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An End to Deception: Responses to ‘Reconsidering Definitive Guidance’

As one involved in writing what came to be known as the "Thompson Overture" a number of years ago, I was taken by Professor McKelway's intent in "Reconsidering 'Definitive Guidance.'" Through an overture which was sent -- with many others like it -- to the 1992 General Assembly, the session of Nassau church, Princeton, N.J., was seeking "a way through" the difficulty.

The overture proposed that the governing body closest to the candidate determine the candidate’s fitness for ministry, removing the categorical prohibition on persons whose sexual orientation was homosexual.

Professor McKelway is also seeking “a way out” of the conflict and, in his third principle, states that “The question of the ordination of a homosexual is primarily the business of the ordaining presbytery.”

McKelway is right in saying that such a proposal will satisfy neither side of the debate, for the proposal does not condemn or affirm homosexuality per se. Rather the proposal presumes the very thing that has been lacking in our denomination throughout these last two or three decades: trust. According to our Book of Order G-7.0103, the “organization rests on fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love.” Under McKelway’s proposal, instead of making pronouncements over one another, we would need to trust the discernment of our fellow presbyters and congregants in this matter.

No doubt there would be some congregations and presbyteries more likely to act out of Paul Lehmann’s definition of God’s mercy: “making room for the exception.” There would also be some candidates still not deemed to be ordainable, due to factors such as the stridency of public pronouncements on their sexual orientation. Both positions could exist in the church under McKelway’s third principle.

Since 1978, I have had countless conversations with colleagues and congregants who do not share my perspective on homosexuality per se. Yet over and over again, as we talk about the persons we all know to be homosexual in orientation, and consider the gifts they bring to the church’s ministry, often the conversation ends with, “Well, if that is the kind of person you are talking about, we might agree.” Implicit in McKelway’s position is the expectation that the “kind of persons” we are talking about — persons who would make it through an open and honest ordination process — are persons whose sexual orientation may be known, but it is not the overriding issue of their lives. Rather ministry in Christ’s church is!

As for the question of homosexuality per se, our evenly divided votes over the last few years reveal that we possess no clear judgment on the matter. In the meantime, a removal of the Definitive Guidance would at least put an end to the required deception on the part of those who are homosexual and seek ordination.

It would also put an end to the threatened “sniffing out of other people’s sins,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, because — sin or not — sexual orientation would cease to be a disqualifying category for ordination without exception. Yet no part of the church would be required to call or to elect a person to office if the calling or electing body were opposed to that candidate for reasons which might include sexual orientation.

Finally, “a way out” of this conflict just might be a way back to being a church whose polity works because trust and love prevail. I am grateful to Professor McKelway for articulating a middle ground where many of us just might be given grace enough to stand together.


CYNTHIA A. JARVIS is pastor, Chestnut Hill church, Philadelphia.



Responses to ‘Reconsidering Definitive Guidance’