“The Holy Spirit came to this room today”: Thursday’s Marriage Actions at the General Assembly
As the eight-day General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) entered the home stretch with Thursday’s plenary business, the multiple matters and motions that the marriage committee brought forward finally reached their hours of debate and decision in the afternoon.
Just as the marriage committee proceedings were in a packed room, the spacious plenary hall was filled with the approximately 600 commissioners, with hundreds more observers, including PCUSA staff and laypersons, local citizens and national media.
Although our denomination and society have studied this topic for some time, a resolution called “On Creating a Task Force to Identify Common Ground and Reconcilable Differences with Respect to Same-Gender Marriage” was before us. After considerable debate and attempts to amend, the general assembly ultimately voted 68% to 32% to disapprove the call for further study.
Additionally, another piece of legislation would separate civil marriage and church blessings entirely. There was almost no discussion, but one teaching elder did suggest that this was “arguing we have an opportunity here to claim our identity as the church as ambassadors of Christ, not the State.”Commissioners voted 77% in favor, 23% opposed, to concur with the committee’s recommendation to disapprove 10-01.
When the Authoritative Interpretation (AI) “to Affirm Pastoral Discretion in Performing Marriage Ceremonies” finally reached the floor, opposition commissioners’ tried to stall the process with questions, clarifications, and debate, just as occurred in the marriage committee. Emotions ran high, as we heard viewpoints from both sides of this discussion. A teaching elder spoke for many, saying, “The church puts up walls, God tears them down.”
Finally, the AI came to a vote and passed by a strong margin of 61% to 39%. Same gender marriage is now legal in the PCUSA, in states where it is also legal. This takes effect on Sunday, June 22.
After the passage of the AI, commissioners moved quickly to deal with the other minor matters on the marriage agenda, bringing discussion quickly to the amendment to the Book of Order, the PCUSA constitution, to change the description of marriage to “two people,” with an odd amendment added, emphasizing that in “tradition” those two people were only opposite gender loving people or heterosexuals. This amendment is in the long-term a much stronger piece than the AI and awaits ratification from the entire PCUSA in its regional bodies, called Presbyteries. It got a vote of 71% for and 29% against.
After these decisions passed, the halls outside the plenary transformed. Supporters in rainbow scarves embraced and shed tears of joy. They called loved ones on the phone, gave interviews to media like The New York Times, and posted messages to social media.
The PCUSA and its marriage equality supporters recognize that this is not the end, but the beginning of a new time in the struggle. Moderator of the GA Heath Rada said, “I hope that we can in the process share with our sisters and brothers, that we are not saying that somebody is right and somebody is wrong. We are saying as a denomination that we affirm committed relationships between two people that love each other. That is the basis, in the context of a relationship with God.”
The members of the More Light Presbyterians leadership team are all joyful and grateful. “Today really affirmed my faith as a Christian, that God has been calling us to affirm marriages of same-sex couples. Today, the church has reminded me that I am loved by God and claimed by this denomination,” explained Alex McNeill, MLP’s executive director.
He continued, “I am thankful for our process that allows for debate and discernment, and I am extraordinarily grateful that the Holy Spirit came to this room today. There are many people that didn’t know to vote, and Spirit spoke to them, through commissioners and through prayer.”