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GA NEWS: Ordaining gays and lesbians, and related issues aired at opening hearing with corrections

CORRECTION: The original version of this story, posted June 23, incorrectly quoted Ben Willis, a pastor from Lehigh Presbytery. The story quoted Willis as saying, "I'm not gay any more -- I used to be. It's the transforming power of the Holy Spirit," when Willis was actually recounting a conversation he'd had with a man who attends his church, and who made those remarks.

         The Presbyterian Outlook regrets this error and apologizes to the Rev. Willis for any misunderstanding it may have caused to his life and ministry. The corrected story:

  SAN JOSE – Collectively, these Presbyterians spoke for close to two hours at an opening hearing today (June 23) – speaking as fast as they could spit the words out, for 90 seconds apiece, dozens of them in a line stretching across the room.

 Their subject: items of business coming before the 218th General Assembly having to do with whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should ordain gays and lesbians.

 Definitely not a new subject: the PC(USA) has been agonizing over this for decades now. But some of the comments, distilled from the many who spoke on June 23 to the assembly’s Church Orders and Ministry committee, reflect why, after so many years, some people still care.

 Marnie Crumpler, a minister from Atlanta, said she teaches new member classes in which people ask: “Are you the denomination that talks about sex all the time? Do you believe sex outside marriage is really OK? Well, friends, here we go again.”

 What God expects. As Crumpler sees it, “God designed sex to be held within marriage between a husband and a wife. … The biblical directive God gave us hasn’t changed and won’t change.”

 In the PC(USA), “leadership is not a right,” said Nancy Maffett, an elder from Colorado. Instead, the church needs “servant leaders” who understood that God says, “I want you to be holy, as I am holy.”

 But Susan Bryan of Cincinnati challenged the PC(USA) to change from a standard that discriminates to one that practices “the radical hospitality of Jesus.”

 Heather Reichgott of California acknowledged that six verses in the Bible do seem to condemn homosexuality, but said the New Testament shows families of choice “of every shape and form.” She pointed out other admonitions from Deuteronomy that most Presbyterians don’t follow strictly today.

 “I pray we take the Bible seriously enough to remember it has more than six verses,’ Reichgott said.

 Theological Task Force. One question on the table is whether this General Assembly should support or reverse the work of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA). Some speakers said that as a result of the task force, Presbyterians from their communities who disagree on controversial issues have learned to listen to one another — they’ve developed respect.

 Sharon Bryant of Grace Presbytery said she met for six months in a group with six male pastors, and “we had no idea where we stood” on gay ordination, because they talked about other things. Near the end of their time together, they were finally ready to discuss “the question,” and found deep differences in their views.

 But by then, Bryant said, they were able to say to each other: “I do not agree with your theology or your interpretation of Scripture, but I can be church with you.” They had learned to view each other as “persons of integrity we could trust.”

 Other speakers, however, described the task force as having sown confusion and in essence changing the ordination standards of the denomination without requiring the approval of the presbyteries — which so far have stuck hard by the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.

 The decision of the assembly in 2006 to adopt the task force’s controversial Recommendation 5 — which allows candidates ordination to declare “scruples” or objections based on conscience, and for local governing bodies to decide if those departures from the standard amount to violating an essential of Reformed faith and polity or not –—should be reversed, some speakers contended.

 The fruit of the task force’s work has been “conflict, increasing distrust, ugly fights over property,” said Phil Moran, a minister from Boise Presbytery.

 What young people need. Young people today desperately need encouragement to live a faithful life in a world “filled with mixed and confusing messages,” said Elizabeth Arakelian of Detroit Presbytery.

 Our young people need the “energy and hope” that gay and lesbian pastors could bring, and their “prophetic voices from the pulpit,” said Katie Anderson of Louisville.

 Gay now, and no longer. Several who spoke said they formerly were involved in homosexual relations — but changed as a result of a church which refused to back away from what the Bible teaches.

 “What we’re saying is homosexuality is OK, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not OK, that it’s a sin,” said a woman who described herself as “a lesbian the longest time,” until the church helped her to change.

 Ben Willis, a pastor from Lehigh Presbytery, recalled a conversation he had recently with man who attends his church. “I’m not gay any more — I used to be,” the man told Willis. “it’s the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.”

 Some said they were tormented by homosexual urges that later abated — in part because their churches held firm. “I felt guilt and shame about same-sex attractions I didn’t understand or choose,” said Tom Deane of California.

 And Mike Goeke of Grace Presbytery said, “I was led astray by false teaching, but I was rescued by the perfect teacher.”

 Called by God. But other gays or lesbians spoke of their certainty they are called by God to ministry — and the pain of being denied.

 “I love this church,” said Lucy Harris, who described herself as a minister from Albany Presbytery and a lesbian. “Ministry can be a lonely business,” Harris said — and the “fidelity and chastity” standard makes it even more so for her, by denying her the opportunity to enter into a committed, covenantal relationship. ‘I would ask you to remove this barrier to fullness of life for me.”

 Jennifer Ross, a senior at Rhodes College, said she was raised Presbyterian but no longer feels she can be part of a Presbyterian church. Ross said she feels called to ministry but, as a lesbian, “I was told there was no room for me in this house of God.”