Presbyterians may allow non-celibate gays to be pastors

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.)”

Updated: June 29, 2008 — 11:53 am

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  1. If relegion is based on historical documents and churches and congregations obtain their status by the course of study in these documents, what do you become when you stray to the far left or far right of the teachings? Are you a cult? Is it expected (the entity)to progress from the knowledge presented to us? Just some questions churning in my brain.

  2. Perplexed, I think what you become is responsive to the changing times. It’s clear that, during the time the New Testament was written, there was nothing remotely like the type of committed homosexual relationships that exist today. People were, though, allowed to have multiple wives and own slaves. Today, we’re not allowed to have multiple spouses, or own slaves, though the Bible found those things perfectly permissible, but our society does allow homosexual relationships.

    Churches like the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians have recognized this and changed the formal rules to accomodate it. I don’t imagine the Methodists will be far behind, and I’m sure the UCC either already has gay and lesbian ministers or soon will have. The more conservative denominations will hang on awhile longer, just as they did on issues of race in the ’50s and ’60s, but I expect they’ll eventually come around, too.

  3. One can believe that God’s truth is eternal and yet the world changes. When I became an adult, my parents treated me differently from when I was a child. Cannot God also love us as before, though we have changed?

    We do not have to choose between believing God on the one hand and understanding more about the world we live in on the other hand.

  4. This is the Catholic dilemma, how do you progress and follow the word, literally. It has cause many a strife in the church and will continue to do so until there can be some sort of modern interpretation of the Bible.

  5. Well, the Catholic dogma has never been to follow the Bible literally, nor has this been the dogma of most progressive protestant denominations. It is only the fundamentalist protestants, and to a degree the evangelicals, who believe in anything like a literal interpretation of the Bible.

  6. Caleb: “but our society does allow homosexual relationships.” the key words here are “our society”; it was the ‘society’ in ancient times that allowed multiple wives and slaves, in the beginning it was not so.
    I am one of those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible (ms. Sola Scriptura) However, I do not necessarily believe in every interpretation for it is such, in today’s society, that can lead us to “unbelief” in the validity of the Bible; or at best to question it authenticity. It is do to ‘interpretation’ that the different demonations have come about further causing confussion as to the one true-religion, and the ‘falling away’ mentioned in 2 Thessalonians.
    Jeremiah 14:14-16 gives a stern warning to false prophets and those who follow them. Still yet, verse 18 states that if we look about and see the sick and famine then the false prophet has already been there, and they knew it not. Sounds like today’s society written so long ago.

  7. Once again, the Vatican council decides who ,what, and where , under the direction of the Pope for us. The Pope is the one that can change the interpretation for us, but he has to convince the Cardinals and the Bishops that his form of theology is in fact the course of study we need to change to. On the other hand, you take John Paul, who died recently, many of us consider him to be a saint. When I saw him in Columbia, South Carolina in 1987, there was an aura of energy around him that to this day has no explanation, scientific of course. The point I’m trying to make is if a man or women can come in and have the presence to change things, yet they go in a different direction, such as serving the poor, wouldn’t the issue of gay be a mute point.

  8. Peach, I think you’ve hit upon the problem, if unwittingly. When one untangles what you said, it amounts to “I believe the Bible as long as it says what I want it to say.” I do, too. When the Bible says to love your neighbor, I agree with it. When it says you’re able to sell your daughter into slavery, or that it is just for a Christian to own slaves, I don’t agree with it. And, when it says that homosexuality is wrong, and makes no provision for monogamous long term relationships such as those we see today, I don’t agree with it, either.

    But it would be wrong for me to go through all the steps that fundamentalists go through to say that they believe in the Bible, but it just doesn’t really truly totally mean what it says. This is not intellectually honest. I think we’ve got to face the fact, as Christians, that the Bible is wonderful, but incomplete as a tool for teaching us about modern social relationships.

    Perplexed, I have to quibble with your statement a bit, too. If one takes “orthodox” Catholicism seriously (which admittedly, I don’t), one is taught, based on the teachings of the first Vatican council in the 1870s, that the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Church is resident in only one person: The Pope himself, when he speaks ex cathedra, or on behalf of the church. The College of Cardinals has no authority other than the election of a new Pope. Church councils may be called only at the direction of the Pope, and mean exactly what he says they mean. As a practical matter, the Pope has got to live here, too, and can’t very well blunder around like a bull in a china shop, offending everyone else in the church, but that’s a practical limitation on his power, not a theoretical one.

    If the Pope decided tomorrow that priests would be allowed to marry, that gays and women could be ordained as priests, or even that the Bible is no longer canonical, he could do so with the stroke of a pen. In Latin, of course. And, all those old hidebound conservatives that you beloved JPII brought in, who love to froth on about the power of the magisterium, would become apoplectic, and suddenly, not so much interested in the magisterium anymore. It’s fascinating that there is a hard core ultra conservative wing of the Catholic Church that doesn’t believe that any Pope since Pius XII died in 1958 is a “real” Pope. They believe this because they believe in the magisterium of the Papacy, but refuse to believe that the teachings of John XXIII, Paul VI, JPI, and JPII (and, one supposes, the current occupant) are consistent with traditional Catholicism. This rather reminds me of the fundamentalists who believe every word in the Bible except the ones they don’t agree with.

