GA NEWS: Divided Assembly Approves Referendum on Ordination of Gays And Lesbians

         SAN JOSE – In a vote reflecting how divided the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues to be, the 218th General Assembly recommended by a narrow margin that the denomination change its constitution to remove the impediments that have been disallowing the ordination of sexually-active gays and lesbians.

            The proposal – which won’t take effect unless it is approved by a majority of the 173 presbyteries – passed by a vote of 380-325, with 54 percent of the commissioners favoring the change and 46 percent opposed. The presbyteries will decide in the next year whether to remove from the denomination’s constitution language restricting ordination to those who practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.

            Some predicted the assembly’s vote will lead to more congregations leaving the PC(USA), more withholding of funds, more contention in an already unhappy house. “This is a day for grieving,” said a statement released by the Presbyterian Renewal Network, a coalition of evangelical groups.

            Others said the denomination has been debating this for 30 years – for a full generation. “Clearly if this was an issue that is supposed to go away, it would have,” said Jon Walton, a pastor from New York and co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which opposes the “fidelity and chastity” provision.

            In a separate vote of 374-325 (almost exactly the same margin), the assembly also approved an overture from John Knox presbytery to once again – and immediately – allow candidates for ordination to declare “scruples,” or objections based on conscience, to the “fidelity and chastity” language. In other words, a gay or lesbian living in a committed same-sex relationship could acknowledge that and declare a scruple – and still ask to be ordained.

In February 2008, the PC(USA)’s highest court, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, ruled in a case from Pittsburgh presbytery that candidates could not declare scruples based on “fidelity and chastity,” describing that provision as “a mandatory standard that cannot be waived.”

 And it upheld language from a lower court ruling which made a distinction between allowing departures from the church’s standards related to belief – but not departures related to behavior.

            In approving the John Knox overture, the assembly issued a new authoritative interpretation basically undoing that aspect of the GAPJC ruling.

            Coming into the vote on June 27, Presbyterians knew well what was at stake.

            They’ve seen the example of the Episcopalians – having consecrated an openly-gay bishop, facing a worldwide split, with ongoing battles over property and authority.

            They’ve seen a gay couple standing across the street from the San Jose Convention Center – being married this week by a Presbyterian minister, with gay marriage now legal under California law.

            They’ve seen the PC(USA) lose 57,000 members in 2007, with small congregations and prominent ones leaving for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, out of a sense that the PC(USA) has lost its way. Time after time, evangelical commissioners have warned that if things don’t change, more people will leave.

            And the reality is that the presbyteries have twice before rejected attempts to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard, and that could definitely happen again.

After the vote, some supporters of gay ordination gathered outside the convention center – singing and hugging. That’s not far from where, earlier in the week, picketers waved signs condemning homosexuality – and young people wearing rainbow scarves representing inclusion handed out chocolate cookies to commissioners heading inside to vote.

Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians, described this as “an amazing moment in history” and said he sees “clearly a sea-change” in the church.

But the Presbyterian Renewal Network said the assembly’s vote places the PC(USA) “in spiritual jeopardy.”

It said in a statement: “Today the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lies gravely wounded, by the hand of its own General Assembly. This assembly has struck multiple blows, threatening to sever the sinews that hold us together as a Christian body and as a part of the larger body of Christ.”

In its action – approving an overture from Boston presbytery – the assembly also issued a new authoritative interpretation that withdraws authoritative constitutional statements in force since the 1970s that had declared homosexual practice incompatible with ordained ministry. 

Also at stake in this next stretch is the work of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA). In 2006, the General Assembly approved the task force’s recommendation, and there was lots of talk about having time to “live into” what the task force advocated.

Some thought this assembly might approve the John Knox overture, but not try to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard, which would have put things roughly back to where they stood after the assembly in 2006.

Now, some are hoping that the conversation in the presbyteries will be more civil than harsh – that it will follow the assembly’s recommendation that presbyteries “consider this overture using a process of listening and discernment.”

Deborah Block, a pastor from Milwaukee and co-moderator of the Covenant Network, acknowledged that she was surprised at the assembly’s vote.   “We thought John Knox would be a place to create space – continue the course, test the process,” Block said.

What if the presbyteries once again refuse to remove “fidelity and chastity” – if they reject what the assembly has recommended?

“Then the time isn’t right,” Walton said.

“It just rolls ahead to the next time,” Block said. “This is where we are today.”