I Now Pronounce You… Much More Inclusive! PCUSA and Marriage Equality

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Photo taken by The Layman (an organization opposed to GLBTQ marriage)

Spoiler Alert: The Presbyterian Church USA, at its General Assembly, voted this week to allow ministers in states where same-gender marriage is legal, to officiate at such weddings. They also voted to change the language in their “Book of Order” to say that marriage is between “two people.”
Now a perspective from a Jew in the pew.
On April 8th 1990, Derrick Kikuchi and I were married in the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto. Back then there was no state recognition of our marriage and the Presbyterian Church USA, which banned ordination of GLBTQ folks, had not yet gotten around to making it a no-no for ministers to perform “holy unions” or other ceremonies recognizing lifetime commitments between GLBTQ partners.
In June 2008, between the time that the California Supreme Court decided that the state’s ban on same-gender marriage was unconstitutional, and the vote on Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to say that marriage was only between a man and a woman, Derrick and I were to receive an award at the More Light Presbyterian’s dinner at the PCUSA General Assembly. Instead of giving a speech we thought it would be wonderful to finally get our marriage license signed at that dinner, making our marriage legal in the state of California, while we still could.
A reporter for The Layman, an organization and publication that opposes same-gender marriage, was at the dinner, took the wonderful picture above, and then spent the evening writing an article that lambasted us for what we had done that evening.
We never dreamed that six years later marriage would be legal in so many states and that the PCUSA would vote FOR marriage equality. But, despite not dreaming that it would happen, many many many people continued to work to make it happen and now…

Presbyterian polity lesson from a Jew in the Pew:
First, the General Assembly, which is made up of commissioners chosen by Presbyteries (local governing bodies of geographic areas around the country), voted on an “authoritative interpretation” which would allow ministers who choose to do so, in states where same-gender marriage is legal, to perform those weddings. The vote was 371 commissioners in favor, 238 opposed. This decision by the General Assembly does NOT require ratification by Presbyteries across the country. The main impact of this decision is that charges of misconduct (which could result in ministers being defrocked) can no longer be brought against pastors who choose to perform GLBTQ weddings. More Light Presbyterians, an organization that has been working on GLBTQ inclusion for decades, was thrilled.

Those who oppose marriage equality in the church are expressing outrage over this decision because the church’s Book of Order (like a constitution) currently refers to marriage being between a man and a woman. The folks at The Layman called the vote “an abomination.” (OK, friends. No lobster dinner for you!)

