The voting in presbyteries is still under way, and however it turns out, it’s clear the denomination will be far from united on an issue that has roiled it at least since the 1990s.
Under a rule imposed 14 years ago, those being ordained must practice fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. For non-celibate gays and lesbians to gain ordination eligibility a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries would have to vote to revoke that rule.
Amendment 10-A, which would make that change, currently has momentum, although many presbyteries have yet to vote. As of late March, 14 presbyteries had switched from favoring “fidelity and chastity” to voting for change, while only one had moved in the other direction.
But Presbyterians remain closely divided on the question, as shown by the 67-67 deadlock in voting March 16 in the Presbytery of West Jersey. Presbytery members then voted to give time for more prayer and discernment and to come back for a second vote May 17.
Whether 10-A passes this year or not, both its supporters and some opponents predict change will come sooner or later. Presbyterians are trying to sort out the potential impact if that happens, both within and outside the denomination.
Some evangelicals are working hard to defeat 10-A. The Presbyterian Renewal Network has initiated “The Campaign to Reclaim Biblical Teaching,” stating in its resource materials that “the authority of Scripture is at the heart of the trouble” in the Christian church today. “The diminishing of Scripture to the status of one authority among many is the underpinning of the effort to bring sweeping changes to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” the Renewal Network states.
Those who signed a white paper this winter calling the PC(USA) “deathly ill” are encouraging conversation about whether part of the answer might come from a non-geographic synod in which Presbyterians who share common theological views could gather. “This will become an absolute necessity” if the denomination’s ordination standards change, the group stated in a document called “Markers for the Way Forward,” posted on its Web site March 11.
If the “fidelity and chastity” standard is removed, the white paper group is asking those who favor opening ordination to sexually active gays and lesbians to work with them to:
» “address the widespread promiscuity in our churches;”
» protect the ecclesiastical and legal rights of those who oppose such a change to teach and preach in conformity to “the traditional Christian consensus” regarding same-sex relationships;
» form positive relations with churches more conservative than the PC(USA).
Progressives too are giving thought to what might come next.
Michael Adee is executive director of More Light Presbyterians, which has worked for years to change the PC(USA)’s ordination standards.
“I am sad to see the appeals to fear, to the threat of schism” if the ordination standards change, Adee said in an interview. “People are saying, ‘If this passes, there’s no place in the church for me.’ . . . I’m not only puzzled by those kinds of responses, I’m saddened by them. What I believe about our church is that there is room at the table for all . . . It’s God’s church. It’s God’s table. There is room for all.”
Adee also contends that the PC(USA) can learn by considering what changed – and what didn’t – when the denomination decided to ordain women.
Sexism didn’t end when the vote took place, he said. “It is still challenging for women to get a call (to serve in ministry), particularly a second call, and there is still cultural work to be done . . . When policy change happens, the cultural change is equally if not more important than the policy change.”