At its 837th stated meeting on Thursday, November 19, 2009, the Baltimore Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to forward an overture to the denomination’s General Assembly seeking to redefine marriage as between “two people” rather than “one man and one woman.” This is an identical overture to what the Presbytery sent to the General Assembly two years ago and will be considered by the General Assembly at its meeting in 2010. The overture passed by a vote of 75 in favor and 62 opposed.
The overture seeks to amend four different sections of the PC(USA)’s Book of Order under the Directory for Worship. Six different passages in those sections refer to a “man” and a “woman,” all of which would be changed to either “two people” or “couple.” Prior to the meeting, the sessions from 13 churches in the Presbytery submitted an “Affirmation” stating their reasons for opposing the overture and affirming their theological position that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. At the beginning of the meeting, a delegate from the floor asked Stated Clerk Vaughn Brown whether the Affirmation would be included in the minutes. Brown responded that because the Affirmation did not require any action to be taken, it would not be included. Opponents of the overture may have felt some degree of optimism when a motion to compel the Clerk to include the Affirmation in the minutes was passed by a voice vote. However, this vote did not foreshadow things to come.
When the time came to debate the overture, delegates on both sides of the issue made their points over a cacophony of rumbles of thunder as the heavens opened up from above. At times it appeared that the power could cut out at any moment.
When the debate was over, Jim Horn, pastor of Havre de Grace Presbyterian Church, raised a point of order. Specifically, he asked moderator Millie Krieder to declare the overture to be out of order, in part because the proposed changes could expose ministers to civil penalties by authorizing marriages that were illegal in most states (the Book of Order applies to all churches in the denomination, regardless of where they are located). Krieder cut Horn off before he could finish his comments, apparently misunderstanding that he was raising a point of order as to whether the overture should even be permitted to proceed to a vote in the first place, not debating its merits (the Presbytery had previously voted to limit comments during the debate to 2 minutes per participant, but no such limitation applied to points of order).
In the end, the vote was taken by ballot, but the results were not disclosed until approximately two hours later. In an outcome that surprised no one, the body voted to send the overture to the General Assembly.
I was present at this meeting as a voting delegate from Grove Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, and am truly saddened by the outcome. My grief does not come so much from my theological disagreement (for anyone who has been around TMM long enough, you know that I am opposed to same-sex marriage). Rather, the total lack of love for the denomination upset me. I have grown up in this denomination. I have great love for it. I was one of the speakers given two minutes in the spotlight to express my position on the overture at this meeting. But instead of presenting my theological position (many others had already expressed those views admirably), I spoke to the timing.
The PC(USA) is a wounded denomination. Churches are leaving in profound numbers. Disputes are arising in the courts over who has the right to churches’ property. Even in the churches that remain it seems like battle lines are being drawn. If you come across a wounded soldier on a battlefield, your response to him will demonstrate how you feel about him. If you regard him as your enemy, his wounded condition will give you an opportunity to attack. You will pounce on him while he is weak. This approach makes perfect sense if your goal is to kill this soldier. But if you love him, you will nurture him. You will bandage his wounds and give him time to heal.
The PC(USA) needs healing. Literally, we have just come out of a nationwide vote of all the Presbyteries over very similar issues to what the Baltimore Presbytery is seeking to raise now (in that case it dealt with the ability to ordain practicing homosexuals as opposed to perform same-sex marriages, but the theological divide is the same). There are countless opportunities for our denomination to do God’s work. If we truly love our denomination, then we would take this opportunity to come together in mission and service. Maybe we could minister to people in Fort Hood. Maybe we could jump in to assist victims of Ida. But instead of looking for these opportunities, the majority in our Presbytery chose to pounce.
These issues are not going away. The time will come to discuss them. There will be another General Assembly in 2012. Bring it up then. Why insist on bringing it up now unless your goal is to kill our denomination?
Perhaps what disturbed me most was the speaker who immediately followed me who said she was “tired of being told the time is not right.” She then went on and on about how unfair the current Book of Order is to her. I understand and I sympathize that you feel wronged. But the point I was making is that there are more people involved in this debate than just you. Sometimes we are called to endure hardships for the greater good of others. If you truly love this denomination and believe that even those who disagree with you are still your brothers and sisters in Christ, then you would react in love. The fact that you refuse to even wait a little while to allow for people to heal shows a total lack of commitment to keeping this denomination unified. Your message, simply put, is that you will insist to continue to push your agenda regardless of the consequences it has on this denomination and on the body of Christ of which you claim to be a part.
I never argued that people could not raise this issue. I simply asked why it had to be raised again now, so soon after we just survived an incredibly divisive debate which caused our denomination to bleed. If you love us, let us heal. Then bring it up when we are all in a better position to withstand the coming storm and come out the other side together. A vote to press forward on this issue immediately was a vote to pounce on the wounded soldier. That vote simply makes no sense to me unless your goal is to kill us. If you voted in favor of this overture, congratulations, you may just get your wish. And it will spell the end of the PC(USA).