Can practicing homosexuals now be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
The short answer is “No.” The more complicated answer is “Maybe.”
What has been the Presbyterian Church’s rule about ordaining practicing homosexuals?
The current law of the PC(USA) says:
Those who are called to this office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the Confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
This is section G [for Government] 6.0106b of the Book of Order, part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This section, sometimes called Amendment B by its opponents, was adopted by the General Assembly and a majority of presbyteries in 1997. For a decade it has withstood repeated challenges.
The chastity and fidelity section codifies a rule against ordaining practicing homosexuals that went back to the “definitive guidance” statements adopted in the late 1970s by the old northern and southern Presbyterian Churches. The Presbyterian Church has always looked very unfavorably on homosexual practice. There was no rule against it for church officers before the 1970s only because the prohibition — indeed, strict condemnation — of homosexual practice was largely taken for granted until then. While the concept of a “homosexual” was not invented until the 19th century, homosexual practice was well known long before that.
It is important to say clearly that there are practicing homosexuals in ordained ministry now; there always have been, and there probably always will be. The church is simply unable to prevent all practicing homosexuals from being ordained. It can only prevent self-acknowledged and unrepentant practicing homosexuals from being ordained.
The chastity and fidelity rule, G 6.0106b, does not mention sexual orientation at all. It applies equally to people of all sexual orientations. The church believes that people of all sexual orientations may nonetheless be chaste — that is, celibate — in singleness, as Jesus was. More controversially, the Presbyterian Church also believes that people of all sexual orientations can live faithfully, and happily, in a marriage of a man and a woman. The church neither endorses nor condemns ministries and therapies that attempt to help people change or control their sexual orientation. The rule is not about orientation at all, but about practice. There have been many more cases of heterosexual officers violating the fidelity and chastity rules than of homosexuals attempting to challenge them. The church has made explicit that chaste homosexuals — either celibate or heterosexually married — may certainly be officers of the church.
Did the PUP report change the church’s ordination standards for practicing homosexuals?
In 2006 the General Assembly adopted the long-awaited report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. The PUP report had two recommendations that touch on this question. The simpler one was Recommendation Six, which asked the General Assembly:
… to approve no additional authoritative interpretations, to remove no existing authoritative interpretations, and to send to the presbyteries no proposed constitutional amendments that would have the effect of changing denominational policy on any of the major issues in the task force’s report, including Christology, biblical interpretation, essential tenets, and sexuality and ordination.
The Assembly adopted this recommendation. The current constitution, whose rules we were just examining, remains in effect unchanged.
Recommendation Five, however, was a more complex proposition. The Assembly did not change the constitution, but adopted an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of it. The critical provision of the AI says that the bodies that ordain and install church officers — the session for elders, and the presbytery for ministers — must apply all of the constitutional standards to potential officers. To do that, they must determine two things:
1. Whether a candidate being examined for ordination and/or installation as elder, deacon, or Minister of Word and Sacrament has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards for fitness for office,
2. Whether any departure constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity under G-6.0108 of the Book of Order, thus barring the candidate from ordination and/or installation.
This is where the current uncertainty begins.
Some say nothing has changed. The constitutional standards are the same and those standards clearly bar practicing homosexuals from being ordained in the PC(USA).
Others read Recommendation Five as allowing a “local option” for ordaining bodies. Some hope, and others fear, that this part of the AI lets sessions and presbyteries hear the “scruples” of potential officers about any and all parts of the constitution. If the local body decides that the scruple does not concern an essential of Reformed faith and polity, then the elder or minister could be ordained or installed.
“Scruple” is a term used in one of the PC(USA)’s oldest standards, the Adopting Act of 1729. The Adopting Act standard assumes that all officers agree with the entire constitution of the church — the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. If potential elders or ministers were not sure their understanding of the constitution was the same as the church’s, they would explain their conscientious scruple. The ordaining body would then look at the constitution, consider the scruple, and decide whether there was any essential conflict.
So, can you scruple the ban on homosexual practice and still be ordained?
On the face of the constitution, no.
The ban on ordaining practicing homosexuals is one of the clearest and most tested sections of the church’s constitution. Several attempts have been made to amend the constitution, to delete or gut G 6.0106b, most recently at the 2006 General Assembly. All such attempts failed, and by increasing margins. The PC(USA) now has another task force working on creating a new, simpler Form of Government (G section) of the Book of Order. This “chastity and fidelity” section is one of two provisions of the current constitution that the task force is forbidden to change (the other concerns who owns church property).
