Overture: AI

Text of overture and rationale for proposed authoritative interpretation of W-4.9000.



OVERTURE from the Session of [Church] to the Presbytery of Albany to send the following overture to the 221st General Assembly (2014):

On Issuing an Authoritative Interpretation of W-4.9000 to Affirm Pastoral Discretion in Performing Marriage Ceremonies.

The Presbytery of Albany respectfully overtures the 221st General Assembly (2014) to issue the following Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order, W-4.9000:

Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God (W-6.3001, 6.3010) in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology.  Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the place where the couple seek to be married, teaching elders* have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness to be married of the couple (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.    Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, if approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  The Authoritative Interpretation of this section by the 203rd General Assembly (Minutes 1991, at 21.124-128), and the subsequent Authoritative Interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it, are withdrawn and replaced with this Authoritative Interpretation.

*As in other places in the Directory for Worship, the use of “teaching elders” in this paragraph should be understood to include ruling elders commissioned to pastoral service.


Recent changes in civil law permitting couples of the same gender to marry have created a pastoral crisis in a significant number of jurisdictions where many Presbyterians reside.  Within the United States, as of August 2013, thirteen states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, California, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota and Vermont), Washington D.C., and two Native American tribal jurisdictions (Coquille, Suquamish) legally permit marriage between two people of the same gender as well  as two people of different gender.  Within these jurisdictions, faithful members of PCUSA congregations are approaching teaching elders expecting the same pastoral care to be extended to couples of the same gender that is regularly extended to couples of different gender.  They are requesting a service of Christian marriage, an occasion for the worship of God, and therefore based on the foundation for the ministry of pastoral care (Book of Order, W-6.4000; see also W-6.3002 and W-6.3011).

A pastoral crisis arises from the fact that the PCUSA constitution no longer offers clear guidance concerning qualifications for marriage.  The statement in the Directory for Worship, “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man” (W-4.9001), is factually inaccurate.  Until the Directory of Worship is revised to recognize changes in civil law and to clarify the implications of those changes for marriage in the PCUSA, the General Assembly needs to affirm what has not changed: namely, the responsibility of the individual teaching elder to determine the couple’s fitness to marry based on their “commitment, responsibility, maturity, or Christian understanding” (W-4.9002b).  The proposed Authoritative Interpretation provides such affirmation.

While the process of constitutional change takes its course, the proposed Authoritative Interpretation invites all members of the PCUSA to experience God’s grace through gracious regard for each other.  Under the proposed Authoritative Interpretation, not only may pastoral care be extended to same-gender couples, but teaching elders and sessions who agree to extend such care may face less threat of judicial action.  By contrast, existing Authoritative Interpretations, which would be withdrawn by the present proposal, not only arise from judicial action but open the prospect of further litigation as the courts of the church struggle for clarity in an unclear constitutional context.  The proper means to achieve such clarity is the constitutional process involving the church as a whole.  We will be better prepared to engage in that process if we use the means now available to practice gracious interactions with each other.

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