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The Politics of a General Assembly, Part 4: Marriage Equality (Delayed)

IV. Marriage Equality

By far, the most frustrating day at the GA was Friday. When we started at 8:30 AM, we still had the business of about half of the committees of the Assembly to process, having taken two days to get through the first half. And the slowdown would continue yet for another nine hours before things got moving, and then it would move with such haste that good sense was often cast aside.

The Committee on Church Orders has been, for many years, the focus of intense debate, as the church fought the ordination wars. But no longer. The committee which used to captivate an entire Assembly now has become a comparative backwater, right up there with Biennial Review (ok, maybe not that much of a backwater, but you get the point). What was readily apparent from start to finish at the 220th GA was that the ordination question is settled. Done. And it’s not coming back. I lost track of how many commissioners announced that they were gay or lesbian deacons, elders or ministers. One Theological Student Advisory Delegate (TSAD) kept reminding the Assembly, after saying whatever he wanted about the matter currently on the floor, that he was gay, approved by his presbytery to receive a call, and had his PIF (our standard denominational resume) if anyone was interested. It became a running joke. The chair of the MRTI committee that led the study on divestment came out at the Covenant Network luncheon by introducing his life partner for the first time ever at a denominational event. These brothers and sisters are here to stay.

The coolest moment came, however, when the Presbytery of NYC’s interim executive presbyter, Tony de la Rosa, introduced his partner and both of their moms before preaching for the worship service Friday morning. If everything else hadn’t already ended the ordination debate at the national level, that did it for sure.

We could all tell that something was afoot for the marriage equality debate Friday afternoon  because during most of lunch, a certain commissioner sat at the mic nearest me waiting for the 1PM Order of the Day to take up the business of the Committee on Marriage and Civil Unions. I had met this fellow many years ago; he has a PhD in theology from a widely respected university and was arguably one of the smartest people in the room. Which made what happened next all the more disturbing. When the session began and the chair of the Committee on Marriage and Civil Unions moved that the Assembly take up the first of many items on which their committee had worked, which was a recommendation to amend the Book of Order to change its wording from “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man,” to “marriage is a civil contract between two people,” the theologian who had been sitting on the mic called for a point of order. He asked the Moderator to rule the recommendation out-of-order on the basis of three citations from the Book of Confessions which he claimed defined marriage unequivocally as between a man and a woman.

The Moderator asked the Advisory Committee on the Constitution for, well, advice. My Executive Presbyter, the Rev.  Dr. Paul Hooker, the chief architect of the New Form of Government and in my opinion, the finest polity expert in our denomination, who has both a DMin AND a PhD and who actually WAS the smartest man in the room, rose to tell the theologian what he already knew. The Book of Confessions (BoC) and the Book of Order make up our PCUSA Constitution, but they have very different functions, hence the very different means by which they are amended. The BoC represents a very broad stream of faith over many centuries, some parts of which we follow, some of which we don’t so much. The Book of Order represents the practical rendering of what we find theologically significant for our own times in the Book of Confessions.  But we have never used the BoC as the gatekeeper of what goes into the BoO, as the theologian was insisting we must. All of this was most certainly known by the theologian at the mic, but that’s not why we were doing this little dance. After the moderator ruled the theologian’s motion out-of-order, the REAL reason for this episode was revealed by the very next speaker at another mic, who was calling on the body to overrule the Moderator!

It’s hard to describe the feeling I had when I realized what was happening. If the Moderator is daft or is cheating one side in a debate, you might try and overrule him or her, but this was madness. It was an attempt to block the committee’s work through parliamentary procedure by means of creating a whole other way of using our Book of Confessions than we had ever done before. Oh the desperation!

The Assembly, thankfully, beat back this ridiculous motion by an overwhelming margin. But this was just the beginning. We then had to deal with–wait for it–a minority report!  Actually, this time, we had TWO minority reports so that the opposition to marriage equality could get, counting the drawn out parliamentary bamboozlement just mentioned, three bites at the apple.

