The proposal would eliminate from the constitution the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. The full assembly will vote on the committee’s recommendation later this week – and a minority report is expected.
If the 219th General Assembly were to approve the committee’s recommendation, the proposed constitutional change then would need approval from a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries. Three times since the presbyteries ratified the “fidelity and chastity” requirement in 1997, they have voted not to remove that language from the constitution, although the margin has been growing closer.
This time, the Church Orders and Ministry Committee voted 36-16 to recommend removing the “fidelity and chastity” language, in response to an overture submitted by the Presbytery of Western Reserve.
That overture would replace “fidelity and chastity” with the following language:
“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 “shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office,” and determine the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill the requirements presented in the constitutional questions for those being ordained and installed.
“Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
The committee also voted 17-36 not to put back into force definitive guidance statements from 1978 and 1979 prohibiting the ordination of “self-affirming practicing homosexuals.” The 2008 General Assembly passed an authoritative interpretation declaring that definitive guidance no longer to be in force – and the Church Orders committee voted July 6 not to put that guidance back into effect.
The committee then voted 41-11 to respond to 17 other overtures involving gay ordination with its response to the Western Reserve overture. Earlier, it had voted 19-34 not to substitute a pastoral letter for the Western Reserve overture, and not to use that pastoral letter as its answer for all the gay ordination overtures.
Some on the committee argued that the Western Reserve overture would undermine the historic position of the church, based on Scripture, opposing sex outside of marriage.
The Western Reserve overture amounts to local option – through which “every local session will decide for themselves” the standards for ordination, said John Wamsley, a minister from South Louisiana Presbytery. If this passes, “practicing homosexuals will be ordained.”
Robert Powell, an elder from Plains and Peaks Presbytery, had suggested the pastoral letter – to keep the presbyteries from having to vote again on the contentious gay ordination question. “This divisive debate blocks our witness to the world,” Powell said.
Other commissioners, however, urged the Presbyterian church not to be afraid of change.
Lacy Morris, a young adult advisory delegate from Arkansas, said “history says that we are a church that changes” – a church constantly being reformed – and that change often leads to an uproar, as when the Presbyterian church decided to ordain women. “Raise your hands, women preachers,” she said to the commissioners on the committee – and, when women’s hands started going up, “That is so awesome.”
Morris urged the commissioners to think not just with their heads but with their hearts – and to join with young Presbyterians who are ready to say now that the “fidelity and chastity” standard needs to go, and who don’t want to wait another 40 years.
In the midst of the debate, an ecumenical advisory delegate – the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Maryland – tried to bring a soothing word.
“You are not alone, obviously, in dealing with this issue,” Sutton said. Some churches do it quietly, while “you have your disagreements publicly. … Everything openly, and nothing behind closed doors.”
Sutton said that on some issues, “uniformity takes a long time.” It took the church 1,900 years to come to an agreement that enslaving human beings was wrong, he said.
“My encouragement to you is to stay together – to stay, to stay.”
Sutton said he heard a man at lunch say, “I love this church. You know what holds us together? It’s Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps Presbyterians can bring Jesus to a divided world, Sutton said.
He told the committee: “Show us Episcopalians how to do it better.”