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Heteronormativity and the Book of Order

By Donna Riley on August 15, 2014

[Disclaimer:  one of the functions of the MLP editorial board is to lift up alternate perspectives around the church. If others have a different take on this or other issues, your comments are also welcome here. ]

As I watched John Wilkinson offer an amendment to the proposed amendment to the Book of Order on marriage at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit, my heart sank. A clean simple statement that marriage involves commitment “between two people” had to be qualified: “between two people, traditionally one man and one woman.”

With the amendment coming from a More Light church pastor, and with this not being my first observation of GA plenary, I immediately recognized the move as strategy. I appreciated the “big tent” intention to include a wide range of views on marriage in the PCUSA. I understood the strategic move to appease some “traditional marriage” advocates in the church in order to ensure passage of the amendment in the presbyteries. Still,  this is deeply problematic language to enshrine in our constitution.

No one should be surprised this amendment got sent to the presbyteries with more than two thirds majority. The popularity of this measure is based in its compliance with heteronormativity.

I’ve written in other posts about marriage as a form of privilege and called on our community to queer marriage, to challenge its normative presumptions that reproduce unequal relations of power. Others in the LGBTQ movement have been more articulate than I about the ways marriage has dismantled some of the real opportunities queers had to build something new with our relationships, to embody an intimacy that resists hegemony.

The new proposed Book of Order language reproduces rather than resists hegemonies of heterosexual marriage. Referencing one man and one woman as the normative state of things reassures Presbyterians with the implicit presumption that same gender marriages ought to emulate “traditional” straight marriages. And while many Presbyterians know both straight and queer couples whose marriages we might like to emulate in various ways, the ideal “traditional” marriage required one man and one woman because each had different, rigid, and inequitable gender-normative roles.

This language is strategically problematic because it can be used to preference heterosexual marriages over all others. The language chosen wasn’t the more neutral “historically,” but the politically loaded “traditionally.” Some have said that “traditionally one man and one woman” is merely a descriptive statement of fact. But it is much more. The former statement in the Book of Order, “marriage is a civil contract between a man and a woman,” should have been seen as a neutral statement of legal reality, rendered anachronistic when Massachusetts allowed same-gender marriage a decade ago. Instead it was interpreted prescriptively to restrict same-gender marriage.

Even the most cursory critical glance at the word “traditionally” reveals its ludicrosity. During the General Assembly floor debate on this language, queer folks liveblogging on Facebook began to speculate that we could also add traditionally women as property, traditionally polygamous, etc. Advocates of “traditional” marriage are actually quite selective about which traditions they honor.

So does it matter?  Pragmatic and Machiavellian strategists would argue it doesn’t, as long as ministers are allowed to perform marriages, as long as the Church recognizes same-gender marriage among legitimate relationship structures.

But let’s consider the near future where, by the next General Assembly, we may well have national same-sex marriage, and if not by then, certainly by GA 224. This language in the Book of Order will again be anachronistic at best, and as YAAD Kyle Coombs eloquently noted, it establishes a less than full welcome for LGBTQ people.

So as we consider our votes in the presbyteries, LGBTQ people and allies need to consider the extent to which this amendment carries forward an oppressive history of marriage. How can we continue as a queer movement to confront, re-imagine, and re-shape traditions of marriage through the presbytery process and in the life of the future church?

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  1. Madeleine Mysko #

    It comforted me, as I am sure it comforted others like me, to read this careful critique of the “traditionally” phrase and its effects. My heart sank, too, when I read the amendment. As a writer, my first thought was that the phrase was so awkward, so obviously straining to mollify. I was deeply disappointed, but it was hard to explain clearly why. You have helped so much with this post. Thank you.

    July 2, 2014
  2. Cleve Evans #

    Historically I’ve probably been one of the less radical persons involved with MLP. I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of “queer marriage.” And yet sitting in the assembly I had a very bad reaction to that amendment. I strongly agree that the language is problematic because “it can be used to preference heterosexual marriages over all others.” As I said immediately after the vote at GA, how would women feel if the sections of the Book of Order dealing with ordination including phrases like “the teaching elder (traditionally a man)”? I had no idea before reading this article that the person who moved the amendment was the pastor of a More Light Church. That makes it seem a bit tragic to me. So my emotional reaction to GA on marriage was to be 90% elated and 10% insulted. I certainly hope the present proposal passes the presbyteries — but I’m looking forward to a time in the future when we can get that phrase stricken.

    July 2, 2014
  3. Michael Moore #

    As much as I can (being a heterosexual supporter of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers) appreciate the concerns you raise, Donna, I also appreciate the reasoning behind the amendment. Historical would have been a better word than Traditional. However, the offering of the amendment was necessary as a middle ground. My prayer is that this amendment will pass the majority of Presbyteries and down the road we can amend once more and remove the word Traditional.

    July 4, 2014
  4. Jenny H #

    To say nothing of the fact that the GA explicitly reserved ministers’ and sessions’ right to discriminate. And for that matter, to say nothing of the fact that the church continues to choose to subordinate its definition of marriage to the state’s definition.

    Yeah, this was a step. But it was a pretty damn timid step.

    July 18, 2014
  5. Terry Diggory #

    I, too, was disappointed by the phrase adopted on the motion of John Wilkinson. It seems pointless as legislation, precisely because it carries no legal force. If it did, there would be reason to oppose the overall amendment in which Wilkinson’s language has been inserted. But I hope that LGBTQ people and allies will unite in supporting the passage of the amendment despite the fact that it contains a phrase that stands as a reminder of the oppressive past. If we take that reminder to heart and commit ourselves to ensuring that the past is not repeated, the phrase could even have some value. Even if the most perfect language imaginable were adopted into the Book of Order, that in itself would not change the institution of marriage. The institution will be changed by the way people live out their lives within it. The proposed amendment to the Book of Order, for all its imperfections, helps to ensure that the lives of LGBTQ people will contribute to shaping the institution, if they choose to participate in it. And for that reason the proposed amendment deserves our support.

    July 20, 2014

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