GA 2010: UPDATED & EXPANDED: Ordination standards to be debated, voted again throughout PC(USA)

MINNEAPOLIS – Once again, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has voted to remove the requirement in the denomination’s constitution that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.

That marks the fourth time since the “fidelity and chastity” language was ratified in 1997 that the denomination’s 173 presbyteries have been asked to remove it. Three times they have said “No” – but the margin has been growing closer.

Some young Presbyterians, who have spoken about ordination during this assembly, note the PC(USA) has been fighting about whether to ordain sexually-active gays and lesbians longer than they have been alive.

This vote also comes during a year when the assembly is considering action on same-sex marriages – and Jerry Andrews, an evangelical who supports the “fidelity and chastity” standard, said it would be a “jaw-dropper” if the assembly voted to liberalize both.

On July 8, the assembly voted 373 to 323 (a margin of 53 to 46 percent) to approve an overture submitted by the Presbytery of Western Reserve.

The Western Reserve 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 or 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.”

Cynthia Bolbach, the assembly’s moderator, led the assembly in prayer immediately after the vote. “Lord of majesty and mercy, we seek to follow where you lead,” even if it’s not clear where that is, she prayed. “We know that with you, we can do no wrong.”

Commissioners watch the screen as the vote tally indicates passage of the proposal on ordination standards. (Photo by Erin Dunigan)

Some who spoke against the Western Reserve overture warned that it would amount to local option – letting local governing bodies set their own ordination standards – and amounted to a lowering of the denomination’s ordination standards. Others said the overture would actually strengthen the standards.

“The highest ordination standard is to submit to Jesus Christ,” said Brian Wyatt, a minister from Holston Presbytery, during the debate.

There also was discussion about how Christians in the global South would react to a PC(USA) decision to ordain sexually-active gays and lesbians, and about what young people want – a traditional understanding of sexual morality, or more tolerance. And Presbyterians are well aware that they’re not alone in this — that other mainline denominations including the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists, continue to struggle with the question of ordaining gays and lesbians as well.

Some warned that if the presbyteries vote to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard, more individuals and congregations will leave the PC(USA), which now has about 2.1 million members.

Hector Reynoso, a minister from Mission Presbytery, who stood as a candidate for the assembly’s vice moderator earlier this week, said during the debate that “homosexuality is either a sin or it’s not. But it’s not both. Someone is in the right and someone’s wrong.”

If the presbyteries vote to change the ordination standards, Reynoso said he will leave the PC(USA). “I stand for Jesus and I invite you to stand with me.”

But Lacy Morris, a young adult advisory delegate from Arkansas Presbytery, said “it breaks my heart” that people are so afraid of ordaining gays and lesbians. In a denomination that earlier struggled with whether to ordain women or people of color, Morris said she sees the change in ordination standards as “one more step in the direction of Jesus Christ.”

Before approving the Western Reserve overture, the assembly rejected a minority report that sought to leave the current ordination standards intact but to send a pastoral letter instead.

The minority report also asked that the assembly 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 definitive guidance no longer to be in force – and the minority report wanted to reinstate that.

It didn’t take long after the assembly’s vote for interest groups within the church to begin looking ahead to the vote in the presbyteries.

“The cumulative effect of this is not healthy for the church,” Jerry Andrews said, adding the PC(USA) missed an opportunity to be pastoral rather than divisive. In the months to come, “I’ll be marshaling the church to defeat this sucker one more time in the presbyteries,” and trying to encourage pastors of some of the denomination’s largest churches “not to quit on the church or to quit the church.”

Deborah Block, a pastor from Milwaukee and co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which has worked to remove the “fidelity and chastity” standard, said “the positive vote today reflects an interest in continuing the conversation at the presbytery level. It’s a live issue.”