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Discussion on non-discrimination overture POL-01 heats up ahead of GA committee meetings

Some say the changes challenge ‘freedom of conscience.’ Others feel the overture offers clarity to the PC(USA)’s stand against discrimination.

Even as Pride month celebrations take place around the country and in many Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations, the debate over the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons within the life of the denomination has not been fully settled.

Discussion and comments on overture POL-01, which expands Book of Order language around non-discrimination and questions for ordination, have continued since its addition to the docket for the 226th General Assembly (2024) of the PC(USA) meeting later this month in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In question is the extent to which POL-01 will require candidates for ordination to affirm their support for persons regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Divided into two sections, the overture’s first part (Part A) expands the non-discrimination clauses and the second (Part B) addresses affirmations made by candidates for ordination.

To many, the proposed language in Part A of the overture benignly amends Book of Order F-1.0403’s affirmation of the “rich diversity of the Church’s membership” by adding the following bracketed text: “In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, [gender identity, sexual orientation,] disability, geography, or theological conviction.”

However, more than 125 pastors have signed a petition saying Part B of the overture, an amendment to Book of Order G-2.0104b, is an overreach of the freedom of conscience granted PC(USA) ministers, congregations, mid-councils and other entities in their willingness to perform same-gender marriages and/or ordain LGBTQIA+ persons.

“It risks imposing a non-negotiable and rigid standard on an issue where faithful Christians hold differing views.” — a petition against POL-01

These changes, the petition says, are “deeply at odds with our core Reformed tenet of freedom of conscience. Except for affirming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, each ordination question requires a commitment to a mindset, method, ethic, and practice, while allowing for plural interpretations of theology and scripture… 

“It risks imposing a non-negotiable and rigid standard on an issue where faithful Christians hold differing views.”

Tony Sundermeier

In a response published by Presbyterian News Service, the Rev. Dr. Tony Sundermeier and the Rev. Alan Dyer, authors of the statement and members of the Presbyterian Communion group, said, “Our concern is that the second part of the overture seems to open the possibility of weaponizing our polity in such a way that mutual forbearance will no longer be possible or valued.”

Sundermeir said the overture’s second statement is “unnecessary and bad polity,” recounting his support for LGBTQIA+ parishioners and colleagues, noting, “The Olympia Presbytery’s own rationale for the overture heightens our concern that such [inquisitorial] examinations are more than just a theoretical possibility.”

In 2010, General Assembly 219 removed restrictions on ordination for LGBTQIA+ persons by amending Book of Order G-6.0106b through the removal of language regarding relationship status and affirming governing bodies’ role in examining the preparedness of candidates for ordination. Referred to as Amendment 10-A, this change went into effect on July 10, 2011, after a majority of presbyteries approved the measure.

In 2014, General Assembly 221 issued an Authoritative Interpretation (AI), voting 371 for and 238 against, permitting teaching elders to perform any marriage service – ostensibly including same-gender marriages in jurisdictions where allowed at the time – with the approval of the session, while at the same time not requiring the teaching elder to conduct any marriage where their conscience directs against the union.

As approved by the assembly, the AI reads, in part (Outlook emphasis): “Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, so long as it is approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

But saying ministers have the right not to discriminate is not the same as prohibiting discrimination, said the Rev. Ashley Birt, co-director of The Center for Jubilee Practice and a member of the LGBTQIA+ Equity Advocacy Committee.

“It is still really easy to discriminate against people, period, but especially LGBTQ people in our church. Folks will [discriminate] because there’s not the ability to say you can’t,” she said. “When [the Authoritative Interpretation] happened, it was the ability to not discriminate… This doesn’t take us all the way to saying you cannot discriminate, but it does provide clarity around beliefs the Presbyterian Church has had for almost a decade.”

This year’s proposed changes to 2.0104b state candidates for ordination will receive an examination of their “calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry” which “shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.0404) [and in the principles of participation, representation, and non-discrimination found in F-1.0403].”

This amendment has some wondering if it will be used as a litmus test to exclude those with theologically conservative views on human sexuality from ordination. This is concerning to them because, as articulated in the 2014 Authoritative Interpretation, there is space in the denomination for those who fully support the full inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations and those who are not able to commit to this ideology.

