Last year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA appointed a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage. The committee was given two years to study how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed tradition and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.

This adult education course tries to do something similar over an eight-week period for St. Andrew Presbyterian in Iowa City. Throughout this discussion, we hope to hear from class participants’ personal experiences and questions concerning sexuality and the Presbyterian faith.

For questions or comments, contact Jeff Charis-Carlson at

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Report from the Nov. 19 Session meeting

On Nov. 19, as planned, I met with the St. Andrew Session 19 and discussed some options for how the church should continue the discussion of same-sex relationships that we’ve begun in this class.

The official decision was reported in the December 2009 issue of the St. Andrew Messenger: “Jeff Charis-Carlson, who recently finished leading an 8-week Adult Education study on ‘Sexuality and the Presbyterian Christian Faith,’ requested that Session approve a congregationwide period of dialogue and discussion on same-sex marriage and Christian faith. Jeff also suggested that the church clarify, at the end of the study, its official stance on same-sex relationships. Following discussion, a motion was approved for Session to create a committee to lead an ongoing discussion of the topic of same-sex marriage at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, beginning in January 2010 and not to exceed 8 months.”

We’re still in the planning stages of what this committee will do, but right now we’re moving forward with plans to offer a four-week version of our class starting in January. I hope to have an outline of some monthly or bi-monthly activities to offer after that class ends.

If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Presentation to Session for Nov. 19

Here's a draft of what I am going to present to Session on Nov. 19 ...

In the eight weeks between Sept. 13 and Nov. 1, more than 50 St. Andrew members passed through the Adult Education class on “Sexuality and the Faith of Presbyterian Christians.” Many of those members disagreed over what St. Andrew’s stance on same-sex relationships should be. But all of them agreed that our church needs to:
  • Clarify its official stance.
  • Stop sending mixed signals on same-sex relationships.
  • And strengthen the relationship between St. Andrew and its sister congregations in the Presbyterian Church USA.

To accomplish these goals, I am asking the Session to call for a congregation-wide process of discernment and dialogue on the question of whether St. Andrew should allow same-sex couples to marry in its sanctuary.

Before the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, the issue of same-sex relationships was just one of many theological differences that were ignored or tolerated rather than openly discussed at St. Andrew. With the Norman-Wikner marriage request, however, this issue not only has become divisive on its own merits, but it also has come to stand in for many of the other differences within the congregation.

I think St. Andrew would benefit from a months-long (if not year-long) study of the issue. By involving Adult Education programs and exhortations from the pulpit, such a process would help Session members probe their own consciences as well as gauge the consensus opinion of the congregation.

I discussed this process with the nearly 40 people who attended the final session of the class on Nov. 1. Since that meeting, Matthew Penning, Becka Yuccis, Laura Frey Law, Dan Ciha and Janice Baldes have agreed to be part of a panel of individuals who would assist in preparing materials, inviting guest speakers and faciliting other events as part of this dialogue process. (First Presbyterian is going through a similar process. It might be beneficial to both our congregations if we went through through at least part of this process together.)

The process can begin in earnest on Jan. 17, when I’m planning to begin teaching a second round of the “Sexuality and the Faith of Presbyterian Christians” class. Because the class’s discussion time was repeatedly cut short during the eight-week version, this version will consist of four, two-hour sessions. The class also will take place on Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. so that St. Andrew members with Christian Education responsibilities can participate as well.

While we have a clear beginning point for this process, we also need a clear end point. That’s why we would like Session to name a date in which, after this period of discernment and dialogue, it will make a clear, informed decision on the issue.

Everyone in the final session of the class realizes how this conversation has the potential to split the congregation. But we also realize how ignoring the conversation already is allowing people to wander away.

I think St. Andrew will be made stronger by this process — even if it ends up being slightly smaller. The process will give our congregation a clearer sense of its mission and identity and thus better prepare us to respond to our many other challenges and opportunities.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Class Notes from Nov. 1

Here are my notes for the discussion in the final session of our eight-week class. On Nov. 19, I'll be giving a report to the Session on on how the class went and what we need to do next.

If you have any suggestions on what I should say, drop me a note at

With about 40 people crammed into our classroom Sunday, we came to a number of startling realizations (some critical, some complimentary, some complementary, some contradictory) about our church and our community:
  • There aren’t many cultural Presbyterians in our PCUSA congregation. Only about 20 percent of the people in Sunday’s class identified as being raised Presbyterian. The others were raised in a wide variety of other faith traditions, including: Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA), Lutheran (Missouri Synod), the Reformed Church of America, Methodist, Covenant Church, Roman Catholic and Salvation Army.
  • It seems one of the few forces binding together this theological hodgepodge at St. Andrew is the structure and order of the Presbyterian Church USA.
  • Yet the majority of members of St. Andrew know little about the organizing structure of their denomination. And some class members said the congregation probably would identify itself as “more progressive” on same-sex relationships and other issues if the denomination wasn’t “holding it back.” (But then again, if the congregation decided to step out from the denomination’s strictures, it’s unclear what would be left to hold everyone together.)
  • While the broad theological umbrella encouraged by the PCUSA has allowed a wide variety of people to worship together at St. Andrew, that “unity” too often has been the result of ignoring differences rather than airing them and coming to a compromise/decision. Some fear that St. Andrew members have forgotten how to discuss difference in respect and love — especially when the discussion will lead some members to decide their faith journeys are leading them away from St. Andrew.
  • We reaffirmed how St. Andrew is a lot like Iowa City — it’s not really as “progressive” as the members like to think it is, and all the members like to think of themselves as being “above average” in terms of intelligence and toleration.
  • St. Andrew, in fact, is a middle church — one balanced out by the extremes on both ends, and one who’s middle is now seesawing slightly between left and right, open and traditional.
  • St. Andrew is large enough that its biggest challenge is communication. Many members complained they had no idea the Session was discussing whether to move the church, despite the Session’s multiple efforts to invite more input through the mini-messenger and small groups as well as from the pulpit. Many members (including me) didn’t know the Session was considering the marriage request of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner until after the request had been turned down by a close vote. (On the other hand, I’ve heard that some session members didn’t know that our class was going on until about the fifth or sixth week.)
  • Because St. Andrew seems to be swaying on its fulcrum right now, too many members have become less excited about the church. They aren’t thinking of leaving in a huff, but their attendance has slackened, or they just don’t see the point of giving 110 percent to a congregation they now feel less connected to. And because of the size of the church, it’s very easy for them to shift from the stage to the wings without attracting a lot of attention.
  • Before the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, the issue of same-sex relationships was just one of many theological differences that were ignored rather than discussed at St. Andrew. With the marriage request of the Michelles, however, this issue has come to symbolize (or stand in for) many of the other differences within the congregation. And it’s now of paramount importance that we focus on calling a senior pastor who has the skills necessary to help a congregation clarify its identity and deal lovingly with those who are at odds with that identity. (Yet we'll probably need to address the issue before a permanent senior pastor is installed.)
  • But before St. Andrew begins any congregation-wide discussions of same-sex relationships and related issues, the staff and session need to decide that they will make a decision. That is, they need to decide that St. Andrew is a decision-making (rather than a decision-deferring) church. (And that hasn’t seemed to be the case for at least the past decade.)
The 40 people attending class on Sunday disagree over what the church’s stance on same-sex relationships should be, but they all agree that St. Andrew needs to clarify its official stance. That the church needs to stop sending mixed signals to its gay and lesbian members. And that the congregation needs to clarify the relationship between St. Andrew and its sister PCUSA congregations.

