Presbyterian assembly votes to drop gay clergy ban
By ERIC GORSKI
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), bitterly divided over sexuality and the Bible, set up another confrontation Friday over its ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians.
The denomination’s General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., voted 54 percent to 46 percent Friday to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
The proposed change to the church constitution requires approval from a majority the nation’s 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies — a yearlong process that has proven to be a barrier to similar efforts in the past.
Of equal importance to advocates on both side of the debate, the assembly also voted to allow gay and lesbian candidates for ordination to conscientiously object to the existing standard. Local presbyteries and church councils that approve ordinations would consider such requests on a case-by-case basis.
That vote was an “an authoritative interpretation” of the church constitution rather than a change to it, so it goes into effect immediately. The interpretation supersedes a ruling from the church’s high court, issued in February, that said there were no exceptions to the so-called “fidelity and chastity” requirement.
Both votes could put further strain on the 2.2-million member church, which like other mainline Protestant denominations has seen some conservative churches leave after losing battles over the place of gays and lesbians in the church and what the Bible says about gay relationships.
Another vote Friday signaled the church was not eager to change another institution. The assembly voted 77 percent to 33 percent to preserve the church’s definition of marriage as a covenant between “a man and a woman,” rather than changing it to “two people.”
The denomination allows ministers to bless same-sex unions, but the ceremonies can’t mimic marriage ceremonies.
“My biggest concern is, ‘How does the church move forward?’” said the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the General Assembly. “There’s great disappointment in some folks and great joy in others, but it really does go back to how do we as a church model for the world a way to live together amid great diversity of opinion?”
Jon Walton, co-moderator of the San Francisco-based Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which advocates a broader role for gays and lesbians, hailed the ordination votes Friday, calling it “a day we’ve been waiting almost 30 years to see happen.” He also expressed hope church members can move forward together.
The denomination adopted the “chastity and fidelity” clause in 1996, replacing language that had the same effect: prohibiting non-celibate gays and lesbians from ministry.
The proposed new language would demand candidates “pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions.”
By agreeing to that, “they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church.” A presbytery or church council could decide that a gay or lesbian person does not meet that standard.
“This week the General Assembly voted from faith rather than fear,” Lisa Larges, minister coordinator of the advocacy group That All May Freely Serve, said in a statement. “They voted for a vibrant future of our church … ”
More conservative Presbyterians can take comfort in the fact that twice before — in 1997 and 2001 — the nation’s presbyteries overwhelmingly rejected efforts to rescind the gay ordination ban.
Ministers and elders who vote at the church’s General Assembly meetings generally are more liberal, and in the next step small conservative presbyteries have an equal vote as those of larger liberal ones.
Paul Detterman, executive director of Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterians for Renewal, which opposes changing the ordination standards, said the debate is not about homosexuality but following the Bible.
For much of Christian history, denominations have interpreted Scripture as prohibiting gay sex.
“From the evangelical perspective this is a lovers’ quarrel,” Detterman said. “We are so passionate about people understanding and knowing the love of God for them. If there’s a situation where we were simply against gays, there are a lot of easier places to be than the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”