As witnesses to God’s grace, it is time for the members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to affirm clearly our common understanding of the value and meaning of marriage, rather than focusing on our disagreement about who may marry. Grounded in the Reformed understanding of marriage as covenant, the proposed substitute text for W-4.9000 lifts up the values of love, mutual support, and lasting faithfulness both for the married couple and for the faith community, thus answering the call in the recent study document issued by the Office of Theology and Worship: “a proper Christian understanding of marriage will claim again the role of the church as a fundamental approving and supporting community in which a marriage of two persons may not only make an appropriate beginning but in which also that marriage may be supported. Without making marriage a sacrament or supplanting the state, the church may offer, as it does in infant baptism, a community in which covenants are made and publicly acknowledged, are nurtured and brought to fulfillment” (“Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.],” p. 26).
The recent adoption of the new Form of Government points the way toward clarification of our understanding of marriage by focusing on principles of theology and polity. In that spirit, this overture proposes a substitution for rather than a revision of the present text of W-4.9000, where detailed specification of procedures blurs the focus on principles. The substitute text seeks to uphold the intention of the new Form of Government to create a broad constitutional framework within which the councils of the church may adapt practices, procedures, and structures to the needs of particular mission.
Given the role of civil law in defining marriage, as it has been recognized from the beginning of the Reformed tradition, the current differences among civil jurisdictions regarding the gender of persons qualified to marry necessarily create different contexts for the mission of the church. 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. The statement in the current text of W-4.9001, “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man,” is factually inaccurate.
Within their particular contexts for mission, teaching and ruling elders are responsible for determining appropriate pastoral care for a couple requesting a service of Christian marriage. “The worship of God in the Christian community is the foundation and context for the ministry of pastoral care …” (Book of Order, W-6.4000; see also W-6.3002 and W-6.3011), and a service of Christian marriage is a form of worship. In the interest of pastoral care, the proposed substitute text for W-4.9000 does not specify the gender of the couple requesting a service of Christian marriage, but emphasizes the authority of both the teaching elder and the session either to comply with or to deny such a request. Corresponding emphasis is placed on the fact that the teaching elder is not obliged to act as an agent of the state or other civil jurisdiction. The proposed text thus permits but does not mandate the participation of teaching elders and sessions in marriages of same-gender couples.
Such permission is justified by principles of theology as well as polity. “The biblical vision of doing justice” summarized in the Book of Order includes “supporting people who seek the dignity, freedom, and respect that they have been denied” (W-7.4002c), and surely this category includes people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Whether support for these people should include the right to marry depends in part on whether biblical references to marriage between persons of different gender are to be taken as definitions of marriage or rather as examples. The latter interpretation is supported by the early use of marriage as an example of the type of relation promised between God and the people of God (Hosea 2:14–23), some of whom, of course, are male and some female. The Confession of 1967 recognizes this principle of exemplification: “The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind” (Book of Confessions 9.47). Extending the gift of marriage to same-gender couples offers a means of “ordering of the interpersonal life” as an act of pastoral care. Having made a commitment of lasting faithfulness to each other before God and the community of faith, the couple who have entered into Christian marriage have a solemn responsibility to uphold that commitment. The faith community, in turn, have responsibility for continuing spiritual support and pastoral care for the couple. In its mission to society as a whole, the church thus helps to create a culture of faithful, loving, lasting relationships. Real meaning is given to the opening statement in the current text of W-4.9000, and preserved in the proposed substitute text: “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family.”
Current Text of W-4.9000 [Text in brackets appears as marginal notes or footnotes in printed edition]:
W-4.9000 9. Marriage [2 Helv.Conf. 5.245−5.251; West.Conf. 6.131−6.139]
[W-4.9001 Christian Marriage]
Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.
[W-4.9002 Preparing for Marriage]
a. In preparation for the marriage service, the teaching elder shall provide for a discussion with the man and the woman concerning
(1) the nature of their Christian commitment, assuring that at least one is a professing Christian,
(2) the legal requirements of the state,
(3) the privileges and responsibilities of Christian marriage,
(4) the nature and form of the marriage service,
(5) the vows and commitments they will be asked to make,
(6) the relationship of these commitments to their lives of discipleship,
(7) the resources of the faith and the Christian community to assist them in fulfilling their marriage commitments.
This discussion is equally important in the case of a first marriage, a marriage after the death of a spouse, and a marriage following divorce.
[If the Marriage Is Unwise]
b. If the teaching elder is convinced after discussion with the couple that commitment, responsibility, maturity, or Christian understanding are so lacking that the marriage is unwise, the teaching elder shall assure the couple of the church’s continuing concern for them and not conduct the ceremony. In making this decision the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session.
[W-4.9003 Time and Place of the Service]
Christian marriage should be celebrated in the place where the community gathers for worship. As a service of Christian worship, the marriage service is under the direction of the teaching elder† and the supervision of the session. (W-1.4004−.4006) The marriage ordinarily takes place in a special service which focuses upon marriage as a gift of God and as an expression of the Christian life. Others may be invited to participate as leaders in the service at the discretion of the pastor. Celebration of the Lord’s Supper at the marriage service requires the approval of the session, and care shall be taken that the invitation to the Table is extended to all baptized present. The marriage service may take place during the Service for the Lord’s Day upon authorization by the session. It should be placed in the order as a response to the proclamation of the Word. It may then be followed by the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. (W-2.4010; W-3.3503)
[W-4.9004 Form and Order of Service]
The service begins with scriptural sentences and a brief statement of purpose. The man and the woman shall declare their intention to enter into Christian marriage and shall exchange vows of love and faithfulness. The service includes appropriate passages of Scripture, which may be interpreted in various forms of proclamation. Prayers shall be offered for the couple, for the communities which support them in this new dimension of discipleship, and for all who seek to live in faithfulness. In the name of the triune God the teaching elder† shall declare publicly that the woman and the man are now joined in marriage. A charge may be given. Other actions common to the community and its cultures may appropriately be observed when these actions do not diminish the Christian understanding of marriage. The service concludes with a benediction.
[W-4.9005 Music and Appointments]
Music suitable for the marriage service directs attention to God and expresses the faith of the church. (W-2.1004) The congregation may join in hymns and other musical forms of praise and prayer. Flowers, decorations, and other appointments should be appropriate to the place of worship, enhance the worshipers’ consciousness of the reality of God, and reflect the integrity and simplicity of Christian life. (W-1.3034; W-1.4004−.4005; W-5.5005)
[W-4.9006 Recognizing Civil Marriage]
A service of worship recognizing a civil marriage and confirming it in the community of faith may be appropriate when requested by the couple. The service will be similar to the marriage service except that the opening statement, the declaration of intention, the exchange of the vows by the husband and wife, and the public declaration by the teaching elder† reflect the fact that the woman and man are already married to one another according to the laws of the state.