We would like Session to endorse and encourage a congregation-wide process of discernment and dialogue on the question of whether St. Andrew should allow same-sex couples to marry in its sanctuary. Just as the church underwent a year of reading the Bible — an effort that combined input from Adult Ed, youth programs and exhortations from the pulpit — so we now need a months-long (if not year-long) study of the issue with the goal of helping the Session gauge the consensus opinion of the congregation. We'd like that discussion to begin in January.

At the end of the process, the Session — as representatives of the congregation who are charged to vote their own consciences — will vote and make a clear, informed decision on the issue. (First Presbyterian is going through a similar process. It might be beneficial to both our congregations to go through the part of the process together.)

Everyone in the class realizes how this conversation has the potential to split the congregation. But they also realize how ignoring the conversation already is allowing people to wander away.

Whatever is left of St. Andrew at the end of this process will be a congregation with a clearer sense of its mission and identity — a congregation that will be better prepared to respond to its many other challenges and opportunities.

St. Andrew and First Presbyterian

First Presbyterian has begun a congregational-wide process of discernment an dialogue over whether the church should allow its sanctuary to be used for wedding ceremonies for same-gendered couples. We've been talking about St. Andrew beginning a similar process.

Here are some reasons why both churches could concern going through part of this process together:
  • A Need to Continue the Discussion: St. Andrew Presbyterian Church’s theological/faith community stance on the ordination of gays and lesbians and on same-sex marriage is continuing to unfold and congregation members are asking for the discussion to continue beyond our eight-week Adult Education class.
  • Common Issue: Both churches are linked on this issue already by the Session decisions made concerning Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman’s wedding
  • Continuing Hospitality: First Presbyterian graciously hosted many St. Andrew members for the wedding.
  • Strengthening Ties: There has been some tension over this between churches. Gathering together can do away with that tension, build understanding, strengthen our relationship as local Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ, and could lead to future common ministry efforts.
  • Family Reunion: There is still a clear memory at First Presbyterian, even after 50 years, that they are St. Andrew’s founding church. Because of this relationship, they are more attuned to the life and mission of St. Andrew. Many apparently know the discussions we are currently encountering and they are concerned about St. Andrew. As surprising as this sentiment might be to many at St. Andrew, entering into a process alongside members of First Presbyterian may have the positive overtones of a family reunion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Discussion questions for Week 8

Our final class period will be focused on where the congregation goes from here -- what help steps should St. Andrew take to continue the process of discernment and dialogue that we've been having for the past few weeks.

If you have specific suggestions, please drop me an e-mail at or post a comment here.

Notes from Week 7

In Sunday’s discussion we read some biblical passages that don’t deal directly with same-sex relationships but that provide further context for the passages that do.

* Reading some healing passages from Luke, we asked whether Jesus would seek to heal Christians “struggling” with same-sex attraction, or if he would condemn the church for requiring gay and lesbian Christians to stay in the closet.

* We read passages in Acts that discussed how the early church — when deciding how much of the Mosaic Law to burden the gentile Christians with — boiled everything down to abstaining from actions associated with idolatry, avoiding food that is offensive to Jewish Christians and upholding the sanctity of marriage and sexual morality.

* We discussed Romans 6, in which Paul describes how a baptized Christian’s life is supposed to move beyond anything in our sinful nature that would hold back the transformative work God is doing in us.

* And we read 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul orders the church to deal with a member who is engaged in a relationship with his stepmother — a relationship even the gentiles would find taboo. He argues that it’s better for the church to go through the pain of expelling the man if he fails to repent than to sit silently by as their brother goes on toward damnation. We discussed what is the natural of damnation and salvation, and what role should the church members be playing in calling one another on their bad actions.

There was some concern that, in the course of our discussion, we slipped back and forth between talking about same-sex orientation and same-sex behavior. Nearly every Christian denomination agrees that same-sex orientation isn’t sinful in itself. It’s acting on that orientation that becomes an issue in most churches.

Presbyterian Church USA policy allows for self-described homosexuals to be ordained, for example, as long as they promise to be celibate outside of a heterosexual marriage.
The PCUSA likewise allows for the blessing of same-sex unions — and here’s the legal catch — as long as such a blessing won’t be considered marriage. And while the two people involved in the union can be members, they can’t be ordained as elders or ministers.

While we need to keep those legal distinctions in mind — especially as we consider the next step for our PCUSA congregation — our dialogue on this issue also needs to allow people to share their thoughts, even when their language becomes less than precise.

Finally, we discussed the actual motion that the First Presbyterian Session passed concerning the Norman-Wikner wedding. First Presbyterian Pastor Sam Massey said their Session passed a two-part motion that:

* Gave permission for a Presbyterian colleague, the Rev. Colette Soults-Ciha, to use the building for a non-member, same-gendered wedding ceremony and that

* Initiated a congregation-wide process of discernment and dialogue on the issues concerning same-sex marriage and the ordination of Presbyterians in committed, same-gendered relationships. That process, which is very similar to the dialogue we’ve been having in this class, will begin in November.

From the pastor’s perspective, the decision about the wedding was not precedent-setting, hence the need for the discernment process for the congregation.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Some reflections on the Norman-Wikner wedding

Because this Adult Education Class was initiated largely because of the Session vote on the Norman-Wikner wedding, it seems appropriate to offer some reflections on that special event. Your responses, of course, are always welcome.

Weddings are always public events. The assembled friends and family members are asked to bear witness to the promises made by the loving couple. And a few of those witnesses then sign their names to a license to ensure the marriage is recognized by the state.

But the Oct. 18 wedding of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner felt more public than usual. Because of the controversy over the decision to not allow the ceremony to take place in St. Andrew Presbyterian — the Michelles’ church home for the past 14 years — those who chose to stand witness to the event had to consider what message their mere presence would convey.

Some attendees personally question whether their understanding of scripture and church policy allows for a marriage between two women. Yet they chose to be on hand to show they want to continue their relationship with the Norman-Wikner family. And their questioning voices mixed with those of the open and affirming attendees when the Rev. Colette Ciha Soults asked the congregation to state its willingness to help the Michelles live up to their commitment.

And when all those voices were raised in song — especially in the good acoustics of First Presbyterian’s sanctuary — it was clear that the basic ceremony wasn’t that different from the thousands of other weddings that have taken place in Iowa City’s two Presbyterian churches:
  • The happy couple was beaming,
  • Friends were crying, and
  • The homily reminded everyone how marriage is about much more than the momentary happiness brought on by one day of celebration; how marriage is about the joy that comes with building a life together.

