Shuck and Jive

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

9 comments:

  1. I’m not sure what we expected to come from the committee. The report basically restated the problem. I really liked the report, it has a high “warm fuzzies” factor. But, we can’t expect a group of people, who are representative of the denomination, to agree on a solution. Someone is always going to be unhappy.

    “We will interpret Scripture and the will of Christ faithfully and differently regarding Christian marriage.” While that sounds good to us, it doesn’t play well amongst the conservative crowd.


    “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.” Good luck with that!

    I like your letter, much less snarky than the last one! I also think Doug Hagler’s second response is quite good.

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  2. Hey Sara,

    That is about as "nice" as I can get. If the committee because of the conservatives cannot handle freedom of conscience (and it is not certain they will) then we will fight it out for as long as it takes GA after GA. It is immoral to cooperate with injustice.

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  3. "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."

    An interesting post. My own denomination has had a great deal of divisiveness because of this issue, and it is helpful for you to talk about flesh-and-blood people this affects.

    I wonder, though, is the situation as dire as you say? Is your church absolutely the only beacon of light in that area; is there no UCC Church to be had?

    Of course it is also worth wondering - just because Europe is making this cultural transition, should we call it gospel and do the same?. I'm not sure Christians get 'freedom of conscience'. Surely the founder of the Geneva community would not say so, nor would his Puritan descendants. Our consciences are bound by Christ and his Gospel; only by being thus bound can we be in any measure 'free.' So surely we can disagree on this if some argue, with at least good historical and theological precedent, that our consciences are thus bound? Freedom of conscience tends to implode; you may get your way, but you also may get 30 million dead infants a year, euthenasia, and the like. But I digress..

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  4. Hey Pastormack,

    **I wonder, though, is the situation as dire as you say? Is your church absolutely the only beacon of light in that area; is there no UCC Church to be had?**

    You know what? There is one church in Kingsport, St. Paul's Episcopal that is listed on the gaychurch website.

    That is a good website. That is a place where people look for an open and affirming church. My apologies to my friends at St. Paul's. They came on line recently. I have to get them involved in PFLAG.

    Others?

    The Unity Church of the Tricities in Johnson City is more open than most, but I don't know if they say it. Their minister is cool and I have listed her on our PFLAG site.

    We have a UU church (Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist) that is going through the process of being open and affirming. The clergyperson there is cool and she is on our PFLAG Tri-Cities site.

    We have no UCC church in NE TN. Asheville and Boone NC have UCC congregations. A long drive. In addition to those I have mentioned, I do know of individual clergy who are LGBT friendly.

    A friendly clergy is different than a congregation that is open and affirming.

    What is generally understood by open and affirming is a congregation that has taken intentional action for welcome toward lgbt people. It does not discriminate regarding a full welcome. They have to say it (bulletin, website, somewhere).

    If you have an open and affirming congregation, then you should be able to list your congregation on this website

    I am not bragging about this situation. I am highlighting how important it is to have congregations and clergy take that step.

    This is about saving lives.

    This brings me to your next point. Should Christians get freedom of conscience? I think you may be right.

    When gay teenagers are four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers because of false and damaging views preached from pulpits, we have a problem.

    You are right. Spewing hatred from our Presbyterian pulpits is not exercising "freedom of conscience." That is against the Bible and against Christ.

    Denying Christian marriage and other means of pastoral care to a category of people is Sin. To do so is not to be bound to Christ.

    Pastor Mack, you have made me rethink this letter. I didn't feel right about it. I feel I have given in to my straight privilege once again. In a desire to be nice, practical, and political rather than heed Christ's clear call for justice, I may have made a recommendation short of what Christ calls us to be.

    Thanks for the wake up. I am going to think about it for a couple of days. I may write another letter with the original recs.

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  5. Well said John. I like the connection between 'mutual forbearance' and 'freedom of conscience'.

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  6. John I have read your blog and some of your statements to those who disagree you. I would like but I have to ask you about one statement.

    "You are right. Spewing hatred from our Presbyterian pulpits is not exercising "freedom of conscience." That is against the Bible and against Christ."

    What is "freedom of conscience", is that like free will? Free will is the ability to make right and wrong choices, God allows us to make the wrong choice.

    Freedom means you have the choice to be right or wrong.

    Ultimately, in this there is right side and wrong side. There is the side that is following God's will and one that is defying God's will. To me it is equal to God seperating the sheep from the goats.

    Christ's call for justice is a call to God's law, not man's law. That fact seemed to be forgotten quite often.

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  7. This article might be helpful.

    Freedom of conscience is not the same as free will or is it license to do whatever you want.

    ""God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also" (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.109).

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  8. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others,to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it.7 Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.105).

    Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the
    grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it:18 the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.
    (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.107)

    They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is,
    that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
    (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.110)

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