On May 9, 2024, a theologically diverse Presbyterian study group issued a statement affirming Part A of the overture, recognizing that “queer persons are under attack in many settings” and should protected from discrimination in the life of the church. But their statement went on to call the change to Part B “bad practice” in that “[i]t elevates one paragraph of the Book of Order over all the rest.”

Written by Barbara Wheeler, former President of Auburn Seminary, and the Rev. Chris Currie, Senior Pastor of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, they said the amendment to 2.0104b should be rejected because it could encourage discriminatory practices toward theologically conservative or evangelical pastors “who seek responsibly to serve the denomination and who are promised non-discrimination on theological grounds by the same section that is proposed to be amended.”

Currie said the group hopes the polity committee will consider dividing the overture into two components and consider them separately.

“Everyone that signed our statement understands the ways laws around the country are criminalizing the LGBTQIA+ community, and all of us are speaking with one voice in our commitment to anti-discrimination of our LGBTQIA+ siblings in Christ,” said Currie.

Still, others see the amendment as an opportunity to affirm a willingness to work and minister alongside those of differing theological convictions.

“This is not a screening question to root out conservatives,” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and Stated Clerk for the Synod of Mid-America. “This is a requirement that we pay attention to our commitments and that candidates be able to talk about that.”

“This is not a screening question to root out conservatives … This is a requirement that we pay attention to our commitments and that candidates be able to talk about that.” — Brian Ellison

Ellison believes the questioning could, and should, also be directed at those with more progressive views on human sexuality.

“Let’s be honest, I think this could go the other way, too,” he said. “I think an LGBTQ candidate could be asked, ‘You know F-1.0403 says that we are inclusive of people with different theological perspectives. Can you minister to those who disagree with you?’

“As a person who advocates for LGBTQ issues, I should be able to talk about that. That is fair game. I should absolutely be able to be asked about that at my next ordination exam or my next installation exam.”

Brian Ellison

While not included as text of the suggested Book of Order changes, the rationale given by Olympia Presbytery, the overture’s authoring agency, includes the example of two candidates for ordination who held non-affirming positions for LGBTQIA+ persons. Since gender identity and sexual orientation were not included in the Book of Order’s list of non-discriminatory classes, the authors say the overture is an attempt to provide transparency to their ability to examine candidates for ordination in their jurisdiction.

“It was clear that the pastors were on the more conservative end of that spectrum and a handful of us felt concerned about how they might handle being a colleague in ministry to other folks or what it might look like for youth to come to their church, thinking that Presbyterians are generally affirming,” said the Rev. Dexter Kearny, one of the four overture authors from Olympia Presbytery, adding one candidate did receive authorization for ministry while the other was denied.

“I want to be affirming, but I also want to follow the Book of Order and the Book of Order currently allows for discrimination against our LGBTQ+ siblings based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said. “So a handful of us got together to write what we thought might help the Book of Order and might help other presbyteries be more clear on ‘is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) going to allow discrimination against people based on sexual orientation?’”

In comments added to the overture, several groups have fully endorsed both parts of the overture, including the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Advocacy Committee for Women and Gender Justice (ACWGJ) and, at its first assembly as an official advisory body, the LGBTQIA+ Equity Advocacy Committee (ACQ+E).

But advice from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) is mixed. They endorse Part A as standard for membership saying the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons is a “positive affirmation of this principle through constitutional amendment is consistent with this witness” in the PC(USA)’s constitution.

Brooke Scott

On Part B, the ACC concludes its rationale by saying there is no conflict with other sections of the Book of Order and that questions of candidates for ordination are currently adequate. While not discouraging an affirmation of this second section of the overture, the ACC said “The proposed language to the examination requirements is redundant.”

For some LGBTQIA+ clergy, the discussion on POL-01 and whether it conforms with the Book of Order is more personal.

“What is most surprising for me is that people are making it out to be a polity issue,” said the Rev. Brooke Scott, a pastor in Delaware and board member of More Light Presbyterians. “I think the intention [of talking about polity] is ‘How do we be really, really clear and fair in our language.’ But the impression is that you don’t care about us. You don’t actually want to prioritize us, and it feels like we’re taking steps backwards…

“What is most surprising for me is that people are making it out to be a polity issue. … The impression is that you don’t care about us.” — Brooke Scott

“The impact, I think emotionally, has completely had the opposite effect.”

Discussion on this and other business before General Assembly 226 will continue when committees begin their online meetings June 25, 2024.