Every wedding, of course, has its unique elements. And that’s especially true when the happy couple has been living together for a decade and a half and has been raising daughters for two-thirds of that time. Or when the ceremony itself wouldn’t have been possible seven months earlier. Or when the couple — whether out of necessity, design or resignation — becomes a symbol for struggles and issues that go far beyond the happiness of just one family.

That must be why the Michelles decided to break with tradition and greet their guests both before the wedding as well as after. It was an extra step to ensure each of their guests felt a welcome part of this long overdue celebration.

Nor did the brides have traditional maids of honor. They, instead, had their daughters stand alongside them to witness and to participate firsthand in the blessing of their family. (The only time I got verklempt, in fact, was when 10-year-old Anna read the scripture with such poise and expression.)

The biggest difference from the traditional ceremony, however, was that no one gave anyone away during the wedding. The two brides walked each other down the aisle instead.

It was a moving symbol of the Michelles’ interdependence as well as a sad reminder that some of their family members disapproved of the wedding and failed to attend.

Likewise, while there were many St. Andrew faces in the congregation, there were still others who — even if they love the Michelles, Anna and Eva as sisters in Christ — felt they could not bear witness to a ceremony they fundamentally disagree with.

That’s why so many of the wedding guests decided to clap so joyfully and loudly at the announcement and (re)introduction of the Norman-Wikner family. They were trying to make up for the people who were missing. They were trying to make up for all the years this family has survived — and thrived — without public acknowledgment.

I hope the ceremony and the reception gave the Michelles the affirmation they deserve. But I also hope — somewhat selfishly — that it eventually will help the Norman-Wikner family make their way back home to St. Andrew.

Class Notes for Week 6

Sunday’s class was a response to traditionalist scholar Robert Gagnon’s challenge that the “burden of proof” now lies on the proponents of change to explain how the consequences to individuals of enforcing the biblical prohibitions against same-sex acts are greater than the consequences to the church of ignoring the testimony of scripture and overturning thousands of years of tradition.

The final third of the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” offers several examples of the consequences to individual Christians as well as to the church in general.

* The psychological damage done to families when parents are taught — often by groups like Focus on the Family — that they must not accept the lifestyle choices of their teenage or adult children who come out as gay or lesbian. The consensus of the psychological and psychiatric communities — with some minority dissent — holds that homosexuality is no more a disorder than heterosexuality is. To try and “treat” same-sex attraction can only result in, at best, pushing children away and, at worse, inflicting deep psychological harm.

* The church has lost many good and faithful members who, after recognizing themselves as gay or lesbian, see no place for them left in their congregation. Or, even worse, they see no place left for them in God’s kingdom.

* The suicide rate for gay and lesbians — especially teenagers — is well above that of the general population. Some traditionalists offer this statistic as evidence of the self-destructive nature of homosexuality identity. But open and affirming advocates say the statistic is a natural, human response to isolation, secrecy and abandonment. “Closets are places of death,” said the Rev. Mel White.

* The church’s stance sanctions homophobia, what Harvard Divinity School Professor Peter Gomes called, “the fear and loathing of homosexuals.” No member of St. Andrew would condone violent, hate-filled acts committed against any human being. And no member of St. Andrew would agree with the actions of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church in their picketing at funerals and worship services with signs that read, “God Hates Fags” or “Fag Church.”

But the scholars and pastors interviewed in the film find a thin line between hating the sin and hating the sinner. The open and affirming folks say the church’s view of homosexuality as unnatural and ungodly directly contributes to the cultural forces that give rise to violent, homosexual acts and rhetoric.

(The final third wasn’t all doom and gloom. It also provide bit of closure for the Poteats who, although they won’t accept their daughter’s lifestyle, continue to have a strong relationship with their daughter. And it also shows the ordination of Gene Robinson and its encouraging impact on open and affirming advocates from other denominations.)

Our conversations after the video raised questions about:

* How open and affirming St. Andrew would be to any of its teenagers who were questioning their own sexuality.

* How much the documentary polarizes the debate to seemingly be between advocates of complete acceptance and advocates of complete intolerance.

* How this debate plays out in the church on the international level, especially in the Anglican communion.

Discussion questions for Week 7

I have been unable to find a guest speaker for Oct. 25 (Reformation Sunday), so we are going to use the time to continue our conversation and to answer unanswered questions.

I encourage everyone to catch up on past readings (see below). There is plenty of discussion topics already on the table. It would be good to discuss some of them in more specificity. (I also suggest that we reread the specific biblical passages again and see if we have more to say about them in Week 7 than we did in Week 2.)

You also can read and respond to my reflections on the Oct. 18 wedding of Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner. (As well as the notes on our class discussion on Oct. 19.)

Finally, I’ve spoken with some of the leaders over at First Presbyterian, and I’m writing up an account of how they decided to allow Michelle Norman and Michelle Wikner to use their building for their wedding on Oct. 18. I have to double check the accuracy of the account, but I’ll try to get it posted in time to read for this Sunday.

Let me know if you have any other suggestions.

Reading list so far:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Class Notes from Oct. 11 (Week 5)

Our discussion on Oct. 11 showed us yet again why the conversations on this issue need to continue long after our eight-week course is over. Although we had no video to take up half of the class session, we only got to discuss two questions in small groups and only had time to report back to the whole group our answers to the first question (“Where do you think the burden of proof now lies for affirming same-sex marriage or ordaining pastors and elders in committed same-sex relationships: With the traditionalists or with the More Light folks?).

Most of the group agreed that, in practical terms, the burden of proof was with those who want to change what has stood as tradition concerning this issue. But one group said that – at least at the congregational level – the burden of proof was on the traditionalists to explain why they had denied the wedding request from Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman.

The issue of “burden of proof” raises a number of discussion questions surrounding the denominational policies around the request from Wikner and Norman. Dell Richard explained that his legal brief was crafted to explain to Session members how they could approve the request and still remain within the denomination’s restrictions – if they wanted to. The Session members in the class attested that Wikner and Norman wanted an actual wedding, not a “safe harbor” blessing ceremony – one that would be legally binding under Iowa law.

The thought was raised that First Presbyterian had approved the Wikner-Norman wedding as a regularly outside building use and thus not to be affected by the denominational restrictions (It’s taking place Saturday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m.). But the sessions members affirmed (Brad Baldes and Melissa Fath in class, and Barb Fleckenstein later by e-mail) that the session was aware that no St. Andrew staff members would be performing the wedding ceremony.

Some asked what steps the denomination could take against St. Andrew if the Session had approved the wedding. It was pointed out that the denomination owns the church property and could do anything from sanction the church and the clergy to dissolving the congregation. It’s unclear the extent to which action – if any – the actual presbytery leaders would have taken against St. Andrew, however.

We eventually moved on to the second question (“Assume for a minute that science had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that homosexuality is as common and as natural as left-handedness. How – if at all – should that fact affect a church’s policies concerning same-sex relationships?)

Unfortunately, time got away from us before we could report back.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discussion questions for Oct. 18 (Week 6)

Just a reminder that for this Sunday, I’ve asked you to reread the essays by N.T. Wright and Robert Gagnon (at least the pages specifically discussing responses to homosexuality). You might also want to read through an essay put out by the Presbyterian Coalition, “The First of Institutions,” by Gilbert Meilaender.

