Homosexual Ordination: What Was the Question?

As the chair of the drafting committee that prepared the report adopted by the 1978 General Assembly (UPCUSA) on the issue of homosexual ordination, I was stunned by A. J. McKelway's claim that the definitive guidance it provided answered a question that was not asked, and thus "got us into this mess" (Outlook, June 18). Having reread the record, I beg to differ.

The 1976 General Assembly (UPCUSA) received and responded to twin overtures from the presbyteries of New York City and Palisades, the former requesting “definitive guidance on [the provisions of then Form of Government, XIX, 2, (5), (c), (d), and (e)] as they apply to a person who is an avowed homosexual and is well qualified in every other part of the trials of ordination” (Minutes, I, 169), and the latter (citing then Form of Government XVIII, 1, and XVIII, 3) asking for “definitive guidance on the question of the acceptability of an avowed homosexual as a candidate for ordination to professional ministry” (Minutes, I, 191).

The terminology of the two overtures is important. Each consistently uses the somewhat ambiguous phrase “an avowed homosexual,” which does not specify whether the question is about a homosexual candidate’s sexual orientation only or includes sexual practice as well. Had the question been addressed to the 1978 General Assembly in these terms, and had the Standing Committee on Homosexuality interpreted the phrase generously as a reference to homosexual orientation alone, then it is conceivable that the “definitive guidance” requested would have been quite different. For the report adopted by the 1978 Assembly included the explicit provision that homosexual orientation itself is not a barrier to ordination in the church (Minutes, I, 264).

That possibility was foreclosed, however, by the specificity given to the question asked by New York City and Palisades presbyteries in the report adopted by the 1976 Assembly. Responding to these two overtures, as well as several others regarding homosexual behavior, the 1976 Assembly Committee on Bills and Overtures focused its report not only on the issue of “homosexuality in general,” but also on “the specific issue of ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals” (Minutes, I, 111, emphasis added). In directing that a task force be established to deal with these issues, the 1976 Assembly stipulated that the focus of this study “will center in Christian approaches to homosexuality, with special reference to the ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals” (Minutes, I, 112, emphasis added). All ambiguity was thus removed. The question now clearly included issues of sexual behavior and sexual orientation.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Background Paper presented to the 1978 Assembly by the appointed Task Force to Study Homosexuality spoke directly to both matters. Let it be noted that here the original language of the overturing presbyteries regarding “an avowed homosexual” is replaced throughout the document by the phrase “self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons.” With regard to such practice, the task force argued that the church’s ministry to homosexual people is determined by one of two attitudes — one that presupposes “that homosexual behavior per se is sin” and another “that presupposes that it is not.” The operative phrase here is “per se.”

The task force majority supported the latter view, albeit not without moral qualification. While acknowledging that “some homosexual behavior is sinful” and some “pathological,” as with heterosexual behavior, the majority contended that nonetheless “much homosexual behavior expresses a committed, caring and joyful love” (Minutes, I, 246). Thus was introduced into the discussion the concept of “the moral quality of sexual relationship,” making it possible to hold “that many forms of homosexual behavior express a self-giving love and faithful joy acceptable to God” (Minutes, I, 252). With this proviso, the task force majority concluded that homosexual behavior per se should not be a barrier to ordination. So the question before the 1978 Assembly was no longer framed in the somewhat vague language of the overtures from the presbyteries of New York City and Palisades, but in terms of the task force’s majority view of the acceptability for ordination of self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons who engage in sexual relationships characterized by commitment, caring and love.

In addressing this question to the Assembly, the task force suggested five possible responses to it, which in abbreviated form read as follows:

(1) Initiate an amendment to the Constitution to prohibit the ordination of a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person.

(2) Initiate an amendment to the Constitution to require presbyteries to disregard homosexual behavior per se when evaluating candidates for ordination.

(3) Offer an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution that would definitely preclude the ordination of a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person.

(4) Offer an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution that would preclude barring the ordination of a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person.

The final suggestion merits full citation: “(5) The General Assembly may state first: that no prohibition of the ordination of a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person currently exists in the explicit words of the Constitution; that a valid pluralism of methods of biblical interpretation and of theological thinking currently exists within the church; and that it is the traditional duty and prerogative of presbyteries to make individual judgment concerning the fitness of a candidate for ordination.

“The General Assembly may state second: that therefore the General Assembly chooses not to offer an authoritative and limiting interpretation of what may correctly be deduced from the Constitution and instead remits the question to the presbyteries and congregations for further discussion and for adjudications made by individual Christian conscience considering individual cases and circumstances” (Minutes, I, 251-252).

The task force itself unanimously opposed suggestions (1), (2) and (4), with the minority supporting (3) and the majority (5). While the 1978 Assembly adopted a version of (3), it is interesting to note that subsequently the 1996 Assembly initiated and the presbyteries approved a version of (1) — Amendment B — and that the 2001 Assembly has initiated an amendment to the presbyteries that represents the essence of (5). In historical perspective, it is clear that the amendment (A-01) now before the presbyteries is not the “third way” of compromise its advocates claim it to be but the revivification of the proposal championed by the task force majority in 1978.

Given this brief review, it is impossible for me to understand how McKelway’s claim that the 1978 Assembly gave definitive guidance that “answered a question that was not asked” can be sustained. The original question of the two overturing presbyteries did take on a life of its own as it moved through the 1976 Assembly to the Task Force on Homosexuality and finally to the 1978 Assembly. But as presented to the latter body, the question was : Is homosexual behavior sinful per se or not? The Assembly answered that it is. If so, then is it appropriate to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person whose sexual behavior is limited to committed, caring and loving relationships? The Assembly answered that it is not.

One may certainly judge that the definitive guidance provided by these answers represents a “wrong and unnecessary conclusion,” as McKelway does, but it is not accurate to claim that it “obscured” the question that was then and is still before the church. The question, as he frames it, is “not whether homosexual identity and life in themselves preclude ordination, but whether, and under what conditions, such ordination may or may not involve approval of homosexuality and its imposition upon the church.” While his is an interesting and sophisticated way of posing the issue, worthy of further discussion, it is not the question asked of us in San Diego at the 1978 General Assembly. We are in “this mess” not because definitive guidance answers an unasked question but because there are parts of “no” that some seem not to understand.

The answer to the question that was asked, together with its supporting biblical and theological reasons, was published in pamphlet form by the General Assembly under the title of The Church and Homosexuality. It is found therein under “Policy Statement and Recommendations” on pp. 57-62, and remains a worthy resource for anyone who may still be wondering what the answer to the question is.

posted Sept. 7, 2001


Thomas W. Gillespie is president of Princeton Seminary.