On Issuing an Authoritative Interpretation of W-4.9000 to Affirm Pastoral Discretion in Performing Marriage Ceremonies (to concur with Overture 024 from the Presbytery of Heartland)


The Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse concurs with Overture 024 from the Presbytery of Heartland to overture the 221st General Assembly (2014) to issue the following Authoritative Interpretation of the Book of Order, W-4.9000:


Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God (W-6.3001, 6.3010) in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology.  Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the place where the couple seek to be married, teaching elders* have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness to be married of the couple (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform.    Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, if approved by the session;  or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  The Authoritative Interpretation of this section by the 203rd General Assembly (Minutes 1991, at 21.124-128), and the subsequent Authoritative Interpretations of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission relying upon it, are withdrawn and replaced with this Authoritative Interpretation.


*As in other places in the Directory for Worship, the use of “teaching elders” in this paragraph should be understood to include ruling elders commissioned to pastoral service.



Rationale of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse:

As the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. wrestles with its understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, pastors and session strive to be faithful in providing appropriate pastoral care to church members who seek to be married.  As of October 28, 2013, fourteen states have legalized civil marriage for same-gender couples among their 100 million citizens.  Teaching elders in those states must risk disciplinary action if they seek to give to same-gender members of their churches the same pastoral care that they offer to other members, officiating at their marriages.  For leaders in many Presbyterian churches in these states, this constitutes a crisis of conscience.  Until the Presbyterian Church determines how to resolve the conflicting definitions of marriage in the Directory for Worship and civil law, teaching elders in those states that authorize same-gender marriage need to be protected from judicial action for carrying out their responsibility to provide pastoral care to church members.


Here in the State of New York, same-gender couples have been able to be married since June, 2011.  Since then, hundreds of same-gender couples have approached their pastors, requesting to be married in the church where they are members.  Some pastors have consented and conducted same-gender wedding ceremonies, either in the church or in another location;  a few of these pastors have been charged and convicted, at considerable expense to themselves and their presbyteries.  Some pastors have declined out of scruples of conscience.  Others have declined out of respect for the denomination's policy or because they were intimidated by the prospect of disciplinary action.  These pastors generally tried to make other arrangements, either having a minister of another denomination conduct the wedding or conducting a service of blessing after the couple had a civil marriage.  When their pastor declined to conduct their wedding, most same-gender couples felt a sense of rejection from their own faith community, and many then joined a different church where they could be married or left church altogether. 


One pastor in the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse was approached by a same-gender couple who had been together for 17 years, requesting to be married.  The pastor consulted with the Session, which disapproved of having a marriage that would expose the pastor and the church to disciplinary action.  The pastor then regretfully arranged for a minister colleague to conduct the couple's marriage, but the pastor conducted a service of blessing for the couple afterward.


In the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, one third of our churches are united or federated churches, usually with a church of a denomination that allows same-gender marriage.  In at least one case, a same-gender couple sought to be married by the Presbyterian pastor of their united church.  The pastor arranged for a minister of another denomination to conduct the wedding in the couple's church building, an awkward arrangement at best!  A similar situation arose when a Presbyterian pastor serving a church of one of our Formula of Agreement partners had to invite another minister to officiate at the marriage of one of their same-gender member couples.  Another couple, both active leaders of the church, requested that they be married in the church sanctuary by their pastor (a Presbyterian serving under the Formula of Agreement).  The couple had been together for nearly forty years and to refuse to extend pastoral care in this situation was unthinkable.  


The above overture would give relief to teaching elders and sessions in our presbytery, so that they could discharge their responsibility to provide pastoral care to their church members, including to the same-gender couples in their congregations who seek to be married in their church, without risking disciplinary action or having to resort to tortuous and generally unsatisfactory alternatives.