It is important to keep in mind, though, that the chastity and fidelity provision sets a rule about behavior, not about belief. An officer of the church might well have a scruple about the idea of whether “the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness” is really an essential tenet of Reformed faith. As long as that officer agreed to abide by the rule in practice, the presbytery or session might well accept the scruple and ordain or install him or her.
The political reality: some congregations and presbyteries are willing to ordain practicing homosexuals.
We know by repeated votes of the presbyteries, and by survey data on members, elders, and ministers, that most Presbyterians and most churches and presbyteries support the constitution as it is. However, a few congregations, and even a handful of presbyteries, have gone on record as opposing the church’s ban on ordaining practicing homosexuals. Some churches have quietly accepted gay and lesbian elders and ministers, without inquiring too closely about their practice. A few have even sustained public homosexual ordinations through legal technicalities or errors.
Suppose a minister or elder does get ordained who publicly proclaimed that he or she did not think homosexual practice was a sin, intended to engage in such practice, and contended that the chastity and fidelity rule was not essential to Reformed faith and policy. Does that end the matter? Does PUP mean local option?
No, it does not because of another important part of PUP Recommendation Five. The Presbyterian Church has an ascending series of governing bodies, from session to presbytery to synod to the General Assembly. Each of the bodies above the local congregation’s session also has a Permanent Judicial Commission. If a governing body or church officer is charged with wrongdoing under church law, these PJCs can hear the case. The decisions of the lower PJCs can be appealed to the higher ones, and usually are. So if an officer were ordained or installed in apparent violation of G 6.0106b, a case could be brought against the ordaining and installing body. The presbytery PJC would likely hear the case first, though their decision might well be appealed. To make clear that ordaining and installing bodies had to follow the substance of the Constitution, as well as due process, the General Assembly added a clause to PUP Recommendation 5 so that the AI as finally adopted reads (new section in bold):
Whether the examination and ordination and installation decision comply with the Constitution of the PC(USA), and whether the ordaining/installing body has conducted its examination reasonably, responsibly, prayerfully, and deliberately in deciding to ordain a candidate for church office is subject to review by higher governing bodies.
In other words, the church courts can review whether an ordination or installation complies with the substance of the constitution — including the chastity and fidelity rule.
Is homosexual practice a sin that precludes ordination?
Thus far the debate in the church over homosexual ordination has been polarized. One side says that homosexual practice is an abomination, and therefore an absolute bar to ordination. The other side says that homosexual practice is no different from heterosexual practice, and therefore not relevant to ordination. There is, however, at least one middle position. This position would require no change in the constitution, but rather a different interpretation of what the constitution entails.
Suppose some officer candidates accepted the church’s teaching that homosexual practice is a sin, and that chastity in singleness or fidelity in a marriage of a man and a woman is the right way to practice the gift of sex. However, our hypothetical candidates might argue that they could not promise to always be able to meet that standard in the future. Instead, they argue that living in a committed same-sex union was the best pastoral compromise for them, one that would prevent the greater sins of promiscuity and infidelity. Could a session or presbytery accept this compromise on pastoral grounds — not ideal, but close enough to allow ordination?
This kind of pastoral compromise is essentially what the church now does with elders and pastors who are divorced and remarried.
The Bible condemns divorce and remarriage as clearly as it rejects homosexual practice. For centuries, divorce, and especially remarriage after divorce, would end a minister’s career and even his or her ordination. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, both the northern and southern Presbyterian Churches redefined the consequences of divorce for church officers. The church still taught, and teaches, that divorce is a bad thing. Now, though, the church allows that sometimes the bad of divorce is the lesser evil. Divorce and remarriage, therefore, do not absolutely preclude ordination. Instead, the ordaining and installing body is supposed to consider each case of divorce and remarriage as a pastoral issue within the total context of the officer’s gifts for ministry.
So, is homosexual practice wrong the way divorce is wrong? Is it an absolute bar to ordination, or a problem to be considered pastorally, case-by-case, within the context of the whole person’s gifts?
The argument for total moral equivalence of heterosexual and homosexual practice has been notably unsuccessful in the Presbyterian Church. By the same token, declaring homosexual practice to be an unforgivable sin is also out of line with traditional Reformed theology. It is possible, therefore, that self-acknowledged, repentant, practicing homosexuals might be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This argument has not yet been joined in any serious way. Nor is it clear which way this question would be decided.
William (Beau) Weston is NEH Professor of Sociology at Centre College in Danville, Ky.