A pro-gay marriage candidate was elected Saturday to serve as moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the 219th General Assembly.
Cynthia Bolbach, an elder from Arlington, Va., was the only candidate out of six to express unqualified support for same-sex marriage, as reported by the denomination.
"Who poses the greatest threat to the institution of marriage: Larry King who has been married 8 times" or a gay couple (friends of hers) in Washington, D.C., who have been together for 62 years and who got married two weeks ago?" she said.
The debate over homosexuality has persisted in the PC(USA) for decades. This week, delegates who are meeting for the General Assembly in Minneapolis will consider around a dozen overtures that seek to change the definition of marriage in the PC(USA) Book of Order to be more "inclusive," allow noncelibate gay clergy to serve, and extend benefits to same-gender spouses and domestic partners.
"I sense that there are some within the PC (USA) who want the ongoing debate over the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people in our denomination to just go away," Bolbach said. "The reality, though, is that the time for deciding when this issue gets resolved is in God's hands, not ours."
The new moderator urged Presbyterians to "continue the conversation" and "reason together."
"Those in favor of the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in our life together – and I include myself in that group – believe that we fail to satisfy the Gospel imperative of inclusiveness as we continue to exclude gays and lesbians from leadership in our church," she said. "But there are also many within our church who believe that homosexual behavior is a sin that violates Scripture's mandates. I respect their beliefs, and I want to continue in conversation with them about this basic issue."
Bolbach noted that she doesn't believe the PC(USA) is ready yet to change the definition of marriage from between a man and a woman to between two people. But she hopes the denomination could develop guidelines for pastors in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal.
During an earlier meeting on Saturday, some Presbyterians acknowledged their ongoing disagreements and urged cooperation.
"We cannot keep retreating to our theological bunkers and lobbing hand grenades. We have got to find a way to gather around the table of Jesus Christ and work these questions out," said Jim Szeyller, a North Carolina pastor and chair of the Special Committee on Civil Union and Christian Marriage. "I am naïve enough to believe that people can gather around Jesus Christ."
The special committee was authorized by the 2008 General Assembly to study the history of the laws governing marriage and civil union, how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed and broader Christian tradition, the effects of current laws on same-gender partners and their children, and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.
Committee members representing the diversity of views in the denomination drafted a report to present to this year's General Assembly. They made it clear that they "differ profoundly" and come to different conclusions regarding the words of the Bible.
The PC(USA) has wrestled with the question of same-sex union and Christian marriage since 1991, according to the report. But despite the differences, committee members have called for mutual respect, commitment to one another, and Christian love. They have also encouraged the denomination to continue the discussions and to develop resources that will help guide presbyteries and congregations, particularly in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Currently, the denomination holds that marriage "is a civil contract between a woman and man" and also requires clergy to live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
The General Assembly – the highest legislative body – in 2008 had passed an overture that would delete the fidelity and chastity standard but presbyteries narrowly defeated the amendment.
The biennial assembly kicked off Saturday and concludes July 10.