That’s not going to happen. What is going to happen is that one of 18 General Assembly committees will spend hour after hour in July debating, yet again, whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should keep the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.
Not surprisingly, more than 15 overtures relating to gay ordination are coming to this assembly – with some wanting to keep “fidelity and chastity,” some wanting to toss it out and replace it with new language, and one asking for a “season of rest,” a kind of two-year time-out on considering any changes to the ordination standards.
So the 30-year conversation will continue.
It will be this way because the PC(USA) is, along with other mainline denominations, locked in a struggle that reflects both theological teachings and changing views in the secular culture over homosexuality. In some ways, the debate seems to have gone on forever – renewing the same arguments, year after year, arguments that for some cut to the heart of what they believe about Scriptural authority and what the Bible teaches about inclusiveness and God’s love for all.
But the persistence of the debate, and the glazed-over look some Presbyterians develop when it revs up again, can mask some incremental but significant developments that observers are noting.
» Last August, in a dramatic and emotional vote, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the third-largest Protestant group in the country, with 4.6 million members – voted to lift a rule that forbade gays and lesbians to serve as pastors unless they were celibate. The denomination’s Churchwide Assembly removed the ban on pastors living in “lifelong, monogamous, same-gendered relationships.” Almost immediately, some Lutherans who say the new policy does not conform with Biblical teaching began to discuss the possibility of leaving the denomination.
» In July 2009, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted that any ordained ministry is open to gays and lesbians – ending a moratorium on ordaining gay bishops passed in 2006. This spring, a majority of bishops and dioceses in the Episcopal Church approved the election as suffragan, or assistant, bishop of Mary D. Glasspool, a lesbian from Los Angeles who has been involved in a same-sex partnership for more than 20 years. That’s likely to further accelerate divisions within the global Anglican family. The Anglican Church in North America, officially organized in 2009 with 700 congregations and in disagreement with the direction of the Episcopal Church, has elected Robert Duncan as its archbishop and established full communion with Anglican churches in Uganda and Nigeria.
» In 2009, a majority of the PC(USA)’s 173 presbyteries voted, for the third time, not to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard. But there are some signs of shifting opinion – the vote of 94-78 was by a narrower margin than the last time the presbyteries considered it, in 2001-2002, and includes more than 25 presbyteries that flipped from wanting to keep the current standards to favoring change. Some interpret the vote as the PC(USA) standing firm, yet again, on fidelity and chastity. Others say it’s only a matter of time until the rules change – for them, the question is not if, but when.
» Some of the congregations most opposed to gay ordination have already left the PC(USA) – many of them moving to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. That represents a dynamic other mainline denominations are experiencing as well – with debates over gay ordination in the Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran denominations leading to shifting alignments. Following the Lutheran vote last summer, for example, a conservative group called the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal began developing a proposal for the “reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism” and is discussing forming a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).
» A case now is pending in the PC(USA)’s judicial system that could present a direct test of whether the denomination will allow the ordination of a gay man in a committed partnership. In February, John Knox Presbytery voted 81-25 to ordain to the ministry Scott D. Anderson, who has been in a committed relationship for close to 20 years and who set aside his ordination as a minister in 1990, after members of his congregation publicly revealed that he is gay.
Following the approach suggested by the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA), of which he was a member, Anderson had declared a “scruple,” or an objection based on conscience, to the fidelity and chastity standard. Some who disagree with the presbytery’s decision have filed a remedial case with the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, and a stay of enforcement has been entered until that case is resolved.
Depending on how things proceed, Anderson’s case could present the first direct question to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of whether a governing body can ordain a gay or lesbian in a committed partnership who has declared a conscientious objection to the fidelity and chastity standard.
All of this is just the back story.
Keep fidelity and chastity. An overture from San Diego Presbytery seeks to keep the current ordination standards – and also to restore authoritative interpretations regarding homosexual practice that formerly were in force in the PC(USA), and which the General Assembly in 2008 declared, through a new authoritative interpretation it passed, to be no longer in force.
The San Diego overture asked that those authoritative interpretations from the late 1970s be reinstated – which would restore language that “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination … . ”
The San Diego overture argues that in nullifying those authoritative interpretations in 2008, “the General Assembly exceeded its authority, because there was no real ambiguity and no bona fide occasion for interpretation. … The power to interpret is not to be used to change clearly expressed church polity.”
What the assembly did was an “abuse of power,” by making such a change without submitting to a vote by the presbyteries, the overture states.
Another overture, from Central Washington Presbytery, takes a different approach. It asks that the assembly declare that church officers and ministers can disagree with the ordination standards, but that “no governing body may grant an exception to any explicitly stated behavioral standard for ordination and that church officers are to remain in compliance with such standards.”
Remove fidelity and chastity. Other overtures, such as one submitted by Western Reserve Presbytery, ask that the “fidelity and chastity” language be removed from the Book of Order, and be replaced with new language.
That proposed language states that “standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”
The governing body responsible for ordaining or installing a candidate should examine that candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for office, and shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to candidates.
That overture states that the fidelity and chastity standard has brought “continual contention” to the PC(USA) and that “it purports to apply even-handedly to all candidates, but is overwhelmingly used only to exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons – many of whom exhibit abundant gifts and strong calls to ministry.”
Establish period of rest. Some presbyteries want the denomination to take a break from fighting over ordination standards. So Pines Presbytery has presented an overture calling for a respite of at least two years, during which no action could be taken to “maintain, modify, or eliminate” the fidelity and chastity language.
“Many believe that the true mission of the church has suffered because of this continuing debate, leaving some to see the denomination as focused only the issues of human sexuality,” the overture states.