. When the results were announced an hour later, things stayed just as quiet – 122 voted for the change, and 110 against. This is a very different distribution of votes from previous votes we have taken on matters related to same sex partnership.
Many people have remarked that this is a stunning change for Pittsburgh Presbytery. However, it comports with what I have discovered as I have visited our various congregations over the past year – opinions on same sex marriage are pretty much evenly divided, and there is little demonizing of those on the other side of this issue, even when positions are held with conviction. Most of us are willing to honor the good faith and integrity of brothers and sisters who disagree with us on this issue. Both the vote totals and the spirit of the meeting seemed to me authentic representations of what I encounter in the churches I visit.
The most significant questions before us run far deeper than our positions on marriage. They have to do with the heart of our mission – are we giving ourselves unreservedly to proclaiming together in word and deed the reconciling love of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit? Have we done all we can to reach the youth of our community with the transforming hope of the Gospel? Have we reached out in Jesus’ name to the needy and afflicted? Have we demonstrated powerfully the grace, love, and justice of our Lord?
When it comes to resolving questions about marriage freedom, perhaps it is fitting that the day be quiet. But when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel, a quiet day is anything but appropriate. Sisters and brothers, we have indescribably good news for a world that is assailed at every turn by bad news. Let us proclaim it in word and action with all that is in us!
Your partner in proclaiming the Gospel,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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