Redefining marriage by judicial fiat?

This is part 2 of a series explaining the recent decisions by the Presbyterian Church over issues that directly affect evangelical churches and ministers. In the first post we looked at how Los Ranchos presbytery was prevented from expressing the theological consensus of the presbytery through any means other than individual examination.

Today we’ll look at the way in which the church has created a loophole that allows clergy to participate in same sex ceremonies.

A summary of what happened

In 2009 Laurie McNeill and Lisa Lynn Gollihue were married under the law of the state of Massachusetts at Christ Episcopal Church in Harwich Port. The officiating ministers were from the Episcopal Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, using a modified marriage rite from the Book of Common Prayer. So, where’s the presbyterian connection? Well, Laurie McNeill is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and her marriage was announced at a stated meeting of presbytery as well as receiving local media coverage.

McNeill was charged with two charges by an investigating committee of the presbytery. The charges were as follows:

Charge 1. Committing the offense “of participating in a same-sex ceremony” in violation of W-4.9001 of the Book of Order and then “representing to [the] congregation and others that such a ceremony was a ‘marriage’ all in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

2 – Being involved in a relationship publicly described as a “happy marriage” with Lisa Lynn Gollihue and thereby violating G-6.0106(b) of the Constitution.

The presbytery of Newark acting through its Permanent Judicial Commission acquitted McNeill on both charges. An appeal to the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission was filed as was the request for a stay to prevent McNeill from transferring to a different presbytery during the course of the litigation. The stay was denied because it was improperly filed.

The Synod PJC also acquitted McNeill on both charges and an appeal to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission was filed in January 2012 (bear in mind that McNeill was married to her partner in December, 2009).

The General Assembly PJC upheld the ruling of the Synod PJC thus exhausting all appeals for the complainants.

How and why the General Assembly PJC ruled as it did

Charge 1. The charge stated that participating in a same sex marriage violates the Directory for Worship, that part of the Constitution of the PCUSA that regulates our worship practices. Since McNeill was married outside of the Presbyterian Church USA and by ministers outside of the PCUSA the Directory does not apply. Further, since the Constitution does not speak to the marriage of a minister in a civil ceremony (even one that takes place in a church and is officiated by ministers?) there could be no violation. Lastly, since those filing the charges elected to argue on the basis of the Directory for Worship (rather than appeal to Scripture and Constitution), there was no legal basis for McNeill to be reprimanded. An appellate court cannot be overruled for failing to consider authorities that were not argued at trial.

Charge 2. The charge stated that being married in a same sex ceremony violated G-6.0106(b) (the now-removed provision of the Constitution that required fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness). The Commission ruled that G-6.0106(b) was only applicable in cases of examination and therefore did not apply.

The GAPJC also ruled that the decisions of the Presbytery and Synod PJCs did not meet the standard for reversal under disciplinary rules found in the Constitution.

The Analysis

The GAPJC chose to rule narrowly with respect to the Directory for Worship. This part of our church’s constitution is, according to this ruling, applicable only to PCUSA ministers and churches and nothing that is found therein applies to an act of any church outside of our communion.

In their Dissent, commissioners Velez-Diaz and Roberts point out that by essentially privatizing a part of the Constitution, the Commission runs the risk of stating that there is a part of a Christian minister’s life (i.e., that part which takes place outside of church and in his or her ‘personal life’) that is not subject to the Lordship of Christ or accountability to the church. I agree.

At the same time, it is easy to understand why the Directory for Worship might be interpreted to apply only to regulation of public worship of churches and clergy. The Directory, however, provides one of the two definitions of marriage to be found in the Book of Order. In fact, G-6.0106(b) in outlining the standards of sexual expression for ministers appeals to W-4.9001 as the the definition of marriage.

It seems to me that for the purpose of defining marriage, W-4.9001 is sufficient since it was in order to rely on this as the authority on which G-6.0106(b) defined marriage. However, W-4.9001 is not a disciplinary provision–it simply defines the ordinance of marriage. Again, the prosecuting committee could have brought charges on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions–indeed one concurrence stated a desire that they had–however, in recent decisions the PJC has shown itself to be hesitant to interpret Scripture of the Confessions and has opted to appeal to polity.

What is more disturbing and, unfortunately now a moot point, is that the plain meaning of G-6.0106(b) has essentially been ignored. The Synod ruled that G-6.0106(b) applied only at the point of examination. In interpreting it this way they established that as long as, at the point of examination, the person in question was not doing any of the things listed then there would be no cause for discipline. Apparently was appears on its face to be an on-going standard with a duty of affirmative disclosure when a minister cannot abide by it, has become a point-in-time standard that applies only when transferring or coming for ordination.

This is deeply disturbing.

It seems that what we are creating is a professional class of clergy with a significantly carved-out space or portion of their (our) lives that are private, belong only to us, and over which neither the church nor by implication, Christ, has any authority. This will be the death of effective biblical ministry both by teaching elders, churches, and presbyteries. The single most important role of a church court is to help churches and clergy do as Paul instructed his young mentee Timothy,

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching (doctrine). Persist in these this for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:6, ESV).

The church has abandoned this important element of its duty and has chosen instead to adopt a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to doctrine and morality. In the end, the GAPJC has come dangerously close to doing what the General Assembly elected not to do–redefine marriage.

2 thoughts on “Redefining marriage by judicial fiat?

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