Each time there was a vote, the progressive case prevailed. So we all thought, hours later, approaching dinner time, that when the original motion was finally once again back before the Assembly, that the recommendation to send the amendment to the presbyteries for ratification would pass. Stunningly, however, it didn’t, by 48-52%. I have talked to people on both sides of the issue, and nobody expected this, given how all of the votes had gone throughout the afternoon. It was as if the Assembly’s patience for debate and for controversial subjects hit some kind of hunger and exhaustion wall. And from then until 1:30 AM, it was just a race to get done.

It was quickly moved that we do–you guessed it yet again– a two-year study, but more importantly, that we roll every other item of business that the committee was going to recommend into a bundle and say that all these were answered and addressed by the study. This was very disturbing, because what progressives wanted most this GA, as conservatives well knew, was not the amendment to the Book of Order we had been fiddling with for four hours, but an Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order by the Assembly that would protect pastors in states where gay marriage is legal who do such services. The Assembly had already seen what can happen to a minister who does this by witnessing the treatment of our now former Vice-Moderator earlier in the week. But the stampede for the exits was already on, and the Assembly, which had been voting positively all week for marriage equality since the election of Neal Presa and Tara Spuhler McCabe, now voted 489-152 in favor of not discussing further any marriage equality issues but instead encouraging another study so that it could get to the lasagna whose aroma was wafting down the hall.

For the rest of the Assembly, this was how it went. Everything was rammed through. Committees who had worked for three days on matters that people out in the presbyteries had worked on for months, sped through their recommendations in minutes. When we came back from dinner at 7:00 PM, we still had 1/3 of the committees left to address, which we dutifully did by 1:30 AM, but often in an all-too glib and thoughtless fashion.

The conservatives did what they had to do to win. They ran out the clock, wore people down, kept their troops in line, and ultimately prevailed thereby. Not letting the Assembly debate the issue of the Authoritative Interpretation, however, is going to be a costly mistake. My sense is that commissioners thought that this is something like the ordination question that we debated for so many years. People could get only so far in one Assembly on that issue, but would reach an impasse, whereupon folks would realize that it would just have to wait until the next Assembly to get to the next step. But marriage is very different from ordination. Councils of the church perform ordinations, so you have to get a group of people to agree to move forward. Marriages, however, are performed by individual pastors. And the emotion surrounding a marriage is way higher than any ordination. Eight states and DC have made gay marriage legal. Pastors in those jurisdictions are being asked by their people to marry them NOW, and they aren’t going to wait until the next GA. There is no way that pastors can tell their own flock that they can’t do this without sacrificing their credibility with the people whom they serve. This is true whether the people requesting the service are gay or straight–if you are the pastor, your people expect you to do this. And the pastors ARE doing this. They are being the pastors God called them to be to their people and are marrying their gay and lesbian couples.  What this means, though, and this is what commissioners were not grasping, is that we are likely to see a rash of judicial cases in which pastors who do these services are targeted for punishment. And as the number of jurisdictions increases where marriage equality is the law, the more Presbyterian pastors are going to be called on to lead these services. So this isn’t like the ordination debate at all.  The ground is shifting beneath our feet and the states aren’t going to wait until the next GA gathers to take up the can we just kicked down the road.

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  • revmary

    “Not letting the Assembly debate the issue of the Authoritative Interpretation, however, is going to be a costly mistake.” It may be a formality now to mention this, but there WAS an effort to amend the motion to have the 2-year study answer all other business of Cte. 13, by asking that item 13-05 (I think—one of the AI overtures) not be included. That motion was made by a conservative to give progressives an opportunity to have the debate they wanted. The majority of the body said, “No,” however.

    • Timothy F. Simpson

      I did not realize the person was a conservative, Mary. Thank you for pointing that out. By that point, though, everybody was just over it. Hunger and fatigue, with seven more committees to go after supper. It was a war of attrition and the progressives wore out first. Anything that could get us done quicker was supported broadly, anything that would take time to discuss was blocked. I asked a point of information from the staff to see how much money the Spahr case cost the GA to litigte, since everyone was by now obsessed with not spending any money and the Assembly by not discussing the AI was unwittingly courting huge litigation costs, based on the number of same sex weddings clergy were admitting to already having performed, which they revealed in support of Tara Spuhler McCabe. The moderator said he didn’t know and just plowed ahead like I had never asked a thing. I understood, of course. There was just so much to do and no time; getting done became the Order of the Day, even if it was disorderly.