As you read, I suggest that you identify which passages you find to be the strongest response to the claims and arguments that have been offered in the “For the Bible Tells Me So” documentary. As we discussed in class last week, the question of where the “burden of proof” lies is an important one in deciding how the church in general — and our denomination and congregation in particular — responds to questions of sexuality in regards to opening up the requirement for marriage and ordination.

When responding to Dan Via’s essay in their co-authored book, “Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views,” Gagnon ends his rebuttal (and the book) with a clear statement that the “burden of proof” now lies on the proponents of change to explain how the consequences to individuals of enforcing the biblical prohibitions against same-sex acts are greater than the consequences to the church of ignoring the testimony of scripture and overturning thousands of years of tradition.

Gagnon doesn’t believe such a case has been made. But the final third of “For the Bible Tells Me So” tries to make that case as powerfully as possible.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Discussion questions for Week 5

Thanks for a good discussion on Sunday. I’ve posted my summary the class session here — please do let me know if I left out something you considered important.

For next week, we will read through some of the traditional readings of the biblical passages:
The selections specifically challenge the notion that the gay and lesbian issue is analogous to issues of race, slavery and the subordination of women in Church History. (I’m also looking for a good 20-30-minute video to show that summarizes the traditional perspective.) If you have a good one, let me know.

We’ll return to “For the Bible Tells Me So” on Oct. 18.

Class notes for Week 4

Discussion during Week Four shifted from reactions to the “For the Bible Tells Me So” documentary (we’ll be watching the final third on Oct. 18) to reactions to N.T. Wright’s paper on “Communion and Koinonia,” what Wright describes as “Pauline Reflections on Tolerance and Boundaries.” The paper is helpful for our purposes because it challenges people of faith — Anglicans in Wright’s case — to pull upon their own traditions as they read the scriptures and discuss how open and affirming congregations should be toward their gay and lesbian members.

Discussions began by dividing into groups, making introductions and then having individuals share why they chose to attend St. Andrew in the first place. The answers ranged from the quality of the youth and music programs, the strong intellectual content now retired pastor Mark Martin brought to every sermon and the close intimacy of the small group ministry. Some people said they knew why they started attending St. Andrew, but were unsure why they keep attending — citing the difficulties in con-necting to people in a large congregation, the failure of the congregation to reach out sufficiently in times of loss and confusion, the current debate over relocating the church and the recent decision to turn down the request of Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman to use the sanctuary for their wedding ceremony.

Without reporting back to the large group, the discussion shifted to responding to some of the more provocative statements in Wright’s paper. First:

“In order to have any serious discussion about ethical issues, we need to remind ourselves the whole time of the importance of Reason (along with, and obedient to Scripture and Tradition) as one strand of the classic threefold Anglican cord. The current fashion for substituting ‘experience’, which all too eas-ily means ‘feeling’, or ‘reported feeling’, is simply not the same sort of thing. Experience matters, but it doesn’t belong in an account of authority; put it there, and the whole notion of ‘authority’ itself decon-structs before your very eyes.”

Groups were asked how they ranked the factors of Experience, Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to discussing matters of faith and sexuality. After one group noted that we need to keep all four in mind when discussing the issue, all the other groups named Scripture as the first guiding principle. The rankings varied after that point. One group challenged the definition of the vague term “Tradition,” wondering:

  • Whether it means helping us get back to a first-century content for what the New Testament writers would mean (a skill that N.T. Wright has been developing for his entire career),
  • Whether it refers to the Church’s 2,000-year history since then (which has been hit or miss at best) or
  • Whether it (in a Presbyterian context) refers to a Reformed Tradition is based on people applying Reason and Experience to Scripture to challenge church Tradition.
(Some of the groups decided to ignore the question altogether and began talking about the biblical passages or otherwise tried to catch up first time class participants.)

Then we read through and discussed the paragraph immediate before the above quotation in which Wright, somewhat snarkily, writes:

“The fact that our early twenty-first century instinct is to analyze Paul in terms of prejudices and in-consistency shows well enough what sort of intellectual — or perhaps we should say anti-intellectual — climate we now live in within the western church at least. We have allowed ourselves to say ‘I feel’ when we mean ‘I think’, collapsing serious thought into knee-jerk reactions. We have become tolerant of everything except intolerance, about which we ourselves are extremely intolerant. If someone thinks through an issue and, irrespective of his or her feelings on the subject, reaches a considered judgement that doing X is right and doing Y is wrong, they no sooner come out and say so than someone else will accuse them of phobia. If someone says stealing is wrong, we expect someone else to say, ‘You only say that because you’re kleptophobic.’ You will see easily enough where this argument is going.”

Groups were to discuss the degree to which they agreed with Wright’s assessment of the cultural moment, or how and why they found it to be too sharp or dismissive.

Some participants said that Wright elevated Paul’s letters too highly and failed to put them into a framework of Christ’s inclusivity and the command to love they neighbor. Some groups continued their earlier discussion of Experience, Reason, Scripture and Tradition.

Discussions then moved into an account of Presbyterian policy and concerns about living in an “unrepentant state.” Presbyterian policy singles out self-defined, sexually-active gays and lesbians from serving as elders and clergy. Technically, an elder or a minister could be openly unrepentant about other sinful behavior and not face such automatic disqualification — although there could and should be some discipline depending on the severity of the sin.

The observation led to two different questions:
  • Are same-sex relationships inherently sinful and, thus, anyone in a committed same-sex relation-ship is in an “unrepentant state”? Or, as argued in “For the Bible Tells Me So,” is there room in the Re-formed tradition for gay and lesbians in committed relationships — relationships that would then be blessed by the church?
  • Even if same-sex relations are prohibited — or at least a same-sex relationship is considered to be less than a biblical ideal — why should the church deal with these relationships any differently than it has dealt with divorce over the past few decades — making provisions for members to divorce, remarry and resume church leadership positions despite the biblical restrictions in the New Testament?
For example, when St. Andrew called Mark Martin as pastor in the 1980s, the church lost some members because Mark was divorced and remarried. If Paul says he would prefer everyone to be celibate like him but admits that it’s better to marry than to burn, shouldn’t the Church make similar allowances for same-sex unions?

Discussion also turned to what options are available to this and other congregations now that the question has been raised. (We will discuss these options in more detail during our final session.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Class notes for Week 3

Discussion during the third week of class was curtailed slightly because of the celebrations for Kyle Otterbein and Heather Woodin. What emerged was a quick summary of the five families in the “For the Bible Tells Me So” video and the theological and parenting challenges those families face.

In the second third of the documentary, class members saw how Gene and Boo Robinson — after much therapy, prayer and study — decided to dissolve their marriage through a ceremony in which they released each other of their vows. The Robinson’s situation was contrasted against how Chrissy Gephardt decided to leave her husband for a lesbian partner. That decision, not surprisingly, left many class members uncomfortable with its implication for all marriages, regardless of the genders involved.

We also so how the Rev. Poteat came to terms with her daughter being lesbian. She realized that she had been focusing only on how her daughter was having sex and not on all the other things that add up to her daughter. She said she still doesn’t accept her daughter’s lifestyle, but she now can have a relationship with her.

