Here at the Universal Life Church Monastery blog, we have tried every so often to plumb in depth the same-sex marriage controversy in the United States, providing well-informed and thought-provoking reflections on current trends in this debate. However, we have also striven to avoid generic commentaries which can be found anywhere else and to offer unique perspectives on specific problems within the move towards marriage equality. One little-examined aspect of this issue is the relationship between church constitutions, the “unconstitutional” actions of clergy members, and the attitudes of church-members and colleagues, and whether church constitutions should be amended to reflect the changing values of both clergy and laity.

Like most forms of social change regarding sexuality, gender, the family, and reproduction, the move towards legalization of same-sex marriage has presented great challenges for the Christian tradition and, most recently, for the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PC (USA)) in particular, which heretofore has seen little need to confront the issue. The problem arose when Laurie A. McNeill, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey, informed her presbytery, her session (governing body of her church), a ministry committee, and her congregation that she had married another woman in Massachusetts. According to Leslie Scanlon of The Presbyterian Outlook, the PC (USA) Book of Order’s Directory of Worship defines marriage as a “civil contract” between a man and a woman; however, Paul Leggitt, a former member of the board of directors of the evangelical Presbyterian Coalition, argues that McNeill has taken “contradictory vows” as a consequence of her marriage to another woman. According to Leggitt, marrying a member of one’s own sex is “doing something that’s in direct violation of the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which [McNeill] took a vow to uphold”. Ironically, however, most colleagues at the presbytery meeting “applauded” McNeill’s announcement, and her session “voted unanimously to support [her] decision and to affirm her ministry at Central Church”, although members of the congregation reportedly said the unofficial church policy was “don’t ask, don’t tell”. But to be fair, we must grant that Leggitt’s point about a contradiction between same-sex marriage and the PC (USA) constitution still ostensibly poses a problem for McNeill.

What is a minister such as McNeill to do when her church’s constitution prohibits marriages such as hers, yet her presbytery and session have expressed support for her marriage and her congregation, tolerance, despite their mild unease? Indeed, it is a precarious predicament to be in, and it forces ministers in such positions to choose between traditional ecclesiastical law and the changing attitudes of the colleagues and lay-members around her. In actuality, changing civil law in some states has posed a problem for the PC (USA) law defining civil marriage as between one man and one woman, since in these states civil marriage is between two people of either sex. Thus, the PC (USA) constitution now experiences pressure not only from changing attitudes, but also from the changing reality of civil law. Of course, civil same-sex marriage is not yet legal in New Jersey, but when or if it is, it will be a problem for Presbyterian law in that state as well.

Leggitt himself asks, “Is the constitution of the Presbyterian [C]hurch optional, or is it mandatory?” How convenient for him to pose that question for us to answer here. The problem with laws etched in stone, as it were, is that they are intended to be perennial rather than adaptable, as if they are eternally sound from the point of their conception until the end of time. Some ecclesiastical laws and doctrines—such as those prohibiting murder—certainly seem to deserve permanent status, while others which probably should be created—such as proscriptions against rape—have failed to be codified explicitly. Others yet—such as those allotting marital rights only to those who can mate with one another—probably should be either amended or abolished altogether, especially when both laity and clergy have begun to adapt to a new paradigm. Understandably, a church has the right to proscribe same-sex marriage in its community without interference from the state—but it is not pressure from the state which is challenging the more conservative elders of the PC (USA). It is the church itself.

Certain basic humanitarian principles stand supreme, of course, but this is precisely why ecumenical churches such as ULCM, which cling only to these sparest of tenets, should point out to churches the change from within their own walls and challenge the permanency of church laws which present increasingly constraining and absurdly narrow possibilities for what constitutes a happy and healthy marriage and family.

Source: The Presbyterian Outlook

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