Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Letter to PCUSA Marriage Committee

The PCUSA Marriage Committee published its preliminary report. I wrote about that here. News of this report has been reported in the Presbyterian Outlook and the Presbyterian News Service. The Covenant Network responded.

Various bloggers have commented including Ray, Sam, Alan, Doug (twice), Aric and I am sure others. The tweeters have tweeted.

The committee has requested another round of input regarding its report. It is looking for suggestions for recommendations. I found my initial letter to the committee picked up on this blog, On Being a Gay Parent, which was pretty cool.

In that letter I wrote what I would really like to see:

1. Allow clergy in the six states (and in any future states) that have legalized same-gender marriage to sign marriage licenses and solemnize these marriages in the church.

2. Affirm that clergy may consecrate marriages (in the eyes of the church) for same-gender couples even in those states that have yet to legalize same-gender marriage.

3. Change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman to two people in all relevant documents.

4. Modify the Directory for Worship to create marriage rites suitable for same-gender couples.

5. Advocate for marriage equality throughout the United States.
But no way is the committee going to go for all of that, especially if it feels it needs to be unanimous. This is my concern. I am concerned that the committee could make things more proscriptive than what we already have.

We have had victories for marriage in the court system (
Rev. Jane Spahr
, Rev. Janet Edwards, and most recently, Rev. Jean Southard). Notice, by the way, how it is the women taking the lead on this civil rights issue?

Obviously, I don't want us to go backward.

There is a great deal of pressure for the task force to follow the example of the PUP report and be unanimous. There is also pressure to come up with a solution. There is a danger that task force members might feel obliged to come up with a unanimous "solution" that is more proscriptive than what we have now. If it appears that the wind is blowing that way, I hope that progressives on the task force will offer a minority report rather than agree with a recommendation that is more damaging in the long run.

So, I sent the following letter with my recommendation that I think is good for the whole of the church (including for those who see things very differently from me). The committee has called us toward mutual forbearance. That means that we don't agree but we respect each person's freedom of conscience.

We don't agree on the place of same-gender relationships in the church as to whether they are Christian marriages or not.
Let us leave it at that.

Rather than try to make each other agree or act against one's conscience, let us leave the question open and allow clergy and congregations to make their own decisions without compulsion.
I think it is the only way forward at this point. It also happens to be the Presbyterian way. Here is my letter:

Dear Members on the Committee on Civil Unions and Christian Marriage,

Greetings and peace in the name of Jesus Christ, in whom there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, and male or female.

I finished reading the preliminary report and I am offering my response as requested by the committee. Thank you for your good and faithful work. It isn’t easy. If you haven’t already, you likely will receive criticism from all corners. I think and I hope that my recommendation will make it easier for you. I also believe my recommendation is just, fair, and thoroughly Presbyterian.

Before I offer it, let me tell you about my situation. I pastor a unique congregation. We are the only Christian congregation (of which I am aware) in our entire region (Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia) that fully welcomes and affirms all people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. The question of pastoral care to lesbian and gay Christians is not an abstraction. The action of your committee may directly impact my ministry and the ministry of this congregation.

Blessing the relationships of gay and lesbian couples on behalf of Christ through this community is a crucial part of our ministry. In this part of Creation, condemnation from the pulpit is more common than dirt. We are an oasis. People travel 20, 30, 40 miles and more to come to this congregation because we are open and affirming.

I have officiated at wedding ceremonies for people in many different life situations including previously divorced persons, inter-racial couples, and gay and lesbian couples. As far as I am concerned, each relationship is holy and sacred, given by God, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ, and sustained by the Holy Spirit. Each one is a Christian marriage. Any request for a wedding that comes to me (and if the use of the church property is requested, the session) is decided on a case by case basis. Counseling is part of the deal. I have the freedom to decide whether or not I will officiate at the wedding.

In your preliminary report, your committee emphasized the principle of mutual forbearance. I think that is an excellent ethical choice. Mutual forbearance is critical in times of disagreement. We will interpret Scripture and the will of Christ faithfully and differently regarding Christian marriage.

How do we demonstrate mutual forbearance? We respect freedom of conscience. I have no desire to force my colleagues to provide pastoral care in a certain way. It is not my business to tell them at what marriages they can or cannot be an officiant. Even though I disagree with them in regards to how they provide pastoral care, I will forbear. I will trust that God is working through them and I will hope they will forbear with me as well.

Colleagues in ministry, here is a concise recommendation that I believe is the most appropriate, most Presbyterian, most just, and most loving response that your committee can make to the larger church:

Whereas, the Church is not of one mind regarding whether Christian marriage includes same-gender relationships, and

Whereas, in times of disagreement, unity is achieved by mutual forbearance, and

Whereas, mutual forbearance is affirming freedom of conscience, and

Whereas, those charged with care for a congregation are the best suited regarding how to provide that care,

Therefore, we recommend that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reaffirm freedom of conscience for clergy and for sessions regarding pastoral care to same-gender couples. This includes freedom of conscience regarding all rites and observances regarding marriage.

Thank you again for your work for our church.

In Christ,
Rev. John Shuck, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
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