A small group of weary but grateful evangelical commissioners gathered together following the plenary session, which ended at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning. They all gave glory to God for the miracle they had witnessed, offered prayers of thanks, and concluded their time together by singing the doxology.
After a long and complicated debate Friday afternoon and evening of General Assembly, the gathered commissioners chose to maintain the Biblical definition of marriage. They voted down overtures to redefine marriage and to issue an authoritative interpretation to allow teaching elders to conduct marriages for same sex couples in states where that is legal. Instead, the assembly approved a two-year “season of serious study and discernment” for presbyteries and congregations regarding the meaning of Christian marriage.
Commissioner Bill Thro remarked, “This is a Gideon moment – a victory that never would have happened. I think God saved the PCUSA from schism tonight. I am humbled that God called my colleagues and me to play a role in this drama.” Thro was a member of the Civil Unions and Marriage Committee and presented one of the minority reports.
In the press conference following the vote, Aimee Moiso, a teaching elder from San Jose Presbytery and the chair of the Civil Unions and Marriage Committee stated, “In declining to re-affirm the traditional understanding or to redefine marriage” she believed that the assembly “wants to discern some more” and “stay on the middle way.” Moiso, who is the Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Ministries at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school, led the committee in several discernment exercises during their deliberations, and she hoped that the church would now be able to do the same.
Neal Presa, the moderator of the 220th General Assembly, remarked that the assembly had just concluded a good discussion about marriage and same-gender marriage, and about how teaching elders and churches could serve in their contextual realities. He found the discussion to be rich with passion about how we could care for the LGBT community among us and also serve as faithfully as we can.
The vice moderator of the Civil Unions and Marriage Committee, Ben Trawick, commented that while the world is most interested in what the assembly did, “how the assembly did it is of equal, if not deeper, importance.” He saw the assembly come together from very different geographies, generations and theological locations, and “we said we need to be together, to pray and be together and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit on this work. That to me is as important as anything we decided.”
Gradye Parsons, the PCUSA’s Stated Clerk, pointed out that this is a “painful decision for many,” but even so, it is an example of how we are supposed to work. He saw it as an example of individuals coming from regular churches and regular families and wrestling with an issue that is about regular members of the family. He saw the decision as not one “to delay compassion or care but a decision about what is compassion and care as we move forward.”
How Did We Get Here From There?
As reported by The Layman earlier this week, the Civil Unions and Marriage committee recommended for approval two specific items – a two-year season of study and the amendment to the Directory of Worship (W-4.9001) to change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two persons.” It also specifically recommended for disapproval the authoritative interpretation, item 13-05, which would have permitted “pastoral discretion” for teaching elders to conduct marriages for any couple holding a civil marriage license.
The Assembly had voted to make the Civil Unions and Marriage Committee the Order of the Day, an item of business that must be taken up at a specific time, so committee moderator, Aimee Moiso, reached the podium at precisely 1:50 p.m. Friday. At this point, the assembly was already three committee reports behind in its business, having spent many more hours than expected deciding issues related to the Middle East and Peacemaking Committee.
As Moiso described the work of her committee, she shared that while some wanted to maintain boundaries and some wanted to break down boundaries, all desired to “hold a broken church together with both hands.” She said the group was “divided but not divisive,” and admitted that the “most heated debate was about parliamentary procedure.” She shared that the committee was recommending a two-year season of study on the meaning of Christian marriage, but the committee did not feel like this was “enough to prompt the depth of conversation required,” nor did it reflect the urgency expressed by the witnesses the committee heard. Therefore, the committee also recommended the approval of the amendment of the definition of marriage in Directory of Worship. The committee intended for these recommendations to be held together, she explained, and are offered in tandem, that the whole church might experience what they have experienced, “an honest, humbling, open, frustrating experience” in the presence of Jesus Christ.
As she moved the first item of business, the amendment to the Directory of Worship, she informed the gathered assembly that there would be not one but two minority reports. And thus began the first three hours of the five-hour debate.
Michael Wilson, a teaching elder and moderator of Donegal Presbytery, presented the first minority report. This motion presented a longer, more detailed season of study that would start with two years of discernment by presbyteries and congregations, the results of which would be sent to a task force in August of 2014. That task force would analyze those results and also gather feedback from global partners, and present their findings to the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.
Before debate began between these two motions, commissioner James Goodloe rose to ask a question. Referring to a question about property the day before, he recalled the Stated Clerk’s ruling that “no motion is in order which conflicts with the body’s constitution.” Goodloe pointed out that the proposed amendment to the Directory of Worship conflicted in three different places with the Book of Confessions, which is Part 1 of the PCUSA constitution. The moderator referred the question to Gradye Parsons, and Parsons referred the question to Paul Hooker from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Hooker stated that the Book of Confessions contains “no small amount of internal difference,” and it should not be treated as a “rule book.” The Book of Order, on the other hand, “does contain the standards by which we operate.” So, he said, the answer is no, “we don’t have to amend the Book of Confessions to amend the Book of Order.”
With this advice, both Parsons and Presa ruled that the motion to amend the Directory of Worship was in order. A commissioner appealed the ruling of the moderator, but the moderator’s ruling held with a vote of 70 percent -30 percent. And the complicated parliamentary proceedings were off to the races. Several motions were made at that point to try to limit debate, but all of them fell short of the necessary 67 percent voting requirement.
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