Seen in context, the decision expresses nicely the tragic genius of American Presbyterianism entering the 21st century.
First, the genius element. In 1995, our denomination addressed constitutionally the explosive issue of gay sex within the manner of life of a ministerial candidate. We decided to do it indirectly, lifting up fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness as unimpeachable standards for all, thereby avoiding any mention of homosexuals or of gay affectional behavior in the Constitution.
The provision has proved to be a sensible one, receiving repeated and growing support within the denomination. The February decision of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) simply restates the provision’s nature as a settled portion of the Presbyterian Constitution, adding that, yes, fidelity and chastity have a behavioral dimension and that, no, permissible scruples do not apply to that dimension.
The PC(USA) is known around the world for how it orders its life, for its polity. This Presbyterian provision together with its interpretation may help other churches struggling with difficult and critical questions surrounding gays and lesbians in church life. The last-minute resolution from John Knox Presbytery — aimed at overturning the GAPJC ruling at the denomination’s assembly this June — will almost certainly fail. To my eye at least, there is no way around the rule short of another constitutional amendment.
Next to the tragic element. Presbyterians are generally weary of arguments about sex, of arguments about gays, and of continuing close votes. In part, the problem stems from our can-do American spirit and the conviction that once identified, any problem can be solved quickly. By dragging their feet, church conservatives are correct at this particular juncture, I believe. We are up against a problem that cannot be solved quickly.
Presbyterian polity can be made to include the full inclusion of gays and lesbians into church life, but not along lines church progressives have been traveling. They are aiming too low. For a decade now, through the Covenant Network for Presbyterians, progressives have closed around a single goal, to wit, to reverse or to qualify the fidelity and chastity amendment to the constitution. The John Knox initiative promises more of the same. That, however, is not what church folk need today. Outside the church, pioneering state legislatures, as in Massachusetts, have been staking out promising and solid legal ground. But inside it, the public and increasingly acrimonious debate about non-celibate gays and lesbians has become an open wound marking Presbyterian and other mainline denominational life for decades.
We’re all looking for a strategy more embedded in Christian tradition and practice. The way to full inclusion of gays and lesbians is not through lowering, or even the perception that one is lowering, church standards for sexual behavior. The fact that no one keeps these standards perfectly has never been a compelling reason to change them, nor is it now.
What to do?
Buried in the generally fine work of the 20-member PUP Task Force that reported in 2006, we may have the beginning of an answer — an arresting and relatively new approach to the issue. If Presbyterian progressives can resist the siren song of congregationalism, they should get acquainted with a small, gay-friendly yet even-handed movement with the unlikely name of consecrationism. (The term comes from Task Force member William Stacy Johnson.)
We should ask: Among faithful gays and lesbians, how can marriage be held in honor by all (Hebrews 13:4a) when these same faithful ones are excluded from it by definition? Our “for heterosexuals only” conception of marriage is the segregated lunch counter of our time. No good reasons remain to support it. Pew by pew, church by church, community by community, state by state, changing the current definition of marriage is a better way forward.
To be sure, the climb promises to be long. But it is a strategy worthy of a world-class church.
Wayne G. Boulton is honorably retired, living in Boston, Mass. He was president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education 1992-97.