PC(USA) opens door to ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. Vote may be prelude to ‘seismic’ change

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has dropped its prohibition on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians – prompting some to rejoice in a move towards equality and others to lament what they see as the denomination’s spiritual decline.

The historic move will end a 14-year-old requirement that those being ordained as ministers, elders or deacons practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. That rule had survived three previous challenges, most recently in 2009, although the vote that year was closer than ever.

On May 10, Twin Cities Presbytery became the 87th presbytery to vote in favor of Amendment 10-A, by a vote of 205-56.

That means a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries have now voted “yes” on a proposed constitutional change that the General Assembly endorsed in 2010 by a vote of 373-323. The change will take effect after the remaining presbyteries finish voting this summer.

The outcome came as no surprise either to supporters or opponents of 10-A. The trend toward approval became clear weeks ago.

So far, 19 presbyteries have switched from voting against the proposed change in ordination standards in 2009 to voting in favor this year. Only three presbyteries switched from a “yes” vote two years ago to a “no” vote this time.

That shift adds the PC(USA) to the list of mainline Protestant denominations willing to consider allowing gays and lesbians in committed partnerships to serve in pastoral leadership. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made that move in 2009, causing some congregations to depart to join more conservative Lutheran bodies.

The United Church of Christ also permits the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians, and the Episcopal Church has been rocked by dissent over its decision to allow the election of openly gay bishops.

A search for the ‘sweet spot’

Many evangelicals consider such a policy contrary to Christian teaching and tradition. It is expected the Presbyterian change in ordination standards – which one group recently described as “seismic” – will anger some of the PC(USA)’s international partners and cause some congregations and individuals to leave the denomination.

Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, said he knows some congregations are considering pulling out of the PC(USA). But he stresses that ordination decisions will remain the responsibility of local governing bodies – and that some will choose not to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians.

“The ultimate hope is that nobody leaves, that everybody stays and we find a way to live together in this,” Parsons said. “I think certainly the way the legislation is written, nobody has to be forced to do anything they think is contrary to their conscience.

“What I hope for, my quest, is to find the ecclesiastical and polity sweet spot, for lack of a better term, where everybody’s gifts can be respected and everybody’s integrity can be respected. So that people don’t feel they have to compromise their core beliefs, and at the same time we can receive the gifts of people who want to give them to the ministry of the church.”

PC(USA) leaders are hoping to prepare Presbyterians at the grass roots by releasing interpretive materials, including a pastoral letter – recognizing, as Parsons said, that “people read about it in their local newspapers before they read about it in the Sunday bulletin” at their church.

Good interpretive materials should help Presbyterians talk to people in other denominations about what the change means, he said.

Outpourings of joy – and dismay

Now, Presbyterians are bracing for the reaction – both from those who exult that gays and lesbians can be honest about their sexual orientation and still have a chance to serve in church leadership, and those who think the denomination has chosen a sinful path.

Both the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians have worked for years to remove the “fidelity and chastity” restriction from the PC(USA) constitution. Their supporters are thrilled at what they see as a matter of justice in the church and a recognition of the gifts for ministry that many gays and lesbians now will be able to exercise in church leadership.

They also point out that the vote is just one step – and that hard work remains to be done to help sessions and presbyteries understand the implications of the changes.

The PC(USA) also is likely to continue to debate what its policy should be regarding same-gender marriages. That issue came up before the 2010 General Assembly, which left intact language in the PC(USA) Book of Order that defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman. It’s expected that presbyteries will present more overtures proposing changing that definition to the General Assembly in 2012.

Within the church, “the cultural change is equally if not more important as the polity change,” said Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians. “People are having to think again, or maybe for the first time, about these real possibilities. What would it mean to have a gay minister? Is homosexuality sinful or not? Can gay people be moral people too?”

Some evangelical Presbyterians, on the other hand, are questioning whether there is still room for them in the PC(USA).

“Even for those who have been following the voting, the reality of this change is a source of unspeakably deep grief,” the Issues Ministry Team of Presbyterians for Renewal wrote recently, in a document intended to help church leaders prepare their congregations for the change.

“While in some ways this vote is just another step in the ongoing disintegration of a denomination we have known and loved, this particular vote verifies the deep and unquestionable divisions among us—and consummates a significant institutional departure from the Christian faith we have been called to proclaim.  For those who love the Presbyterian Church, this is a form of death.”

Talk of ‘new connections’

Already, evangelical Presbyterians are deep into conversation about what to do next – a discussion jump-started in part by a white paper that 45 pastors released in February declaring the PC(USA) to be “deathly ill.” That group has announced plans for a gathering in Minneapolis Aug. 25-26, and it has called for an exploration of ways that Presbyterians who share theological convictions can form “new connections.”

What that will mean in concrete terms remains unclear.

In a recent letter sent by e-mail, the group behind the white paper wrote that “we are committed to starting a new Reformed body without leaving the PC(USA).” The authors spoke of forming “theological subsets” within several current presbyteries, and of petitioning for 10 to 15 new presbyteries to be recognized soon.

As a result of that discussion, some congregations that might consider leaving the PC(USA) may wait – at least for a while – to see what other options emerge.

It is expected that some congregations consisting principally of racial or ethnic minorities or immigrants, including many Korean Presbyterian churches, will be distressed by the change in ordination standards.

“For some of them, this is a very challenging issue,” Parsons said. “But there’s certainly not a uniform opinion about all that. Historically, they’ve stuck with us through other changes that culturally they had struggles with, so I hope they stick with us through this one.”

What tipped the scales?

Parsons cited several reasons why he thinks Amendment 10-A passed this year.

Some conservative congregations that are unhappy with the PC(USA) already have left to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and that has changed the balance in some presbyteries. Some moderate conservatives, weary of the decades-long controversy and sensing that change was inevitable, wanted to get the vote over with and move on.

“And I think more and more people, as the world turns, have members of their families or their circle of friends who are gay or lesbian, and that changes their perspective also,” Parsons said. “I think the way this particular legislation is written is a fourth reason – people seem to be more accepting of this particular wording” than of previous proposals.

Amendment 10-A removes the “fidelity and chastity” language from the PC(USA) constitution. Presbyteries and sessions still would examine candidates for ordination or installation, with the standard being that a candidate’s “manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.”

The amendment also instructs governing bodies to “be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

That likely would mean that some congregations and presbyteries would ordain gay and lesbians who are involved in relationships – and some more conservative governing bodies would not. Also, a particular governing body might decide to ordain some gays and lesbians but not others, based on individual assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of particular candidates.

“No one will be forced to receive any officer they don’t think is fit in their congregation or in their presbytery,” Parsons said.

“. . . So if a church doesn’t want to have a gay minister, no one is going to force that on them, or a gay elder . . . It really is up to the discretion of the local examining body.”