The video also introduced:
  • A discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah (a passage that focuses more on homosexual rape and breaking the code of hospitality in the ancient world than on any same-sex relationships) and
  • An all too brief discussion of Romans 1 and what it means as a passages that continues prohibitions on same-sex relationships into the New Testament.

The discussion after the film focused on how amazing it is that few words in Romans 1 can have such important consequences for gays and lesbians who want to remain in the church. Ken Kuntz also gave a short lecture on how the Hebrew word translated “abomination” — which was discussed in detail in the previous week — gets used differently in passages throughout the Old Testament.

Rather than provide an clear answers on this issue, the discussion illustrated why this issue has remained so thorny for so long.

Discussion Questions for Week IV

For this Sunday, I would like us to read and be ready to discuss N.T. Wright’s “Communion and Koinonia.” It’s a long essay that helps put our discussion about sexuality into a larger context of tolerance and boundaries within the church. (Wright also passionately and rationally rejects many of the biblical interpretations offered in “For the Bible Tells Me So” — especially when it comes to contextualizing and understanding what the New Testament writers’ words could have meant in a first-century Jewish environment.)

As you read, please mark the passages you have questions about or strong responses to. And, if you’re so inclined, please write your own response to Wright. If you send them to me ahead of time ( or post them as a comment on the Web site, all the class can benefit.

To help get things started, I’ve posted my response to the essay. Please remember that I offer my response as a starting point, not an ending point, for discussion. Your responses to my response are welcome and encouraged.

If you have time, please also read through the legal briefs (May 29 and September 26) that Dell Richard has written up. Dell has been an active participant in our class and would happy to answer any questions. If you have specific questions — especially any that would require more research — send them to me.

If you still have more time, read through the other links on the site that provide more traditional readings of the biblical passages we’ve been discussing. We’ll continue that discussion next week. In order to allow for more in-class discussion, we won’t be watching the rest of the documentary for a few more weeks.

Jeff's Response to N.T. Wright’s “Community and Koinonia”

As someone who already has identified himself on the “open and affirming”/”more light” end of this long theological spectrum, I want to point out those passages in N.T. Wright’s “Communion and Koinonia” that give me pause — passages to which I have no ready answers and against which I have no easy arguments.

I want our class to read and discuss this lengthy essay because it passionately and rationally rejects many of the biblical interpretations offered in “For the Bible Tells Me So” — especially when it comes to contextualizing and understanding what the New Testament writers’ words could have meant in a first-century Jewish environment. (The essay says nothing about Sodom and Gomorrah and the Holiness Code.) And on a personal level, I think anyone who would like to see St. Andrew become more fully accepting of its gay and lesbian members needs to wrestle with Wright’s reading of Romans 1.

First, let me say that I respect N.T. Wright as a scholar and as a bishop in the Anglican fellowship. I’ve read several of his books — those geared for a more popular than scholarly audience — and found him to be reasonable, engaging and worthy of rereading and close analysis. Thus I become nervous about my own understanding of the faith whenever I disagree with Wright. That doesn’t mean I trust his biblical understanding completely, but I’ve always found him to be a good marker for when I’m, in his words, em-bracing “the best of contemporary scholarship while refusing some of the follies into which it some-times falls” (8).

I’m likewise very interested in what Wright has to say about how first-century Christians decided for themselves “what counts as compromise, what is perfectly acceptable, what must be resisted at all costs and what you may get away with for a while but should expect to tidy up sooner or later” (1).

While other scholars find inconsistency in Paul’s calls for tolerance and boundaries, Wright reads Paul as being passionately and consistently concerned with overturning any cultural markers that reinforce ethnic identity to the detriment of Christian unity. That list primarily includes issues of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance.

As Wright explains, “If you want to know why Paul insisted on tolerating some differences of opinion and practice within the people of God, and on not tolerating others, the answer is that the ones that were to be tolerated were the ones that carried the connotations of ethnic boundary lines, and the ones that were not to be tolerated were the ones that marked the difference between genuine, living, renewed humanity and false, corruptible, destructive humanity” (5).

Wright does not think Paul is preaching a gospel that overturns past sexual prohibitions. His analysis and commentaries suggest that Paul clearly understands genitally expressed, same-sex relationships as being evidence of “false, corruptible, destructive humanity” (5). Wright doesn’t think Paul is saying that everyone with homosexual inclinations has consciously chosen such a mindset but that “in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find” (12).

After all, if Paul had viewed those sexual prohibitions as merely expressions of ethnic behavior — or as elements of the old covenant that Christians have been freed from through the New Covenant — then Paul would have been accepting of the man in the Corinthian church who was in a relationship with his father’s wife (no incestuous blood connection, only cultural prohibitions). Instead, he told the church to put the man out of the fellowship (6).

Wright’s essay also suggests that our discussion of sexuality in general cannot be limited to those few passages that deal explicitly with same-sex relations. He writes, “When Paul writes a long chapter on the resurrection of the body (chapter 15), this is not simply because he has been working through a long list of topics and has now decided to deal with this one. It is because the resurrection of the body has been basic to his understanding throughout, not least his understanding of ethics, not least his view of sexual ethics” (7). And Wright claims that Paul would have viewed the “moral relativism” in which the Western church is engaged as “dehumanizing and degrading” (8), and he would have viewed homosexual behavior as being outside the “genuine humanness” against which all people will be measured on Judgment Day.

And all that’s before Wright turns explicitly to the question of how the church — read American church — deals with homosexuality in our current moment of transition from “modernism” (the legacy of the enlightenment) to “post-modernism” (the realization that, rather than benefiting the rest of humanity, the heirs of enlightenment have imposed a world in which someone always benefits personally, financially or sexually).

I think Wright’s harshest statement comes when he says: “We have become tolerant of everything except intolerance, about which we ourselves are extremely intolerant. If someone thinks through an issue and, irrespective of his or her feelings on the subject, reaches a considered judgement that doing X is right and doing Y is wrong, they no sooner come out and say so than someone else will accuse them of phobia. If someone says stealing is wrong, we expect someone else to say, ‘You only say that because you’re kleptophobic’” (8).

Indeed, Wright would view all the careful theological analysis offered in “For the Bible Tells Me So” as merely a privileging of Experience (personal feeling) over the time-tested standards of Reasons, Scripture and Tradition (8).

But in that statement, Wright also issues a warning to his American readers — who he thinks have an overly simplistic understanding of global issues of social justice. He warns American progressives not to assume that those in the international community who stand against them on “instincts for holiness” (14) will disagree with them on issues of economic justice. Likewise, he advises American progressives to not assume they can appeal to an international community through the language of minority and victim-hood when it comes to issues of sexual morality.

Indeed, while homosexuality used to be described as the “English vice,” Wright implies it is now an extension of American imperialism.

“Part of that imperial arrogance in our own day, I believe, is the insistence that we, the empire, the West, America, or wherever, are in a position to tell the societies that we are already exploiting in a thousand different ways that they should alter their deep-rooted moralities to accommodate our newly invented ones. There is something worryingly imperial about the practice itself and about the insistence on everybody else endorsing it. It is often said that the poor want justice while the rich want peace. We now have a situation where two-thirds of the world wants debt relief and one-third wants sex. That is, I think, a tell-tale sign that something is wrong at a deep structural level.”

