By now, many of you have heard about the decisions made at the 221st General Assembly of the PC (USA) in Detroit, MI this past week. Some of you may be rejoicing, feeling that these decisions are long in coming. Others may be grieving these decisions, feeling the church moving in a direction with which you do not feel comfortable. These emotions are being experienced all across our denomination.
Much of the information being disseminated through the media and the internet may lead to misunderstanding and confusion. I hope to make some clarification. Two different actions were taken by the General Assembly concerning “Same-Gender Marriage,” and one concerning “Divestment.”
The first action is called an “Authoritative Interpretation” which is an interpretation of The Constitution of the PC (USA.) that carries the authority of the General Assembly and is binding on the councils (session, presbytery, synod or general assembly) of the church. This authoritative interpretation “gives PC (USA) ministers leeway to perform same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are legal, although it does not require pastors to do so.” The language states that “Nothing herein shall compel a [pastor] to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the [pastor] or the session believes is contrary to the [pastor’s] or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God” (The Presbyterian Outlook).
In simple terms: in those states or regions where the state or civil authority has made same-sex marriages legal, a pastor may or may not officiate at the service. It is left to the pastor’s conscience, his/her interpretation of scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In like manner, in those states or regions where the state or civil authority has made same-sex marriages legal, a session is left to its own discretion concerning whether or not to allow their property to be used for same-sex marriages. This allows for but does not require pastors and sessions to support same sex marriages.
This authoritative interpretation became affective at the close of the General Assembly on June 21, 2014.
Change in Definition of Marriage
The second action taken by the General Assembly was to approve an amendment changing the definition of Christian marriage in the PC (USA) constitution to say that marriage involves “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” This changed the current wording in the Book of Order, which states that Christian marriage is between “a man and a woman” (W-4.9000). Unlike the authoritative interpretation, which is effective at the close of the General Assembly, as an amendment to the Book of Order this requires the ratification by majority vote of the 172 presbyteries. Over the next year, presbyteries across the country will debate and vote on this amendment. If ratified, it becomes effective June 21, 2015.
With audible gasps from those in the plenary hall, the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Friday narrowly approved divestment from three United States companies doing business in Israel- Palestine. By a vote of 310-303, the Assembly approved an overture calling for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies some allege are engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the region.
MRTI (Mission Responsibility through Investment Committee) found these companies to be out of compliance with these criteria, as well as resistant to change and further dialogue:
• Caterpillar provides bulldozers used in the destruction of Palestinian homes and for clearing land of structures and fruit and olive tree groves in preparation for construction of the barrier wall.
• Hewlett-Packard has extensive involvement with the Israeli army and provides electronic systems at checkpoints, logistics and communications systems to support the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as business relationships with illegal settlements in the West Bank.
•Motorola Solutions provides military communications and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.
Regardless of what the media reports, we have not divested with Israel. We still support their right to be a self-governing nation, to defend their borders, and to live peaceably. Immediately after the vote, Moderator Heath Rada reaffirmed that, saying, “In no way is this a reflection for our lack of love for our Jewish sisters and brothers.
How the PC (USA) Works
Some of you may not be familiar with the Presbyterian Form of Government. We have a representative form of government. When we speak of the “session” we refer to those individuals elected by the congregation to serve in governing the local church. The secular example would be the local or municipal government. A member of the session or an elder who is not currently active on session is elected by the session to attend Presbytery meetings. Presbytery is the council which is made up of the Presbyterian churches in a particular region, exemplified by the state government. We are a member of the Presbytery of the James which meets approximately three times a year. The presbytery in turn elects elder commissioners (both clergy and ruling elders) to represent the presbytery at the General Assembly which meets biennially.
The individuals, who made the recent decisions, are local church pastors and elders, elected by the 172 presbyteries to represent them at the General Assembly. These are not bureaucrats in offices somewhere making decisions for the churches. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, colleagues, neighbors, worshipers in local congregations, and fellow disciples seeking to discern God’s will in a difficult time.
Unity and Reconciliation
Finally, I concur with the feelings expressed by Teaching Elder Commissioner Jeffrey Bridgeman, moderator of the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee, during his presentation to the Assembly. “The apostle Paul tells us that ours is, in fact, ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ as ‘ambassadors of Christ,’ and he died for us so that we might be reconciled, that we might become reconcilers.” We are a diverse church whose membership spans the theological, political, and social spectrum. Let us remain in communion with one another, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep, reconciled with God and with one another, knowing that we have this one thing in common—Jesus Christ and him crucified.
May the God who created us, called us into new life, and daily reconciles us with God and with each other, make us one as God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--is one. Amen.