Minister explains church stance on gay marriage

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In late June, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formally decided to approve gay marriage – kind of.

During a PCUSA General Assembly session held last month in Detroit, church leaders gave more freedom to pastors who choose to officiate same-sex unions.

The Rev. Robert E. Madsen, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Andalusia, said the decision made by the General Assembly was more about allowing pastoral discretion than it was about gay marriage. Madsen said it is also very important that people understand the difference.

“There are two decisions that were taken at the Assembly regarding marriage,” Madsen said. “One is a policy decision. The other is a recommended change to the book of order, the second volume of our constitution.”

Madsen said the policy decision allows, but does not require, ministers to officiate or otherwise give blessing to same-sex unions, in some states.

“The policy decision gives ministers the freedom of conscience to officiate same-sex unions in those states where (same-sex unions) are legal,” he said. “It does not oblige ministers to do that; it does not prohibit.”

But even in situations where a minister may choose to bless or officiate a gay marriage, Madsen said the church my not necessarily agree.

“(This) does not oblige session to permit church property to be used for that kind of service,” he said. “So theoretically, you could have a minister that feels inclined to officiate at a service, and a session, the governing body of the church, says you cannot use the church property to do it. The session cannot bind the minister’s actions, but the session governs the property.”

As for how the assembly’s decision will affect FPC Andalusia, it really won’t, Madsen said.

“It isn’t legal in Alabama,” he said. “Our current standard has been that ministers may officiate at blessing ceremonies provided the form and content of the service is clearly distinguished from a marriage ceremony. This doesn’t change that.”

So, why now?

“I really can’t say, not having been there and participated,” he said. “The PCUSA has been wrestling with issues related to human sexuality for quite a while.”

But, Madsen said the General Assembly, which meets every two years, was the most logical place to hash out the policy change.

“It’s made up of equal numbers of pastors, which we now refer to as teaching elders, and laypersons, who are our ruling elders, from across the United States,” Madsen said. “We also have ecumenical delegates from related bodies who attend and have voice, but no vote; we have youth advisory delegates; we have representatives from the mission field who are there.”

And Madsen said much of what the General Assembly considers comes straight from the concerns of churches like Andalusia’s.

“Many of the issues that come before a General Assembly, come up out of the churches through their presbyteries, to the assembly,” he said. “So, these issues were on the docket for the meeting because members of the PCUSA somewhere sent an overture to their presbytery, and that presbytery passed it on up to the General Assembly for its consideration.”

And Madsen said the fact that issues relating to same-sex marriages are on the minds of many people in the modern church is evidenced by the assembly’s decision. He added, however, that it is still a matter left to the discretion of pastors, who are different – like any other group of people.

“The denomination as a whole has members and ministers across the theological spectrum,” Madsen said. “We are a broad body of folk, with beliefs across the spectrum. That’s a subtle, but important detail.”