The second vote by the General Assembly, passed with 429 commissioners in favor to 175 opposed, was to change the language in the Book of Order (known in Presbyspeak as BOO) to say that “Marriage is between two people, traditionally a man and a woman…” The “traditionally” part was added in the hopes of getting more conservative Presbyterian commissioners to go along with the change. Changes to BOO need to be ratified by a majority of Presbyteries which will vote on the change over the next year.
My husband Derrick (the Presbyterian in the family) and I have lived through many years of this struggle for equality within the church and society. Back in 2008, I wrote about our experiences.
Written in 2008
On Tuesday June 17th 2008, just days before the General Assembly would commence, based on a landmark decision by its Supreme Court, the State of California began issuing marriage licenses to same gender couples. Derrick and I were the first couple in San Mateo County to receive a license. On Saturday June 21st, 2008 we were going to receive an award at the More Light Presbyterians (MLP) dinner. MLP is an advocacy group working to open the PCUSA’s doors to all. The award was named after David Sindt, who stood in front of General Assembly in 1973 holding a sign that asked “Is anyone else out there gay?” What courage! He literally launched the More Light movement in the PCUSA.
The name More Light comes from a hymn written by George Rawson in the 1850s based on the final words Pastor John Robinson gave to the Pilgrims before they journeyed to the New World. Within that hymn is this line For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.” Presbyterians are big believers in a church that is reformed and ever-reforming. More Light Presbyterians works to reform the PCUSA, bringing a shining glow to Christ’s table, which Christ constantly reminded his followers was open to all. A church which closes its doors to people like Victor Floyd, passionate followers of Christ who want to share the gospel, is in need of continuing reform!
As Derrick and I contemplated receiving this award, we decided that we wanted to give something back to the people who had worked so hard over these many years to make the PCUSA a welcoming place. Instead of giving an acceptance speech, we would ask Diana Gibson, the pastor who had married us eighteen years earlier, and Julie McDonald and Mitzi Henderson, who had been in our wedding party in 1990, to sign our marriage certificate, making our civil marriage legal in California. Except for those we were asking to sign our certificate and the board of MLP, we kept our plans secret so that it would be a surprise for the rest of the dinner guests.
Let there be no mistake or confusion (despite some reports), Derrick and I were clear that our marriage had been sanctified in front of our congregation, family, friends and God eighteen years before and we were not asking anyone to participate in a religious marriage ceremony. Instead, we were asking those assembled to be witnesses to a great moment in civil rights history, when their efforts towards inclusion had made a huge difference in the State of California and when their upcoming witness might shed more light on the PCUSA General Assembly.
The reaction to our little surprise when we went up to accept our award was incredible. There were hoots, hollers, cheers, tears and a standing ovation. It was more wonderful than we could have imagined and we were awed at how everything had lined up perfectly for that evening to happen. God does work in mysterious and wonderful ways.
The evening gave us and everyone there strength, courage, and hope for the coming days. A minister from Virginia Tech, the school that had suffered such horrible tragedy in April 2007, was the first person to approach us after the dinner, tears in her eyes, thanking us for giving her something wonderful to celebrate after so many months of grieving. She gave us much more through her presence and witness than we felt we had given her. It was an awesome night to be followed by an awesome Sunday morning.
On Sunday June 22nd 2008, thousands of Presbyterians and friends gathered for worship. The theme of that service was most eloquently stated when First Presbyterian Palo Alto’s own 11 year-old Drew Keller confidently, clearly, and commandingly issued the invitation to the table for communion, a table at which Christ was the host, and where those who wished to serve him must first be served by him. It was a table at which all were welcome. 25 years after David Sindt had stood outside that Assembly because he felt that he was not welcome at the table, an ancient message was being made new by a child – “Let the children come to me, and stop keeping them away, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these.” It was a service that, according to many, set the tone for the work of the General Assembly to come. One commissioner told the pastor who designed the service that she was so moved that she had decided to vote FOR inclusion of LGBT people if such an overture came to the floor.
Hundreds of minister and elder commissioners, scores of youth advisory delegates and theological seminary students, over a thousand volunteers, and a seemingly tireless team of General Assembly staffers worked from Sunday afternoon through Wednesday night on hundreds of pieces of business that had been brought to the Assembly, hearing testimony in open meetings and debating each other as they decided what they would recommend to the full body starting on Thursday. Issues ranged from the Iraq war, torture, Israel/Palestine, changes to pension policies, modifications to the Heidelberg Confession, and whether LGBT people would be welcome at the PCUSA’s table. The discussions were passionate, heated at times, but there was a clear sense that change was in the air.
On Friday June 27th the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted 54% to 46% to remove the language from the Book of Order that had effectively banned ordination of gays. LGBT people and those who sought justice for them were cautiously elated. Those who had fought hardest to keep the doors to ordination closed despaired what they saw as the potential destruction of the church. Most people in the middle couldn’t quite understand the level of drama over sexuality and ordination and simply wanted to do the right thing, the best thing, trying to discern God’s will. So the left and the right and the middle of the General Assembly voted 54 to 46 to open a new chapter in Presbyterian history.
Back to the Present
Today, congregations in the PCUSA are allowed to ordain elders and deacons and choose pastors no matter what their gender identity or sexual orientation. Now, with this latest vote by the General Assembly, pastors who choose to do so can perform marriages regardless of the partners’ genders or sexual orientation. Over the next year, Presbyteries will vote on whether or not to change the language in their Book of Order to be more clearly inclusive.
Those who opposed ordination in 2008 threatened that the church would split if GLBTQ people were allowed to be ordained. When you have the power to make your predictions come true, it is amazing how accurate those predictions can be. If someone on the playing field makes me angry, and I own the ball that is being used in the game, I can promise you that the ball will be removed from the game. Some congregations across the country have opted to leave the PCUSA and more will do so in the coming months. Funny. Through all the years during which we had to listen to those who were opposed to inclusion saying horrible things about those of us who are GLBTQ and our allies, who had to live through church prosecutions and persecution, we kept working for what we believed was right, never threatening to leave. And, having been at the table and in the pews during so many of the debates and discussions and votes, I have to say that those who supported GLBTQ rights were persistent but kind every step of the way.
The Jew in the pew has to ask which of these two approaches is right? One side in this disagreement is wiping the dust off their feet and walking away, just as they threatened to do. Those who wanted GLBTQ inclusion have stood fast, turned the other cheek after many stinging slaps, and told those who disagreed with them that they were still brothers and sisters, welcome to stay at the table, despite their disagreements.
David Sindt would be proud of those who stayed at the table, who stood inside and outside the doors of the church demanding that it be more inclusive for all. Let all the children who feel called come forward, let no one put a stumbling block in their path, and let us go about the business of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
Can I get an amen? I thought so!
Craig Wiesner is the co-founder, along with Derrick Kikuchi, of Reach And Teach, a company dedicated to transforming the world through teachable moments with books, music, games, toys, and fair-trade gifts that promote peacemaking, gender equality, and sustainable living. In October 2014, Reach And Teach will release its latest book, Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus, a 122 page photo essay of GLBTQ youth by acclaimed photographer Rachelle Lee Smith.
Reach And Teach also helps manage Tikkun/NSP’s web operations.