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Thoughts on Officiating at Same-Gender Blessing Services Covenant Network of Presbyterians, February 18, 2013

The Board of the Covenant Network has analyzed the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decisions in cases where teaching elders have been involved in same-gender marriages, and offers thoughts for those who are concerned with providing pastoral care that is consistent with the GAPJC’s authoritative interpretation of the PCUSA Constitution: May Presbyterian ministers officiate at weddings of same-gender couples? May Sessions give permission for such ceremonies to be held on their premises? Now that nine states and the District of Columbia have authorized same-gender couples to enter into lawful, civil marriage, and other jurisdictions are considering similar measures, these questions have become more common and more pressing. There are no certain, straightforward answers to these questions. Teaching elders and Sessions should carefully weigh the following considerations if they are asked to participate in or make their facilities available for a licensed same-gender wedding ceremony. There is no definitive authority comprehensively addressing issues arising with samegender wedding ceremonies, but decisions in church courts have not looked favorably on Presbyterian ministers officiating at such ceremonies. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) has addressed same-gender unions and marriages five times over the past dozen years.[1] It has repeatedly observed that the Constitution nowhere expressly addresses same-gender relationships. In the absence of a definitive description or ruling, the Constitution’s definition of Christian marriage as between “a man and a woman” (W-4.9001) has been called upon to provide the basis for evaluating conduct concerning same-gender ceremonies. The GAPJC has recognized this provision in the Book of Worship was not designed to address the questions now being pressed.[2] Nevertheless, in the absence of direct address to these questions, the definition has generally been used to weigh against same-gender wedding services being conducted by teaching elders or hosted by Presbyterian churches. Some pastoral acts have been affirmed as permissible: Teaching elders may hold a religious service to bless a same-gender union, including the union of a couple that has been civilly married, and Sessions may authorize the use of church facilities for such a purpose. Such a ceremony, however, must be liturgically distinct from traditional PCUSA liturgies of marriage, such as those found in the Book of Common Worship. The GAPJC decisions have not explained what constitutes a sufficient liturgical distinction, but in the view of the Covenant Network, the GAPJC likely will honor any good faith effort to avoid hallmarks of the traditional Christian marriage service (e.g., as in the concluding pronouncement of marriage). Teaching elders may participate in a civil ceremony of marriage for a same-gender couple. Nothing in the Constitution or polity prohibits a teaching elder from signing a legal certificate or license of marriage or acting as a witness to the civil marriage.[3] The Commission has made clear that the Directory for Worship only applies to services “conducted under the auspices of the PCUSA.” McNeill, at 3. Teaching elders also may provide pre-marital counseling to a same-gender couple to the same extent as would be

If the PCUSA’s view of marriage is clearly represented.” Southard. In cases not covered by these rulings. respect. Teaching elders (and others) may refer accurately to the couple as “married. whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages. we celebrate acts of commitment. . Some pastoral acts seem to be ruled out by GAPJC decisions: Teaching elders may not represent or imply that a religious ceremony of blessing for a same-gender couple “is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity. is not “an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity. at 4.” though legal and blessed by the Church. The hard and murky question is whether it is permissible for a teaching elder to combine a civil marriage ceremony with a service of religious blessing.” Spahr (II).gender marriage. public engagement with same-gender marriage ceremonies may provoke accusations and even charges. we are gathered to bless the civil union of ___ and ___.” Teaching elders who wish to proceed with the possibly permissible procedure described above (distinguishing a civil wedding with a religious blessing from a “marriage in the eyes of the church”) might steer clear of misrepresenting PCUSA polity in the context of a same-gender marriage/blessing by including the following statements made in the service or in the bulletin: “According to the laws of the State (of _______) and the provisions of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA).[5] The Covenant Network believes that a teaching elder may officiate at a civil marriage with a religious blessing without running afoul of the Constitution. This view is supported by the GAPJC’s observation that its authoritative interpretations are meant to avoid the misrepresentation that the PCUSA “recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church. are highly controversial. What this admonition means in practice.[4] In the absence of clearer guidelines. there would be no misrepresentation that the “marriage. though legal. provided that the officiant steers clear of traditional liturgical forms and issues a statement in connection with the service that sets forth the PCUSA polity. In all human relationships. at 3 (PCUSA officer who was civilly married in a same-gender relationship did not commit an offense by describing herself as “married”). Such counseling probably should include information concerning the PCUSA’s definition of Christian marriage. and love. is far from clear if the religious ceremony coincides with the same-gender couple’s civil marriage (as is commonly the case with traditional dual-gender marriage). even assuming the pastor is careful to distinguish the liturgy from a traditional service of marriage and not to imply or represent that the marriage. there may be room for pastoral discretion. civil or Christian.expected with a traditional dual. is not sanctioned by the PCUSA. teaching elders who desire to provide pastoral support to a same-gender couple and celebrate the couple’s decision to enter into a commitment of civil marriage may be vulnerable to accusations. at 4. however. See McNeill. however. Because same-gender marriages. Caution is urged here.” or “We are gathered today in great joy to celebrate the love and commitment of _____ and _____. though the way is not entirely clear. The GAPJC has never directly confronted this issue.” so long as they do not state or imply that the civil marriage is recognized as a Christian marriage by PCUSA polity. So we come today with joy to recognize and bless this civil union as a sacred covenant.