It's a harsh critique, but one that can't be easily dismissed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Local Lutheran response to same-sex relationships

Last week, I asked Carl Beyerhelm, a retired ELCA minister who lives in Iowa City, to write about the recent ELCA decision as his September Writers' Group column for the Press-Citizen. Since Carl is in his early 80s, I wasn't sure what he would think about the ruling.

When I described the ruling to him over the phone -- explaining that the denomination was allowing individual churches to decide for their own congregations -- he said, "That sounds like a very Lutheran solution."

One of the class members suggested that I post a link to Carl's response on our site. Here's his main conclusion:
Our human ideas, feelings and fears about each other, and our differences in gender and sexual orientation don't have to be barriers to good fellowship in our congregations. In the day of Peter and Paul, being Jew or Gentile, God found a way to break down their fears and doubts about each others' background and cultures. With God, we can do the same, using our energy, concern and our unified life in Christ to work for peace and justice and the good life together.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Online resources

In the bottom right hand corner of this blog, I've added a very short list of online blogs and interactive Web sites for providing more information about faith and sexuality. Please send me what sites you've been turning to for information on this issue.

Better late than never

I finally have the text for the May 29 legal brief Dell Richard prepared for the Session before it voted on Michelle Wikner and Michelle Norman's request to use the sanctuary for their wedding.

Dell has provided a short update update on the legal decisions within the PCUSA since the Session vote.

We were supposed to have read these documents and be ready to discuss them during our Sept. 27 class -- but that hardly seems possible.

We'll probably have to wait to discuss them until next week.

Update on legal brief (Sept. 26)

TO: Jeff Charis-Carlson, St Andrew Presbyterian Church (USA)
FROM: Dell A. Richard,
RE: Same Sex Marriage at St Andrew
DATE: September 26, 2009

Dear Adult Ed Class:

The attached Memorandum to Session was prepared in May of this year and delivered to Session on May 29, 2009. Since that Memo was prepared, the courts of the PCUSA have continued to render decisions that affect the state of the law in the Presbyterian Church(USA). Most notably, our Synod handed down a decision involving the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area that gives us some guidance about how our Synod PJC might handle a similar case. In addition, the Presbytery of Boston refused to sanction a pastor that performed a legal marriage under Massachusetts law in a Presbyterian church.

In Bierschwale, et al vs Twin Cities, Remedial Case 2008-1, the PJC of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies was asked to address a rather esoteric aspect of our Book of Order that allows a Pastor to “raise a principled objection or scruple” to his ordination vows. The pastor at issue advised the Twin Cities Presbytery that he “cannot affirm G-6.0106b [part of the BOO that requires a pastor to be celibate or in a man/woman relationship]. Nor can I affirm the position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on the question of the morality of homosexual relationships.”

During the Presbytery Committee on Ministry questioning period, the pastor stated: “Even if I could look in a crystal ball and know that I would have no future sexual relationships, I would still refuse to be in compliance with the Book of Order as it now stands."

When asked in reference to G-6.0106b, whether he would refrain from intimate sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman, he responded: “I refuse to take a vow of celibacy.”

The Presbytery approved his call and a member of the Presbytery brought an action in the church courts challenging the decision to approve the call.

The legal issue as framed by the majority opinion of the Synod PJC was that it was up to the Presbytery to determine if the pastor’s “departure” from the book of Order was of significant enough magnitude to considered a violation of the constitution. By a preponderance of the evidence presented, the PJC found that the pastor’s stated departure did not rise to the level of “infring[ing] on the rights and views of others, and d[id] not obstruct the constitutional governance of the church.”

As to the matter of serious departure from these standards, G-6.0108b states, in part, “The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves", namely the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area in this case. The Presbytery took extraordinary care to make it clear that their decision applied only to the current expression of departure and was not making policy or setting precedent and the Complainants have not contested that claim by the Respondent.

The Synod PJC found that the action of the Presbytery was not irregular and refused to set aside the Presbytery’s action in approving the pastor’s call.

Concerning the claim that Presbytery had waived the “fidelity and chastity” requirement of G-6.0106b, the PJC found that the Presbytery clearly stated in its acceptance of the pastor’s call that it was not waiving any requirements of the Book of Order, and therefore did not set policy to be applied to any future departures.

The dissent took the majority to task on several fronts. Pointing out that the majority opinion did not specifically examine the constitutionality of the pastor’s alleged “departure”, the dissent argued that the majority simply accepted the Presbytery’s determination that the pastor had not “departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity” without considering G-9.0103 that states that “the jurisdiction of each governing body is limited by the express provisions of the Constitution, with powers not mentioned being reserved to the presbyteries, and with the acts of each subject to review by the next higher governing body."

Chiding the majority for avoiding its constitutional responsibilities, the dissent went on to argue that it is impossible for the Synod PJC to rule on the constitutionality of a particular action of Presbytery when it gives Presbytery ultimate authority to make the decision. The dissent points out that it is the very constitutionality of the Presbytery’s action that was being called into question in this case and just because Presbytery says it acted correctly should not preclude a challenge before Synod PJC based on Presbytery’s self reported alleged compliance with the constitution. The dissent argues that it was the majority’s responsibility to determine if the pastor’s “departure” was a failure to adhere to the requirements of the Book of Order. The majority decision was based on the circular argument that the pastor’s departure was not a failure to adhere to the requirement of the Book of Order because the Presbytery determined that it was not a failure to adhere to the requirements of

the Book of Order. But whether the Presbytery’s determination was correct is precisely what the majority was asked to review.

The dissent further questioned the wisdom of the majority by arguing the absurd results that could come from the reasoning of the majority in accepting at face value the claim by Presbytery that it did not set policy to be applied to any future departure and therefore did not “waive” the “fidelity and chastity” requirement of G-6.0106b. By definition, a “departure” creates the basis for an exemption to the standard. The pastor presented the departure and the Presbytery accepted his departure. It seems reasonable that if an individual exercises freedom of conscience to depart from a particular standard that the individual is no longer bound by the language of the standard.

Therefore, by accepting the pastor’s departure from the standard, Presbytery may not have overtly “waived” the “fidelity and chastity” requirement, but it has exempted the pastor from future compliance with a constitutional requirement and insulated him from any possible disciplinary action. This action therefore appears to have the same effect as waiving the requirement.

In Presbytery of Boston vs Jean K. Southward, charges were brought against a pastor for performing a legal marriage under Massachusetts law (similar to Iowa). The facts were not in dispute, and the charges against the pastor claimed that the pastor had conducted the marriage in the sanctuary of a Presbyterian Church that (a) appropriated the liturgical forms for Christian marriage to celebrate the marriage of two women sanctioned by civil law and purporting to be consistent with the Christian understanding of marriage under the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); (b) declared that as a result of the marriage ceremony she performed, the two women were then joined in Christian marriage, declaring a new status that is reserved to the marriage of one man with one woman under the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and (c) failed to differentiate between the marriage celebrated between the two women and a Christian marriage between one man and one woman. (All of the things set out in my memo to Session outlining the previous decisions of the General Assembly PJC - DAR). By so participating and directing the worship service, the prosecuting committee claimed that the pastor had disregarded the Directory for Worship W-4.9000, in particular W-4.9001, which expressly defines our biblical and constitutional understanding of Christian marriage.

