Speaking and Listening on Marriage Equality: Blogging the PC(USA) General Assembly

[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of reflections and prayer posts from the biannual General Assembly of the PC(USA), offered by the Rev. Scott Clark, Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.]

June 17, 2014

At the PCUSA General Assembly, the committee work is in progress.  On Monday, the committees (each assigned various topics and motions — social justice issues, peacemaking, and so on) began their work.  In the committee considering marriage equality, the day started with an open hearing.  Folks  — anyone — could sign up and speak to the committee (1 minute) about the overtures/motions before the committee.  The speakers lined up and spoke for and against marriage equality from a wide variety of perspectives and social locations.  Then “overture advocates” (the people designated by regional presbyteries to present the overtures) spoke to explain the background and intent for the action that they are asking the Assembly to take.

I participated on a team of advocates from 17 presbyteries advocating for a PCUSA constitutional amendment that would make clear that pastors and congregations are free to celebrate the marriages of same-gender couples.  Each presbytery had 90 seconds to advocate, so we pooled our time.  If you want to read our presentation, you can find it here. You can find the advocacy presentation for the Authoritative Interpretation here.

But for me, the even more powerful part of the day wasn’t so much about speaking, as it was about listening. There is profound listening going on in that committee room. Toward the end of the day, after open hearing and after hearing from advocates, the committee moderator tested the waters, inviting the committee members to share a sense of where they are. What unfolded was an open space for every member of the committee to speak (without time limitation as far as I could tell) — to say where they were, and how certain they were feeling (on a scale of 1-10).

Something powerful happens when everyone is given the opportunity to speak and to be heard.

And it was so in the room. Some spoke against marriage equality, many more spoke for it. There seemed to be a shared sense among most of the committee that these issues should not merely be referred back for further conversation without action. There was the sense that the time for that has passed and that some type of movement is needed now. The open question — voiced by both those who were leaning for and against marriage equality — was the question of what form that movement or action should take. The committee has before it basically two proposals. One is a constitutional amendment that would effect longer-term change. The other is an “authoritative interpretation” that would offer immediate relief interpreting our present constitution to permit — but not require — pastors to celebrate the marriages of same-gender couples. (For the record, yesterday I advocated for a both/and approach). I expect that this  — the question of how — will be the heart of the conversation today.

The most amazing thing for me was how the conversation opened up. People spoke openly and honestly, and trust seemed to grow as the microphone was passed around the table and people shared. They told stories of people they know who long to be married. Some spoke of the pain of families who could not be married in the church, some of the churches who have left the denomination, and some of the pastors who feel that they are prohibited from extending their pastoral care in marriage to congregants they love.

The conversation continues today, so I’ll just close with a couple images. One committee member spoke of the table getting bigger not smaller. I felt that in that room. And then, a woman referenced a dream she had experienced where it felt like the walls were changing. She  then said, “I feel like the walls in our world are changing. The world will not stand still and wait for us.”

Something powerful happens when everyone is given the opportunity to speak and to be heard.

 

Scott Clark is the Chaplain and Associate Dean of Student Life at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and of the ecumenical Graduate Theological Union. Additionally, Scott’s ministry includes advocacy for the full inclusion of all people within the life of the church. A former attorney, he has represented Presbyterian ministers who have been brought up on disciplinary charges by the church for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples, and he currently serves on the board of More Light Presbyterians.

Scott is participating in the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will be considering a number of faith issues, including the marriage of same-gender couples. Scott is participating in the Assembly as an “Overture Advocate” (one of the advocates sent from regional presbyteries on a particular issue). With others, he is advocating for an amendment to the Presbyterian constitution that would affirm marriage equality for all people, including same-gender couples and their families. Scott also is participating in the General Assembly as part of the team representing San Francisco Theological Seminary, hoping to open and energize discussion about innovation in ministry and in theological education. 


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