More than just another amendment vote is on the line as Presbyterians organize

They will discuss, of course, the upcoming battle in the presbyteries, when the denomination as a whole will decide whether to follow the lead of the 213th General Assembly.

But they will also talk about the future of the PC(USA) after the vote, however it turns out. There is a growing sense that this decision, while crucial, will not resolve the differences. Those who believe that gays and lesbians should not be excluded from ordination say they won’t rest — if they lose this vote, they’ll try again.

And if the presbyteries do agree to change the Constitution, some who believe that Scripture does not permit the ordination of homosexuals say they won’t go along. What that would mean remains to be seen, but possibilities on the table include an outright split of the denomination, along with some creative thinking about how to stay together but still somehow be separate — some version of linked-but-distinct, of parallel Presbyterian worlds.

If language requiring fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness for ordained leaders is removed from the PC(USA) Constitution, “I would say we’re going to lose churches,” said Jerry Andrews, co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition, which opposes the ordination of gays and lesbians. Some may leave outright; some may try other approaches. But as Andrews put it: “This group of 2.5 million will not be ordaining” gays and lesbians.

Those who favor the proposed constitutional change [Amendment A for 2001] will stress that very point, saying that congregations which interpret the Bible as not allowing the ordination of homosexuals won’t be forced to ordain them, because questions of ordination would be up to the discretion of the local session or presbytery.

“This is middle ground — it neither prohibits nor requires the ordination of gays and lesbians,” said Pamela Byers of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization formed to be an advocate for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the PC(USA). And “it doesn’t ask the church to take a position on homosexuality. It asks the church to follow the centuries-long constant of mutual forbearance on non-essential matters.”

Conservatives, however, are talking openly about some form of public separation, and what form that separation might take is likely to be a major point of discussion when an invited group of conservatives gather to brainstorm in Denver late in July, a prelude to the Coalition’s national meeting in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 1-3. [The Covenant Network’s national meeting will be Nov. 1-3 in Pasadena, Calif.]

Pondering Their Options

Some of the options conservatives are considering involve leaving outright, or staying in the PC(USA) but setting up their own support networks or even a “shadow denomination” outside the official denominational structure. One precursor of that could be the confessing church movement, which is trying to link like-minded congregations willing to sign similar confessional statements.

Some congregations might become strictly local — turning their backs on involvement with the broader, denominational church. Some have spoken of a “dual synod” system — perhaps with opportunities for congregations to join a non-geographic synod with which they are in theological agreement. And some point to efforts already well underway among evangelicals to create their own “outside-the-headquarters” clusters of youth camps, mission opportunities, curriculum, job listings and so forth.

Also unclear is what approach the so-called “dissenting churches” will take — those who have said publicly that they cannot in conscience comply with the Constitution as it stands now and who have said they plan, in open defiance, to ordain gays and lesbians they identify as having real gifts for ministry.

The dissenting churches have been talking strategy too — and are looking for ways to broaden support for changing the church’s Constitution, while not forgetting that the push for change began with those who considered it an injustice to exclude gays and lesbians from ordination. This may be a time for the entire church to talk about having a Constitution that’s “generous and forbearing and inclusive,” said Joseph Gilmore, who is pastor of South church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. and a leader in the dissenting churches movement.

But others don’t want the church to forget that the dissenting churches coalesced not around issues of polity, but “as a prophetic reminder that there are people being excluded from our denomination,” Gilmore said. “People do not want to deep-six that movement.”

And conservatives, stunned by the Assembly’s voting nearly 60 percent to 40 percent to support ordaining gays and lesbians, and angered that that same Assembly struggled to figure out what to say about whether Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, are determined not to compromise their consciences.

Instead of choosing more unequivocal language, the Assembly declared that Jesus Christ is “uniquely Savior” and that “for us the assurance of salvation is found only in confessing Christ and trusting him alone.” Some conservatives contend that the words “for us” could leave too much wiggle room — meaning that Presbyterians believe that Jesus is their Savior, but is not necessarily the only way to salvation for Hindus or Muslims or other non-Christians.

“It makes you wonder — how could that happen?” said Joe Rightmyer, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, a Louisville-based network of evangelical Presbyterians.

And with the proposed constitutional change, “I think the church really needs to think about what we’re being asked to do,” Rightmyer said. “We’re being asked to set aside 2,000 years of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Scripture is very clear [in considering homosexuality sinful], and those on the other side of this issue recognize that, so you don’t hear them citing Scripture. You hear personal testimonies and Œfeel my pain.'”

In the days right after the Assembly adjourned, Rightmyer got more than 320 e-mails. “You talk about folks that are hot,” he said. “And, to my delight, they’re not leaving — they’re saying, ŒI’m so angry, what can we do?’ . . . It has struck a nerve and made folks realize this is not the same church it used to be. The biblical standards are not there.”

Strategizing and Organizing

So, with emotions running as hot as Alabama in August, this will be a summer of strategizing and organizing — with the focus on the all-out campaigns to prevail in the presbyteries, particularly those where the votes traditionally have been close.

Conservatives will look to counter arguments made in a PowerPoint presentation used at General Assembly, in which the overture advocates from the presbyteries seeking to remove the fidelity-and-chastity language from the Book of Order pooled their time and made a joint presentation — a presentation that’s available on Covenant Network’s Web site (www.covenantnetwork.org) and which the network also plans to distribute in videos. Conservatives are reportedly preparing a major multi-media presentation of their own for distribution this fall.