The Boston Presbytery PJC found that the Prosecuting Committee has not proven beyond reasonable doubt that W-4.9000 contains mandatory language that would prohibit a Minister of Word and Sacrament from performing a same-gender marriage.

The PJC found that since the Preface to the Directory of Worship (clause b) states that the Directory uses language that is “simply descriptive”, this Commission takes this to mean that the definition of Christian marriage in W-4.9001 is merely descriptive; there is no mandatory language in this article. Where mandatory language is used in subsequent articles (e.g., W-4.9004), it is taken to refer to mandatory action, not limiting the gender of the couple to be married. In addition, there is no mandatory language in the Constitution, nor in any Authoritative Interpretation, prohibiting Ministers of Word and Sacrament from performing same-gender marriages in states where this is allowed by law.

The Authoritative Interpretation of 1991 (Request 91-23), written by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, again contains no mandatory language. Also, it addresses the distinction between mixed-gender marriage and same-gender unions, not same-gender marriages (as no states allowed same-gender marriage at the time), and is therefore not applicable to this case.

In the Spahr case the GAPJC ruled that the decision in the Benton case was not applicable. Benton was a remedial case, rather than a disciplinary case and involved the policies of a session. Moreover, its subject matter was same-gender civil unions, not same-gender marriage. It is not applicable to this case. The decision in the Spahr case does not contain a clear prohibition that is applicable to this case, while it also cannot serve as precedent to the present case, as precedent cannot be applied retroactively.

Mirroring the arguments that will be made if the matter comes up in Iowa, the dissent argues that in rendering this decision, the majority has taken the liberty of legislating change in the Constitution through the judicial process. W-4.9001 definitely does define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Since 2004 in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the civil act of marriage between same gender couples is a possibility, making this case different from the context of the Spahr decision. Thus, the rationale from the Spahr decision does not fit, wherein the General Assembly PJC argued that a same gender ceremony can never be a marriage. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a same gender ceremony can definitely be a civil marriage. Benton does set a rational standard for deriving the difference between a blessing of a same-sex union and the celebration of a Christian marriage. However, this case does not elucidate the facts of this case, as Benton assumed the impossibility of a civil marriage between same gender participants. Further, the issues of fact of this case were stipulated – both the Prosecuting Committee and the Accused provided and accepted evidence that this was intentionally a Christian marriage.

Because of this changed legal state in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the importance of the definitions within the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) become more important, not less so. Further, the argument that the definition of marriage being between a man and a woman is only descriptive and reflects the ideals and mores of a bygone age cannot be sustained. The claim stands without proof, and can only be maintained through dependence on the argument from silence. This sets a dangerous precedent, that any part of the Constitution that has not recently been sustained by legislative action can be assumed to have lost validity. In the absence of that legislative action, the majority has substituted its judgment for the clear words of definition. This makes a mockery of the prescriptive language of W-4.9004, wherein the Directory for Worship orders that “The man and the woman shall declare their intention to enter into Christian marriage and shall exchange vows of love and faithfulness.”; and “In the name of the triune God the minister shall declare publicly that the woman and the man are now joined in marriage.”

Legal brief for Session (May 29)

TO: Session, St Andrew Presbyterian Church (USA)
FROM: Dell A. Richard, Attorney at Law
RE: Same Sex Marriage at St Andrew
DATE: May 29, 2009

Dear members of Session:

Interim pastor Bob David has asked me to prepare an advisory opinion to Session regarding the Book of Order implications of performing a same sex marriage ceremony at St. Andrew. This matter is coming before the Session, in part, as a result of the recent Varnum vs Brian decision of the Iowa Supreme Court declaring Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) a violation of the Iowa Constitution. Specifically, two members of St. Andrew have submitted the following request to Session:

Members of Session,

We have spoken to Pastors Bob and Kyle and it has been recommended that we write to you to request the use of the church for our wedding. We have been longstanding members and involved in numerous programs at St. Andrew.

Michelle Norman and our children have been baptized here. We contribute financially and have been on mission trips sponsored by St. Andrew. Quite simply, we love God and we love St. Andrew. It is our hope to have this ceremony at our church. Thank you for your consideration.


Michelle Wikner

Michelle Norman

Pastor David has provided session with citations to several authorities that discuss the underlying ecclesiastical issues of homosexuality in the church. This memo will focus solely on the constitutional status of same sex marriage within the PCUSA.

For the record, I am personally supportive of the request and would like the PCUSA to change its interpretation of scripture on several GLBT issues.


The current state of the law inside the PCUSA can be best summarized by referencing four documents:

  • 1991 Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order (BOA) W-4.9001.
  • 2000 GA Permanent Judicial Commission (GA PJC) remedial decision in Benton, et al. v. Presbytery of Hudson River
  • 2008 GA Permanent Judicial Commission disciplinary decision in Spahr v. Pby of Redwoods
  • 2008 vote by the General Assembly Committee on Church Polity to reject a proposed overture that would have changed the constitutional definition of marriage from a man and a woman to "two people."

(For those of you not steeped in church polity, a remedial case typically seeks to undo an action of a church body such as a session or presbytery, and a disciplinary case is always against an individual person who is alleged to have done something wrong).

The Presbyterian Church (USA) view of marriage.

The Constitution

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) defines Christian marriage in W-4.9001 as follows:

"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."

The 1991 Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of W-4.9001 reads as follows:

There is no mention in the Book of Order of same sex unions (ceremonies). If a same sex ceremony were considered to be the equivalent of a marriage ceremony between two persons of the same sex, it would not be sanctioned under the Book of Order. In section W-4.9001, Christian marriage is specifically defined as:[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.

Inasmuch as the session is responsible and accountable for determination of the appropriate use of the church building and facilities (G-10.0102n), it should not allow the use of the church facilities for a same sex union ceremony that the session determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.

Likewise, since a Christian marriage performed in accordance with the Directory for Worship can only involve a covenant between a woman and a man, it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony. (Minutes, 1991, pp. 55, 57, 395)

This Authoritative Interpretation makes it clear that at least since 1991, it has not been proper:

1) for a PCUSA minister to perform a same sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony; or,

2) for a PCUSA session to allow the use of church facilities for a same sex union ceremony that the session determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.

The Cases

In 1998, a same-sex holy union service was performed at a Presbyterian Church in New York. After questions were raised about the propriety of the service, the Presbytery adopted the following resolution in support of the session’s and pastor’s actions:

. . . that the Presbytery affirm the freedom of any session to allow its ministers to perform ceremonies of holy union (within or outside the confines of the church sanctuary) between persons of the same gender, reflecting our understanding at this time that these ceremonies do not constitute marriage as defined in the Book of Order.

