Thoughts by New Jersey Presbyterians on the 221st General Assembly

Tracing the Arc

Moments ago, the General Assembly voted to change the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship as being “between two people,” rather than “between a man and a woman.” A parenthetical gloss was added by amendment from the floor: “(traditionally understood as between a man and a woman).”

A majority of the presbyteries will have to concur, of course. Yet, even if the amendment is not ratified, an authoritative interpretation issued by the Assembly earlier this afternoon preserves the right of individual ministers to perform same-sex marriages in states where that is legally permitted, regardless of whether the old or the new language ultimately prevails.

It is a landmark decision, one of those moments in history those of us here in Detroit will recall the rest of our lives, saying, “I was there.”

I expect we will say this whether or not we agree with the particular decision, and whether or not a majority of the presbyteries concur during the coming year. Nearly everyone realizes, I think, that this is part of a vast and dizzyingly rapid change that will eventually prevail in nearly all of American society and most Protestant churches.

It won’t happen overnight, in other words. Yet, if there is a moment when the tide turned for Presbyterians, this is it.

A well-known quotation of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The word “justice” is not the first one that will come to mind for every person, I’m well aware. Nor will everyone agree that this change is more moral than the traditional practice which preceded it. What I’m most interested in is the image of an arc.

Today’s vote is like the highest point in the arc’s trajectory. Because the arc is long, full acceptance of the practice of same-sex marriage in many local congregations will be long in coming. We are entering into a season in which skills of empathy and patient listening will be of great value to our congregations and presbyteries. We will all be grateful for a full measure of divine grace, as together we live into this change.

The words of a hymn the Assembly sang just after taking the vote will be our prayer: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

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