The ongoing dialogue on LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

This summer, General Assembly commissioners will vote on amending the "Book of Order" to include sexual orientation and gender identity among the categories against which the PC(USA) will not discriminate.

While the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has opened the way for gay individuals to be ordained, there remains an active discussion of sexual orientation in the church and society.

Commissioners at the 226th General Assembly (GA) will vote on a proposed overture to add more inclusive language to the Book of Order to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Meanwhile, members of the Advocacy Committee for LBGTQIA+ Equity (ACQ+E)  will attend their first GA as a group. 

Advocates for LBGTQIA Presbyterians are hopeful the overture will pass and that the committee will be a passionate and representative voice for people who at times have felt unheard in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But some people view the overture as a step in the wrong direction.

The Fellowship Community (TFC) , a network of Presbyterian churches, released a statement saying, “Our hope is that the overture fails. We hope that the General Assembly commissioners will recognize that their task is to enrich the whole church, and not just those they agree with.”

The statement was released in April because people were contacting the organization about the proposed overture, and the TFC did not want that to be the focus of their national gathering in late April, according to Mike McClenahan, president of FTC and senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in Solana Beach, California.

But the statement illustrates an ongoing controversy on the interpretation of theology regarding sexual orientation and gender identity among Presbyterians and other denominations — and within American society.

The overture has been assigned to the Polity Committee and so is now known as POL-01. The proposed amendment was submitted by the Olympia Presbytery and would change two sections of the Book of Order. The first section of the overture would add LBGTQIA+ members to the list of “protected classes” against which the PC(USA) will not tolerate discrimination. The second segment, which has drawn objection from The Fellowship Community, could lead some presbyteries to deny ordination to candidates who do not affirm the denomination’s principles of non-discrimination and representation.  

From a parliamentary standpoint, it is possible that GA could decide to split the overture and vote separately on parts 1 and 2. Brian Ellison, executive director of Covenant Network of Presbyterians, hopes both part pass.

“Part 1 is about the denomination clearly stating its values,” Ellison said. “Part 2 is about putting those values into action as we make ordination decisions. I hope we pass both parts.”

The ACQ+E committee, which currently has five members, had nothing to do with proposing the overture, but the committee advocates for the LBGTQIA+ community within and outside of the denomination. The committee will discuss the proposed Book of Order amendment and submit a comment called “Advice and Counsel” by May 11. The comment will be posted on PC-Biz soon after to make it available to the public.  

“We’re not to just make sure things are going smoothly and the current policies, practices and beliefs are being upheld, but also to give information and feedback on the ones coming up so when people discuss them, they have that perspective in mind,” said committee member Ashley DeTar Birt, a teaching elder and co-director of the nonprofit The Center for Jubilee Practice.

“We are working to update outdated documents, policies and structures so we can get everybody in the PC(USA) on board with the current perspective of the LBGTQIA+ community,” said Salina Brett, a deacon and also member of the ACQ+E committee.

Brent said the group will work to align the denomination with what longstanding advocates in the LBGTQIA+ community such as the Covenant Network and More Light (Presbyterians) desire, “so that we provide a consistent message and each of us is able to do our part in bringing the PC(USA) denomination to a place of equity.”

In 2018, the 223rd GA approved OVT-049: On Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities. That GA also assigned a task force to investigate the need for an Advocacy Committee for LBGTQIA+ concerns. In 2022 at GA225, the task force recommended its creation and the ACQ+E became the Presbyterian Church’s third advocacy committee in addition to: the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee and the Advocacy Committee for Women and Gender Justice. Advocacy committees do not vote at the Assembly, but they are among the few groups with the ability to submit “Advice and Counsel” to the commissioners who do vote.

 There are currently five people on the newest advisory committee, though members expect to fill at least two more seats. The application period was extended after the General Assembly Nominating Committee (GANC) initially did not receive a diverse pool of applicants.

“They got enough applications but did not get the type of diversity that they knew would be necessary to do this type of work,” said committee member Birt.

ACQ+E members express deep gratitude and respect for the work that has been done within the denomination by advocates before there was an “official” advocacy group.

“We acknowledge them and we have been humbled by the history of the movement,” said committee member Omar Gonzalez, pastor of College Park Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.

Gonzalez said he is “a straight male Hispanic ally” of the LBGTQIA+ community. “A lot of this intersects for me in the area of discrimination. Lots of people I love – family and friends – identify as LBGTQIA+, but I have experienced the hurt and harm of discrimination by the church at-large,” Gonzales said. “That has been a real burden in my heart, especially when I read about Jesus Christ being the bridge builder.”

Mike McClenahan, president of The Fellowship Community, said his members do not want to discriminate against anyone but are concerned the proposed overture would force everyone to believe the same thing. The network’s statement says: “To be clear, we continue to believe that scripture teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that celibacy in singleness is our calling outside of marriage.”

“I think the big question or concern is if this passes, where that puts people in our network who would not want to discriminate but want to hold their theological convictions when it comes to elders, deacons and pastors. Most of us don’t find ourselves in churches monolithic about this issue,” McClenahan said.

Stopping discrimination is exactly why the overture is needed, said Claudia Aguilar Rubalcava, director of engagement for More Light Presbyterians (MLP), one of the organizations that has dedicated itself to advocating for LBGTQIA+ people in the PC(USA).

“This is a necessary step because many congregations do not live up to the guarantees of inclusion currently provided in our Book of Order,” Rubalcava said. “I know dozens of instances in which friends and colleagues have been politely excluded from hiring processes, dismissed from the ordination process, and even asked to refrain themselves from worship leadership because of their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation. But my main concern is that in many of these instances, churches have gotten around the Book of Order using other excuses to discriminate such as: “This is not in your job description,” “This is not a validated call,” “You are not exactly what we are looking for.” Churches have gotten really good at masking their discriminatory practices and this is a step in the right direction but not the end of our work.”

In 2011, the polity in the PC(USA) changed to allow the ordination of LGBTQ+ individuals.  In 2014, Bertram Johnson became the first openly gay Black man to be ordained in PC(USA). Johnson finished seminary in 1996 but said he abandoned the process of becoming a pastor because it was clear to him the denomination did not want him to serve in that capacity.

“The church had an ongoing debate on sex and sexuality and here it is almost 30 years later we are still having it,” said Johnson, a chaplain at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a therapist at a psychotherapy practice.

At some point, he said he asked himself: “Why do I want to be a part of a group that doesn’t want me?” For a number of years, he was content to serve in every capacity he was allowed to serve in, even basically volunteering to perform the duties of an associate pastor. Around the time PC(USA) polity changed, a pastor nudged him to return to the ordination process.

“I had a lot of skepticism. I didn’t trust the church to be a place that would embrace me,” said Johnson. 

 He is troubled by The Fellowship Community statement.

“That fear I had in 2011 is still warranted in many ways. It is exhausting,” he said of his personal struggle for equity in the church, as well as the movement led by others.

After the ACQ+E submits its Advice and Counsel, members will be available as a resource for commissioners at the online committee and in-person plenary sessions in Salt Lake City. Commissioners on the Polity Committee will discuss the overture and make recommendations to the full body in the plenary session.

If approved by the General Assembly, any amendment to the Book of Order must be voted on by presbyteries within one year. If a majority of the denomination’s 166 presbyteries approve, the amendment will go into effect one year following the GA at which the amendment was proposed.