For more than a decade now, the PC(USA) has required that those being ordained practice fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity if they are single.
If a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries pass Amendment 10-A and the “fidelity and chastity” requirement gets tossed out, how will things change?
Some predict there will be a recalibration of how presbyteries and sessions examine, ordain and install church leaders. But they also stress that no congregation will be required to accept an openly gay leader if the session doesn’t want to.
And the new rules won’t just apply to gays and lesbians. Heterosexual candidates also can expect scrutiny, especially if they are unmarried and live with a romantic partner.
No longer would “fidelity and chastity” be the rule – but that doesn’t mean there would be no rules. Presbyteries and sessions still would have the responsibility to examine candidates for ordination or installation. Language regarding the “manner of life” of candidates would remain in the Book of Order – with the standard being that “their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.”
And there would be the further instruction that “governing bodies shall 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 would not. Also, a particular governing body might decide to ordain some gays and lesbians but not others, based on individual assessments of their backgrounds, faith statements and gifts for ministry.
Conservative presbyteries or congregations might decide to continue applying some version of the “fidelity and chastity” standard. Basically, this would mean they would refuse to ordain any candidate who is sexually active outside of marriage, said Doug Nave, a lawyer involved with the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which has worked for years to change the ordination standards.
“There’s no requirement that you ordain gay or lesbian people,” Nave said. But for congregations or presbyteries willing to do that, the new language would “give sessions or presbyteries more comfort they can ordain the people they want to ordain.”
The new language could lead to difficulty in some circumstances – particularly for ministers seeking to transfer from one presbytery to another or for candidates seeking ordination in closely divided presbyteries.
Clark Cowden, executive presbyter of San Diego presbytery, said he expects to see “a little more scrutinizing of pastors wanting to transfer in” – scrutiny that could become tense in conflicted presbyteries. What if, for example, a more liberal congregation in a mostly conservative presbytery wanted to call a gay pastor living in a committed partnership? “That could be tough,” Nave said – the presbytery might vote to deny that pastor membership.
Also, some gay or lesbian pastors, elders or deacons already serving congregations might choose to publicly disclose their sexual orientation or introduce a partner – which, in individual cases, may or may not come as a surprise.
With the new standards, “it’s not a secret that has to be kept,” said Wilson Gunn, executive presbyter of National Capital Presbytery.
As is true now, the responsibility for examining candidates for ordination or installation would lie with the local governing body. And those bodies would have to decide exactly what is fair ground in that process – what are appropriate questions and what goes too far.
While the common wisdom is that governing bodies need to be consistent by asking the same questions of all candidates, it’s not necessarily clear where the boundaries for such questioning may lie.
Say, for example, that a candidate says nothing about sexual orientation, personal relationships or dating. Is it acceptable to ask?
And don’t forget: The change in policy wouldn’t apply only to gay or lesbian candidates. Heterosexual candidates too might be asked questions about their personal lives and dating relationships.
It is likely that cases would be filed in the church courts to resolve questions about how examinations should be conducted or conflicts over particular ordinations.
Some welcome the chance for presbyteries and sessions to become more thoughtful and intentional about how they conduct such examinations.
“In a way it takes the roles of church officers more seriously and will push people to say `We’re not just filling slots on an organizational chart,’ ” Cowden said. “We really are looking for people who are spiritually mature and have good character. Hopefully it will increase the quality of church officers.”
Some presbyteries may also begin to speak more explicitly about Christian faithfulness and sexual ethics – about what’s expected of church officers.
Gunn is executive presbyter for National Capital Presbytery, which includes churches in Washington D.C., where same-gender marriage is legal. Gunn said he would propose that the presbytery recommend to gay or lesbian candidates living in committed relationships that they go ahead and marry, now that it’s lawful to do so.
“I think we say, `You don’t live together’” outside of marriage, Gunn said. Whether gay or straight, “‘you go get married,’” if you’re in a committed relationship and want to serve in ordained ministry.
Even if the new rules would make it easier for gays or lesbians to be ordained or installed, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be huge numbers of cases. Those wanting to serve as ministers would have to have a call – and there already are many more people seeking jobs as pastors in the PC(USA) than there are positions available.
Some gays and lesbians who wanted to serve in ministry have left the PC(USA) – some to serve in other denominations, some leaving the church altogether because they did not feel welcome.
It’s likely the changes would be felt most quickly in local congregations, as new classes of elders and deacons are elected to serve.
A big point of conversation involves how much room might be made for those whose beliefs and interpretation of Scripture do not allow them, in conscience, to participate in the ordination or installation of sexually-active gays and lesbians.
In some circles, questions are being asked about whether the “Kenyon case” might apply here too – that of Walter Wynn Kenyon, a candidate from Pennsylvania who was denied ordination as a PC(USA) minister in 1974 because he said he could not participate in ordaining women, although he would work with women who had been ordained. Kenyon believed the Bible forbids the ordination of women.
Might the Kenyon principle be applied to the case of someone who could not in conscience participate in the ordination of gays and lesbians?
Who knows? But at the presbytery level, it would be possible for an individual minister to decline to participate in an ordination, while that candidate could still be ordained by other members of the presbytery. It would be more difficult, Nave said, if a minister refused to ordain a gay or lesbian elder or if a presbytery began asking candidates for ordination hypothetical questions about whether they would be willing to participate in ordaining gays and lesbians.
A lot could depend, Nave said on the degree to which Presbyterians at the grassroots see this as a significant issue of conscience – and the extent to which they are willing to show one another mutual forbearance. His advice to those who have worked to change the ordination standards: “Be gracious. We know that hammering people when there’s a matter of conscientious disagreement doesn’t work. People on our side have felt the oppression of that for 30 or 40 years, and we shouldn’t do that to others.”
Some judicial cases now working their way through the church court system might fall by the wayside – for example, that of Scott Anderson, a gay man from Wisconsin who has a long-time partner and who had declared a “scruple,” or objection based on conscience, to the “fidelity and chastity” requirement. John Knox Presbytery accepted Anderson’s scruple in February 2010 and approved him for ordination, but that ordination was challenged, and the case is due to be heard by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission this summer.
Anderson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, previously served as a PC(USA) minister in California, but set aside his ordination in 1990 after two members of the congregation he then was serving publicly disclosed his sexual orientation.
Another pending case involves Lisa Larges, a lesbian from the Presbytery of San Francisco, who declared a scruple saying that the “fidelity and chastity” standard gives same-gender couples an “impossible choice” by not honoring their faithful, covenanted partnerships. San Francisco presbytery approved Larges’ scruple, but a challenge was filed.
If the “fidelity and chastity” language is removed from the PC(USA)’s constitution, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission may set those cases aside.