Those who want to change the Constitution, who contend that it’s wrong for the church categorically to bar gays and lesbians from ordination if they aren’t celibate, will focus in part on the argument that the quickest way to peace is to let local governing bodies, meaning sessions and presbyteries, decide which of the candidates presented to them for ordination are fit.

They will argue that, like the failed Amendment O, which would have forbidden Presbyterian pastors from participating in same-sex union ceremonies, this debate isn’t about sexuality, but about polity.

When the Assembly recommended the constitutional change, “I think what they’re saying is ŒEnough with these [judicial] cases, enough with the silliness and bickering back and forth,’ ” said Tony De La Rosa of South Pasadena, Calif., a board member of More Light Presbyterians, which supports the General Assembly recommendation. “Let’s let people decide at the home level . . . It’s a reaffirmation of traditional Presbyterianism.”

But Andrews, a pastor from Glen Ellyn, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, contends that changing the Constitution in essence won’t allow local congregations to make their own choices, because under the Presbyterian system “all ordinations are for the whole church.”

“I think it’s being offered as a compromise; no winners, no losers, live and let live,” Andrews said. But “our polity will not permit that,” and for those who say the Bible condemns homosexuality, “there will not be any relief for conscience.”

Many of those who want to open ordination to gays and lesbians approach it as a matter of justice — and they will not be satisfied as long as some congregations continue to refuse to perform such ordinations, Andrews said. “If it’s a matter of justice at Fourth Presbyterian downtown [in Chicago], why isn’t it at Glen Ellyn First? . . . It’s only a matter of time” before his congregation is pressured to go along.

With women’s ordination, “I don’t think we made a mistake, I don’t think we made a wrong judgment” in saying that ordaining women is a matter of justice, “and every church should do it,” Andrews said. If that same argument is used to justify ordaining homosexuals, then “how can that judgment be avoided now?”

Byers responds that the close margin of votes on homosexuality taken over the last 25 years in the PC(USA) make it clear that the church remains divided on this question — so there’s not a good chance of creating a “substantial majority in either direction.” As a result, “asking people on either side to give up their own conscientious, faithful interpretation of Scripture is wrong,” she said.

Byers said her church might choose to ordain a qualified gay or lesbian person, but Andrews’ congregation wouldn’t have to. If an elder from her church moved to Chicago and wanted to join Andrews’ church, that person should be allowed to become a member, Byers said — but Andrews’ congregation would be under no obligation to seat that elder on the session.

Conservatives also will do what they can to focus the debate not on polity, but on what the Bible actually says about homosexuality.

“After 25 years, they failed to make their case” — failed to convince a majority of Presbyterians that the Bible does permit the ordination of homosexuals — “so now they shift the focus,” from the Bible to polity, Andrews said. “But why would you shift ground from the biblical witness? . . . That’s the word that we need to hear, right, left, center, and every decision should flow from that.”

To choose “a polity solution to what is a theological problem” is “an attractive way out of hard times,” Andrews said. But “it’s a false way out. It only leads to more hard times.”

Byers counters, however, that “We believe we are right on Scripture, and, in fact, the majority of all Presbyterian Bible faculty agrees with us . . . We are very persuaded that Scripture does support our position, but we are not asking them [conservatives] to agree with our interpretation of Scripture — only to acknowledge that it is a plausible, faithful interpretation” reached by those who take the Bible seriously.

And then there’s the task force

Along with recommending a constitutional change regarding homosexuality, the Assembly also voted to create a theological task force to discuss “matters that unite and divide us.” It is charged with leading the church “in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity,” with the discussion to include, but not be limited to, “issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power.”

Wayne Yost, the executive presbyter of Kiskiminetas Presbytery, was one of the organizers of a group of presbytery executives who issued a call for a “third way” to go forward out of the disputes within the PC(USA) through prayer, study and spiritual discernment.

In an interview, Yost said he was pleased to see the task force created, and said he perceives that “part of the work of that task group is to help define or clarify our core values. That’s where we may be in a state of ambiguity — about what our denomination’s core values are.”

Yost said he was surprised that the Assembly voted to recommend both a constitutional change and a task force on theology, “but I keep saying to folks that if we believe the Spirit works in and through governing bodies, then the Spirit was at work” when the Assembly met in Louisville.

But those who oppose the ordination of gays and lesbians say they don’t expect the presbyteries to support the Assembly’s recommendation. Even those who want the doors opened say they expect an uphill battle, because it’s unclear what percentage of people really are convinced that there’s nothing morally or scripturally wrong in ordaining homosexuals. One advantage they may have is that the networks of people who worked to defeat Amendment O are still in place in the presbyteries, and they’re certain to swing into action again as the presbyteries prepare to vote. But the opponents of constitutional change have their grassroots organizations too.

Although some have remarked that this year’s Assembly acted decisively and with considerable civility, Rightmyer still contends that “we are a sorely divided church” — and cautions people not to confuse decorum with consensus.

Some interpret the Assembly’s action as a kind of “third way” — a new approach for which some church leaders have called — and conclude, “since there was so little rancor at this Assembly, it must be a new day. I think they mistake civility for conviction,” Rightmyer said. “It does not signal a new day where there is peace in the house . . . It’s going to be a huge fight.”

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