In a nutshell:
1. If the amendments fail, the 1978-79 and later authoritative interpretations that prohibit ordination of self-affirming, practicing homosexuals remain in force.
2. If the amendments pass:
o Governing bodies still will have to be guided by the standards described in Scripture and the Confessions. This would restore the constitutional situation about ordination that prevailed prior to 1978.
o Ordination decisions still will be subject to governing body discretion. Both affirmative and negative examinations may be appealed, that is, will be subject to judicial review by higher governing bodies.
The effect of the proposed amendments will be that every church member will be eligible to be nominated or apply to become a candidate for ordained office. No member will have a right to hold any office. Sessions and presbyteries will decide if particular persons are fit to be ordained, according to Scripture and the confessions.
The 1978-79 actions did not respond to a real threat that the church would be overrun by gay and lesbian elders and ministers. The actions were born of fear about something that might happen. Fear-driven decisions (in defense of keeping slaves in bondage before the Civil War, for example) have rarely served the church well.
Some opponents of the proposed amendments claim that they introduce an alien dimension of “local option” into Presbyterian polity.
This claim is unfounded.
o “Local option,” in states that grant local jurisdictions the right to control sales of alcohol, for example, means that those jurisdictions may enact laws that are valid within their bounds, but not anywhere else. Local option in the church would mean that presbyteries and sessions could make rules: “No homosexual candidate will be ordained here,” or “All homosexual candidates will be ordained here.” Presbyteries and sessions will no more be able to do that if the amendments pass than they can today. All governing bodies that conduct examinations and decide fitness for office will have to apply the same rules to the facts in a case, just as all judges have to apply the same state or federal laws even though a decision made in one jurisdiction may differ from one in a similar case in another jurisdiction.
o Even if we grant that what is proposed can be called local option, it is not alien to Presbyterian polity. Presbyteries and sessions would have the responsibilities in making ordination decisions that they have always had in American Presbyterianism. If those responsibilities were not local option before 1978, they can’t be local option after 2002.
A too-narrow focus on arguments for and against ordination of homosexuals, however, can direct attention away from the most negative consequences of 1978 and after, in the political ping-pong games the church has played ever since. Since 1978, debates over sex have occupied a dominating, privileged position in governing bodies. And preoccupation with sexual issues to the exclusion of others of at least equal importance has fostered the influence of hard right fundamentalism in the church.
o This preoccupation with sex has given fundamentalists an organizing focus, which they have exploited well to create a political organization that seeks to control and change the church just as radically as the hard right did in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention.
o It has made almost impossible serious theological conversation about other real issues that are divisive in the church. Conversation about differing views of Scripture’s role and interpretation in the church, for example, has mostly been framed narrowly in terms of how one’s view of Scripture affects the passages on which the case for G-6.0106b rests. A similar narrowing can be observed in regard to other issues.
o The result of a quarter-century’s climate of politicized narrowing and suppression of theological conversation has seriously weakened boundaries that long protected Presbyterian churches from fundamentalist incursion. We have lost a strong, non-fundamentalist sense of who we are theologically and pastorally, and that weakness has been exploited more from the hard right than from the left.
In this perspective, the most important action taken by the 213th GA may be formation of the Theological Task Force that was recommended by the Assembly Committee on Peace, Purity and Unity.
Serious conversation about a long list of theological issues is long over-due, not least because of the skewing in a direction that favors fundamentalism that has occurred for the last 25 years whenever we’ve tried to talk about the Lordship of Christ, the sovereignty of God, or the nature and mission of the church and how authority is exercised appropriately under the Lordship of Christ. The task force is charged with helping us learn again to talk and to listen to one another across serious dividing lines that run through those issues.
But the task force, no matter how brilliantly constituted, is unlikely to lead the church in any kind of genuine conversation if the amendments to G-6.0106a and b fail.
The church is no closer to a common mind on the ordination of homosexuals than it was in 1978. Unless the G-6 amendments pass, the destructive momentum of a quarter-century’s preoccupation with sex likely will continue to divert attention and energy away from other issues that are at least equally important for faithfulness to the gospel.
I hope we pass the G-6 amendments. I think our experience since 1978 tells us it’s time to wipe from the table the unproductive clutter that has skewed and narrowed all our conversations. I hope we stop neglecting matters that are urgent, so we can regain a strong sense of who we are and what is important to our life and mission.
It will be no easier to talk and to listen about other things than it has been to talk about sex, but that’s why the conversation cannot longer be deferred.
posted Sept. 6, 2001
Lewis Wilkins, a minister commissioner to the 213th General Assembly, is an organizational consultant and directs The Plains Institute in Lubbock, Texas.