The pastor of another church in the presbytery objected to presbytery’s action, resulting in the GA PJC remedial case decision of Benton, et al. v. Presbytery of Hudson River, in which the GA PJC concluded that ceremonies of “union” between persons of the same sex are governed by the General Assembly’s AI of 1991 cited above.

Under the third specification of error, the Benton decision stated that the 1991 Authoritative Interpretation assumes that some same-sex ceremonies could be the equivalent of a marriage ceremony, and therefore, would contravene the Book of Order, and some might not. A determinative distinction between a permissible same-sex ceremony and a marriage ceremony is that the latter confers a new status whereas the former blesses an existing relationship. The Book of Order makes this theological distinction concerning marriage in W-4.9004: “In the name of the triune God the minister shall declare publicly that the woman and the man are now joined in marriage.” This and similar pronouncements declaring a new status are to be reserved for services of marriage. (Emphasis added).

The Benton court went on to make it clear that a liturgical distinction should also be made in services blessing a same-sex relationship. According to the court, the 1991 General Assembly Authoritative Interpretation leaves to the judgment of individual ministers and sessions (if church property is to be utilized) whether to conduct same-sex ceremonies. In exercising this judgment, however, ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of such services with services of Christian marriage. Ministers should not appropriate specific liturgical forms from services of Christian marriage or services recognizing civil marriage in the conduct of such ceremonies. They should also instruct same-sex couples that the service to be conducted does not constitute a marriage ceremony and should not be held out as such. (my emphasis).

In 2004 and 2005, Presbyterian pastor Jane Spahr acknowledged that she had performed same sex ceremonies and that she also had signed a “Certificate of Marriage” for each of the ceremonies which were the subject of the case. When charges were filed in a disciplinary case against her, the matter of Spahr v. Presbytery of Redwoods began its way to the GA PJC. In her trial, Spahr testified that her ministry had been a “ministry of marriage equality.” and that she had officiated at ceremonies between same gender couples whether the couple described the ceremony as a “union,” a “marriage” or in other terms. Spahr provided heterosexual and same sex couples the same counseling and preparation work before performing any ceremony.

The court noted that Spahr was charged with and found guilty of violating W-4.9001 and the 1991 AI by performing “wedding service[s] in the marriage of” two same sex couples. The S[ynod]PJC determined that Spahr was guilty based on her actions in performing “wedding” services for two same sex couples.

In concluding that Spahr had not violated the Constitution, the court stated:

The ceremonies that are the subject of this case were not marriages as the term is defined by W-4.9001. These were ceremonies between women, not between a man and a woman. Both parties acknowledged the ceremonies in question were not marriages as defined by the Book of Order. It is not improper for ministers of the Word and Sacrament to perform same sex ceremonies. At least four times, the larger church has rejected overtures that would prohibit blessing the unions of same sex couples. By the definition in W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony can never be a marriage. The SPJC found Spahr guilty of doing that which by definition cannot be done. One cannot characterize same sex ceremonies as marriages forthe purpose of disciplining a minister of the Word and Sacrament and at the same time declare that such ceremonies are not marriages for legal or ecclesiastical purposes.


In holding that Spahr was not guilty as charged, this Commission does not hold that there are no differences between same sex ceremonies and marriage ceremonies. We do hold that the liturgy should be kept distinct for the two types of services. We further hold that officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage. Under W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.

In response to the Spahr decision, the Presbytery of the Redwoods (the Presbytery that had brought the charges against Ms Spahr) included the following recommendations in an Advisory Opinion to its members interpreting for them the meaning of the Benton and Spahr decisions:

The General Assembly PJC, in both Benton and Spahr, recognized the necessity for ministers to be sure not to permit confusion regarding the difference between same sex unions, performed in the course of pastoral care and marriage ceremonies, described in our Directory for Worship.

These authoritative interpretations offer ministers and sessions the following guidance:

They should not utilize liturgies for Christian marriage or liturgies for the recognition of civil marriage in ceremonies for same sex couples.

They may not perform a ceremony that they consider or represent to be the same as a marriage ceremony nor may they permit their facilities to be utilized for any such ceremony.

They may provide pastoral care in the form of worship services that "celebrate a loving, caring, and committed relationship" such as civil unions for same sex couples, but they must also advise such couples that such a service does not constitute a marriage and may not be held out as such.

This means that ministers and sessions continue to be responsible to make appropriate decisions concerning pastoral care for members, all the members of the church.

Inasmuch as the session is responsible and accountable for determination of the appropriate use of the church building and facilities (G-10.0102n), it should not allow the use of the church facilities for a same sex union ceremony that the session determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony. (my emphasis)

The General Assembly

The 2008 General Assembly soundly defeated a resolution that would have allowed same sex marriage ceremonies under W-4.9001 and appointed a committee to study the issue. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for June 2009.

Where we are Today

Although the Iowa Supreme Court was careful to point out that the Varnum decision did not in any way affect church practice, the case may have a significant impact on how churches in Iowa deal with requests such as the one before Session. Prior to Varnum, a same sex ceremony could not be a legal marriage in Iowa, and consequently everyone could easily argue that neither the officiating pastor, nor the participating church would be violating W-4.9001 for the reasons discussed in Spahr. So long as the event could not be legal a marriage ceremony in Iowa, under Spahr, the participants had what we call in the tax law “a safe harbor” that allowed a clear definition of what was, and was not, allowed in the PCUSA. So long as everyone followed the Spahr rules, the participants could have an appropriate ceremony presided over by a PCUSA pastor in a PCUSA church, without violating the “no same sex marriage” PCUSA constitutional provisions.

However, now that same sex civil marriage is legal in Iowa and the Session has specifically been asked in writing for permission to conduct a “real” same sex legal marriage ceremony at St Andrew, the safe harbor of “it is not really a marriage” no longer provides an automatic shield against a charge of W-4.9001 violation for either the pastor, the session or the Presbytery. Since the same sex couple really can be legally married in Iowa and the pastor would have the civil legal authority to perform the ceremony, greater care will be needed to insulate the pastor and session from a charge that they have conducted a “marriage” ceremony.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Under W-4.9001 and the 1991 AI, neither a PCUSA pastor, nor a PCUSA session can authorize what they know to be a legal marriage ceremony without inviting sanctions. If the applicants are willing to get married somewhere else by someone not a PCUSA pastor, neither the officiating PCUSA pastor that celebrates the relationship, nor the accommodating session, are likely to be sanctioned by the GA PJC, so long as the Spahr “safe harbor” rules are followed and everyone involved denies that a marriage is being conducted. That, of course, does not mean that members of the PCUSA could not bring charges, only that they are not likely to be sustained on appeal.

Given the state of Iowa law and the nature of the submitted request, if Session is inclined to honor the request, it will be a significant challenge for Session to construct and maintain a process that will not be subject to a court attack as being outside the safe harbor rule of Benton and Spahr. A decision to go forward with the request as submitted would probably contemplate performance of a legal “marriage” in the church, and as such would likely be considered to be a direct affront to W-4.9001 and the 1991 Authoritative Interpretation that says “no same sex Presbyterian marriages”.