An Embracing Step: Final Thoughts from the PC(USA) General Assembly

An Embracing Step: Final Thoughts from the PC(USA) General Assembly June 23, 2014

[Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of reflections and prayer posts from the biennial 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.]

“The gavel has fallen on the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” I saw that and heard that a lot on Saturday.   From my seat in the assembly hall, I might also add this: The last embraces of the assembly have been exchanged. Indeed, throughout the week, there was (as someone noticed from all the photos of the assembly) a lot of hugging going on. And in the closing minutes of the assembly, there was one final moment of embracing – old friends who would not see each other for a while, commissioners who had met and spent an intense week discerning together (even disagreeing together), folks who have labored together in church and world for years. The week closed out in embrace.

It was quite a week. The assembly considered, debated, and decided some long-contested issues. By a substantial margin, the assembly approved two measures that affirmed marriage equality and the right of pastors and congregations to celebrate the marriages of same gender couples. (One has immediate effect; the other will effect longer-term change.) By a narrow margin, the assembly decided, after years of debate, to divest from three American companies involved in the building of settlements on the West Bank. And an emerging issue surfaced to be studied and reported back at the next assembly – whether the denomination should divest from fossil-fuel companies. (This latter issue had considerable energy among the young-adult delegates.)

My work and attention at the assembly were particularly focused on the marriage-equality issues, as I worked as part of a team of many advocates from many regional presbyteries, urging the assembly to act. I am stunned by the decisive way in which the assembly spoke and acted. There was clarity that the time for delay and “study of the issue” was over. Again and again, commissioners (in committee and in the broader assembly) said, “We have been sent to do something.”

But here’s why I use the word “stunned”:  Just four years ago, I sat in a church courtroom and listened as a judicial commission of the church declared their view that the constitution of our denomination somehow prohibited pastors from celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples. I sat with Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr (a faithful pastor who had celebrated these marriages), with my co-counsel, with the sixteen couples whom Janie had married, and with a community of family, friends and supporters. The makeshift church courtroom was packed. We sat together and we listened as the church said “No.” The church court held that Janie’s ministry with regard to these marriages was faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but then said that they felt somehow  “constrained” by church policy. That room was full of heartbreak and weeping – even some of the church judges wept as they lifted up their verdict.

Four years ago, a vote that constrained. This week, a vote that liberated. Four years ago, a court of the denomination said “no.” And this week, the General Assembly of the denomination said, “yes.” In its reporting of the day, the Washington Post called it “an embracing step.” It was indeed that.

But remembering that day four years ago grounds my experience this week. It reminds me that what happened this week resulted from the faithful ministry of so many people for years and years and years. There are ministers like Jane Spahr and Jean Southard who offered pastoral care in marriage to same gender couples and their families, and who were then prosecuted by their church. In their ministry, they have lived out the gospel at substantial personal cost to themselves and their own families. There are the couples who have sought to live out their love in marriage long before the church was willing to extend its official embrace. As one of the church courts along the way has said, “They have taught us much about marriage.” And there is the broader community that has gathered for these weddings, who have knitted rainbow scarves, who have welcomed these weddings in their church buildings. I am reminded of the Pentecost text, “Your elders will dream dreams.” There are so many people who have seen this loving embrace, and who have worked for it for years, long before the church voted this week.

And I’m also reminded of the Pentecost phrase that precedes that – “your youth will see visions.” In many ways, the youth and young adults in the church – and particularly at this assembly – have led the way on embracing marriage equality. Within the church and within the broader society, it has become apparent that a growing majority of people age 30-and-under support marriage equality. That emerging consensus among young people, with its clarity of what justice and love require, has also led us to this point. This week, I’ve heard those young people preach, and speak in the assembly, and lead the assembly in prayer, and I abound in hope.

And so this week did offer up “an embracing step.” But one more note on that: This week, I was moved at how the commissioners also recognized that the work of embrace is nowhere near complete. The commissioners acknowledged that the issues decided this week were contested by people of deeply held conviction, and that there is healing work yet to do. With regard to marriage-equality, they called for reconciliation work around the divide in our denomination. With regard to divestment issues, they added to that the need for compassionate interfaith work and conversation.

May this embracing step lead to another, and then another, and then another – toward full equality, yes – but also toward our continued work of reconciliation – and toward our continued learning as to how we can live together even in our difference – one body held together in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

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.

Last week, Scott participated in the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which was considering a number of faith issues, including the marriage of same-gender couples. Scott participated in the Assembly as an “Overture Advocate” (one of the advocates sent from regional presbyteries on a particular issue). With others, he was 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 participated 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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