By the time the General Assembly meets, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will have allowed same-gender couples to marry for more than six years. Many of these couples are members of PC(USA) churches and come to the church to celebrate the gift of marriage in worship. Some of our pastors, when they receive such a request, will decline, as it would run counter to their conscience to officiate. Others, however, are put in an untenable position, caught between their sense of pastoral responsibility and the threat of prosecution. The proposed changes respond to and reflect this changed reality.
The 218th General Assembly (2008) voted overwhelmingly (516 to 151) to “request the Stated Clerk, the General Assembly Council, and other representatives of the PC(USA) to urge state legislatures and the federal government to apply the principle of equal protection to same-gender couples and their children.”1 In the same vote they determined to “support congregations, sessions, and ministers of Word and Sacrament who are seeking to extend pastoral care as well as outreach and evangelism to same-gender couples and their nontraditional families who are more and more our neighbors on our streets and our fellow members in our pews.” In states where the equal protection principle includes marriage for same-gender couples, it would run counter to the direction mandated by the 218th General Assembly (2008) if the state were to provide more protection than the church is willing to extend to its own members.
In a state where same-gender marriage is recognized under the law, it is pastorally unconscionable to apply exclusionary principles to certain members of the congregation by declining to perform their marriage. In practical terms, what this means is that pastors in those congregations have to make the choice between failing in their pastoral responsibilities and running the risk of prosecution by the church. Such prosecutions have placed a formidable financial and spiritual burden on presbyteries already, threatening the peace and unity of the church.
Historical Relation Between Church and State
Dating back to John Calvin, the church and the state have shared responsibility for marriages, and the church has recognized the state’s right to define the legal parameters of marriage. The state determines who is eligible to be married in broad categories, while the church has always maintained the right to determine the wisdom of a particular marriage (W-4.9002b). It would break a tradition of nearly five hundred years if the church would at this time decide to recognize some, but not all, marriages sanctioned by the state. The church would effectively deny the state’s right to set those legal parameters.
Additional Rationale from the Presbytery of Baltimore
We wholeheartedly concur with and affirm the rationale that was provided by the Presbytery of Baltimore in Item 12-02.
1. Minutes, 2008, Part I, p.258: Item 04-13, Friday, June 27, 2008