Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Open Letter to the 219th General Assembly

The General Assembly punted regarding marriage. That non-decision (which affirms the status quo) leaves the church and its clergy in a spot especially in those places where same-gender couples can get marriage licenses.

Presbyterian minister, Brian Merritt, who lives and works in D.C. where marriage is legal for same-gender couples eloquently addresses the issue with this open letter to the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the last year, the District of Columbia’s City Council and Congress approved same gender marriages as legal for the District. Many of us applauded the hard work of many who testified, agitated, and bent history’s arc toward justice. It was due to the strong work of the city council, human rights advocates, LGBTQ organizations, and a committed core of ministers called The D.C. Clergy United. I am deeply proud to have played a small part in the work to make a positive move in this essential civil rights issue of my generation.

When I found a haven within the Reformed family almost twenty years ago, it was as a battered ex-fundamentalist/evangelical who saw love and affirmation within its walls. Many of my gay and lesbian friends had already abandoned the church because it was a place where they felt excluded. Yet, I felt mentored in my beliefs and deeply supported by friends in the PC(USA). They helped restore me to a faith that had been so deeply damaged and broken by legalistic moralists. I grieve when I think of those church leaders who related that this was a denomination where my conscience could be free and that there was a place for me. I am glad that they have passed on and do not have to endure the pain that some of us face these days. Unfortunately, our pews and clergy have become more aged, so when we discuss the approval of same gender marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA), our church has resorted to becoming that same legalistic church of old.

On the issue of same gender marriage, I stand with the teaching of Pauline Christology when he claims to the uncircumcised gentiles of Galatia and Rome “against such things there is no law.” I do not believe that our 219th General Assembly, or anyone for that matter, has the authority to bind the conscience on matters that the Spirit of God is directing portions of her church. I therefore cannot follow the definition of marriage set out by our current Book of Order. Through prayer, careful study of Scripture and discernment, I believe that this definition is unnecessarily restrictive to our members whom we claim have full membership rights within our churches.

I believe the inaction of the General Assembly, the abdication for fear of losing some of our most conservative elements, and the culture of disciplining only progressive ministers unfairly constitutes a betrayal of the “true liberty of conscience” spoken of in the Westminster Confession. The complicity of our governing bodies in unjust actions against progressive and liberal ministers who have scruples and endeavor to hold fast to their Presbyterian system is the true definition of injustice. All this while those who cry and wail “apostasy” at our church get what they want and stay uncomfortably as living schisms. Absolute and blind obedience to this type of governing is of destruction to some of our liberties in Christ. True love casts out fear, so let us not govern our church within it.

Since the General Assembly refuses to give any concrete guidance on issues of marriage equality, those of us who work in locations where it is legally permitted to marry those of the same gender are left in a quandary. The idea of claiming scruples set out by the Peace, Unity and Purity report has not stemmed Evangelicals’ desires to convict people of conscience in church court, and it appears that you have abdicated your responsibility as a governing body to give direction to church courts. Rather than allowing us to discuss specific proposals in the democratic forum of our presbyteries you have given us a much more amorphous two years of discussion, thought, and prayer, which is odious and stifling of the democratic principles our church was founded upon.

What you have left liberals and progressives is the terrible choice of lying or hiding their actions of conscience, binding their conscience and losing their liberty in Christ, or to face the emotionally, spiritually and psychologically draining possibility that evangelicals will use church courts to sell their ideology in the name of “purity.”

For too long my denomination has been more than willing to cede their view as “people of the middle way” to the threats of Biblical literalists. It has slowly eroded the character of what it means to be a historic Presbyterian in the United States and insults an expanding history of the Reformed tradition. Some of us refuse to agree out of scruples with something that binds our conscience against the things that the Spirit of God is calling us. It is time for us to be a “big tent” denomination in allowing all of our ministers to practice their full gifts, discernment and direction in which the Spirit is calling them, and not merely excluding a few so that the majority “may” feel comfortable.
Well said, well said. Thank you, Brian. I heartily concur, agree, and stand with you.


  1. The charges against folks will continue to trickle in. The BFTSs and their ambulance-chaser lawyer who have nothing better to do will see to that.

    But as time goes on there will (and have been) fewer and fewer of these nuisances and less and less chance of anything ever being done about them.

    Though a few of these case have made big headlines, and I think pastors have to be careful, they also need to be realistic. The number of cases brought is a minute fraction of the number of marriages actually performed, so the chances of actually being a big enough deal to even attract the attention of the BFTSs is miniscule. Given their complete ineptness in bringing these charges and prosecuting them, the chances of a charge actually being sustained is even smaller.

    So while prudence is in order, I don't think the situation is actually as dire as Rev. Merritt makes it out to be.

    If you're waiting for guidance from the denomination to do the right thing, history has shown us you'll be waiting forever.

  2. BTW, same is true for ordination. Don't believe the BFTSs press about themselves. They're not that all-seeing and all-powerful as they'd like to pretend.

  3. I think I would rather have no guidance than bad guidance. Bad guidance is what we have had to endure regarding ordination for some time. The guidance I would be happy with is, "Be Presbyterian and figure these things out for yourself." I do think we do need to update the BOO to be a more honest reflection of people's lives.

    But until that happens we do what we have to do now. My bottom line is in regards to all of this, don't ask permission. Just do it.