At its 2014 General Assembly held in Detroit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to approve two measures to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages. The first, Item 10-03, issued an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order stating that pastors have a right to preside over gay marriages in states where they are legal. The second, Item 10-02, amended the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between “two people” rather than between a man and a woman and allows ministers to perform any legal marriage between two people. That amendment will require the approval of a majority of the presbyteries before it will take effect.
The PCUSA already allows same-sex “blessing” ceremonies, so long as they are not considered “marriages.” In 2010, the General Assembly voted narrowly 373-323 to amend the Book of Order to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians in an open relationship. After that amendment was approved by the requisite number of presbyteries, hundreds of congregations departed the PCUSA for other denominations.
The PCUSA’s Book of Order is currently written to limit marriage to one man and one woman.
“Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians, marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage, a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.”
Under both approved measures, pastors in states where marriage is restricted to a man and a woman cannot perform same-sex marriage. Likewise, those pastors who oppose same-sex marriage cannot be compelled to perform them.
The General Assembly debate over same-sex marriage lasted for nearly three hours. The authoritative interpretation was first challenged as unconstitutional by an elder. Robert’s Rules of Order, which the PCUSA uses as its official parliamentary procedures, states that authoritative interpretations cannot be conflict with the clear meaning of the text of the constitution. But that objection was voted down by a vote of 379-179, and the General Assembly approved the authoritative interpretation by a vote of 371-238. The proposed amendment to the Book of Order was passed by a greater margin, 429-175.
LGBT activists within the PCUSA were predictably pleased with the vote. “This vote is an answer to many prayers for the Church to recognize love between committed same-sex couples,” said Alex McNeill, the executive director of the unofficial gay Presbyterian caucus More Light Presbyterians.
The conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, meanwhile, issued a statement strongly condemning the vote. “In the name of 1.8 million Presbyterians nationwide, the General Assembly has committed an express repudiation of the Bible, the mutually agreed upon Confessions of the PCUSA, thousands of years of faithfulness to God’s clear commands and the denominational ordination vows of each concurring commissioner. This is an abomination.”
In a press release, IRD’s Mark Tooley stated, “Only declining denominations reject historic Christian standards and in nearly every case that rejection reinforces the decline. Who respects a church that only echoes the secular world?” Previously, IRD has noted the sustained decline of the PCUSA, especially following the denomination’s homosexuality-affirming actions at previous general assemblies.
General Assembly Moderator Heath Rada asked that those present be graceful in victory or defeat, and that there be no applause or jeering after votes were announced. The Assembly respected his request. Afterwards, he stressed the unity of the denomination by leading a mass rendition of the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.”