[6] The same admonitions would still apply – that the service of blessing must be liturgically distinct and that marriage must not be held out to be an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PCUSA polity. at 5. Finally. and mutual respect just as we rejoice with and support all who make vows of faithful love and commitment in this church. eds. love. and Celebrations.With regret we acknowledge that the laws of _____ and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) do not recognize full marriage equality. and the Board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. Other resources are listed at Although the Covenant Network believes that such a service is defensible under the Constitution. (2000) Rem. yet we believe that this covenant is every bit as sacred as marriage. a Rebuke.. Pby of Redwoods (2008). A brief history of the rulings is available here: http://covnetpres. Southard v. For example. [2] The GAPJC has expressed concern over the lack of clear authority addressing same-gender marriages. Benton v. Esq. It is likely. There are some suggestions. Ceremonies. however.” We encourage ministers to work with couples to be creative in developing services that reflect and honor their relationships. Disc. Spahr v. accusations and charges likely will come. we intend to rejoice with this couple and support their commitment. [1] See Pby of Newark v. the pastor or others could hold a civil ceremony to attest to the marriage and sign the license followed by a service of blessing. (2012). Kittredge Cherry and Salmon Sherwood. Case Disc. but who instead decide to provide the same service of marriage to same-gender couples. Disc. the officiant may want to consider a safer strategy: separating the permissible religious blessing from the civil marriage. Pby of Boston (2011). the practical consequences from such a charge would not be severe. Experience from other cases has been that Investigating Committees and Prosecuting Committees will apply only the mildest form of discipline. Disc. The Commission recently observed. Spahr v. it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies whether civil or religious. the act of providing an ecclesiastical blessing that merges with the civil marriage may provoke an accusation and a charge. in many Presbyteries where same-gender marriage remains highly controversial.Case 220-08 (Spahr 2). McNeill. Pby of Redwoods (2012). for those who reject applying the fine distinctions suggested above. Case 221-02. . Prepared by Timothy Cahn. Case 21211. The Office of the General Assembly indeed has advised that such an approach poses less risk of judicial charges. which might be adapted. and commit ourselves to working for the day when there are no such distinctions… or “We are here today to celebrate a civil marriage under the laws of the State of__________ of and . While we wish the Presbyterian Church sanctioned this as a marriage. to teaching elders who are found guilty of the offense of officiating at a disapproved same-gender wedding ceremony. and will work for the day it does so. Thus. Case 218-12. Pby or Hudson River. “In light of the number of cases coming before this Commission and the convoluted grounds upon which cases are brought and decided.” McNeill. in a volume published by Westminster John Knox in 1995: Equal Rites: Lesbian and Gay Worship.

accessible procedure by which any Presbyterian member may initiate disciplinary proceedings against a teaching elder.09cra. The Covenant Network agrees with this statement only assuming that the OGA. Share! Excerpted from Thoughts on Officiating at Same-Gender Blessing Services . [5]An Advisory Opinion issued by the Office of the General Assembly has suggested that a teaching elder may not “perform a same-gender ‘marriage. at 5 (Concurring opinion by B.” means a “Christian marriage sanctioned by PCUSA polity.’” The Advisory Opinion’s use of “marriage” (the quotation marks are the OGA’s) in this context is ambiguous. imply.Covenant Network http://covnetpres. The civil laws of all fifty states authorize religious ministers to act as an agent of the state to solemnize the marriage. Bundick). Nothing in the ytilibadaer/stnemirepxe/moc.[3] Marriage fundamentally is a matter of state law. even one located in a different Presbytery. One would be welladvised to consult the civil law of the jurisdiction where the same-gender marriage is contemplated to determine whether or not a denomination’s view of its ministers’ authorization to perform Christian marriage under ecclesial rules has any impact on the standing of the minister to be the State’s agent in solemnizing the marriage. [4] PCUSA polity provides a very simple. See Spahr II. however. by “marriage. or represent the blessing to be” a Christian marriage recognized by the PCUSA. prohibits teaching elders from solemnizing the civil marriage of a same-gender couple.bal//:ptth tnemirepxE yrotarobaL 09crA nA — YTILIBADAER . Be Sociable. provided that the officiant at the blessing ceremony does not in any way state. [6] The OGA opined: “The blessing of a union between two persons of the same-gender previously married in a legally permitted civil ceremony may pose less risk.” A PCUSA teaching elder may not officiate a same-gender marriage that is determined and represented to be a Christian marriage service authorized by the PCUSA. if authorized by the State to do so.