  9. Couple of things to consider Caleb, why do you think the Cardinals elect Popes in their 80′s. John Paul was an exception. Those that have held onto the beliefs of Pope Pius are knocking on the door to Heaven as we speak.
    With progressive religion, how much is lost to the congregation on political matters. Take the gay issue. Why should that trump the needs of the poor. It does! If you are gay and your agenda is gay your are putting it second to God. If you are serious about your work, it will speak for itself and gay isn’t and wouldn’t be an issue. All of this energy and resources is not about religion and it takes from the poor, literally.

  10. Perplexed, I think your argument is greatly overreaching. I worked for 20 years as a legal aid lawyer for the poor in Eastern Kentucky. My being gay posed no more limit on my ability to help families escape from domestic violence, keep a safe and sanitary roof over their heads, obtain health insurance they were legally entitled to, or get paid the wages they were owed for the work they performed. The only barriers were imposed by the prejudice of some colleagues or judges who tried to make my job more difficult because of personal prejudice against me (similar to experiences of female, or Jewish or non-white attorneys at different times in different locations in Appalachia).

    My straight colleagues were neither expected to abandon all hope of a family or keep their mouths shut about their hopes and dreams for a spouse and family, at risk of losing their job because of the prejudice of a supervisor. When they got married, they got time off for a honeymoon. When their kids had ball games or school plays, they got to rework their schedules. When their family members got sick, they rightfully used their sick leave to care for their loved ones. They were financially supported in maintaining health insurance for their families. We had office showers to celebrate their weddings and births. All of which I fully support.

    No one ever suggested their “heterosexual agenda” limited in any way their commitment and expenditure of resources to help the poor.

    i believe what you are really saying is that the energy and resources our religious institutions are committing to finding the just and proper relationship with gay people in their midst is not as important as devoting church resources to serving the poor. Aside from the obvious dehumanization of gay people as less deserving than poor people, this argument can also be made for many of the activities of modern churches: extravagant and oppulent buildings; church pageants; youth trips to amusement parks; raising and spending large sums of money to support antigay laws; etc. all of which literally take from the poor.

    Would you have a similar message for ecumenical and interfaith dialog: Don’t waste my time as a Christian serving the poor by talking to me about how we can respect each other as humans without conflict?

  11. Dennis, if we all had similar goals based upon the same objectives, we could get along. Its only when the single goal interferes with group goal that things get out of hand.

  12. Caleb: It wouldn’t say ‘unwittingly’ I put a lot of thought into things, granted I am not always graceful in expressing it on paper.
    What I was trying to say is that today, as in ancient times, laws were made by what ‘society’ was doing anyways. A law cannot be broken until it has been written down. People in ancient times for various reasons (poverty, material gain) had to sell their children or themselves into slavery, this does not men it was right or wrong. Moses was compelled to write the right and wrong ways , the how-to’s–this does not mean God ordained those laws-for in the beginning it was not so. Our laws today, whether they be on abortion or same-sexed marriages, divorce, adultry, and host of other things, has been made by what the majority of society is doing or wanting to do; this still does not mean it is in alignment with God’s word.
    Satan is a master for taking one verse out of the Bible and paraphrasing it mean all together something else; Judge not, lest ye be judged (Matthew 7:1) is an all time favorite for those who want to “sin”. If one continues reading verses 3-5, Jesus was here talking to the hypocrite-which many of us are- yet we in today’s society have turned it around to mean: each individual can do as they please, without retribution–for we all sin; but society often fails to tell people that it is OK to judge others per 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 chapters.
    Jeremiah 14 merely says that just because you follow someone who leads you down the wrong path does not necessarily mean you will still enter His heaven, it is still up to the individual to seek the truth–the whole truth–and not just one verse.

  13. If you get right down to the nitty-gritty, the brass-tax, the bottomline, cut through the chase, it comes down to two things: #1-If the Presbyterians are right about allowing gay pastors to pastor churches, that would make Baptist and others who preach against homosexuality, totally wrong. #2-If the Presbyterians are wrong about allowing gay pastors, that would mean the Baptists and others are right about their stance on homosexual unions and church officials. to add a third, #3-Do we have a written word that is clear-cut, yea or nay?

  14. Okay, Mike, for once I agree with you. I think that the Presbyterians (and my own Episcopal Church) are totally right to allow gay and lesbian pastors, and I think the Baptists and others who don’t are totally wrong. I assume that the Baptists think that the Presbyterians and Episcopalians are totally wrong, and that the Methodists are about to get that way (if my finger is remotely attune to the way the wind is blowing).

    Now, that’s just my opinion. I don’t try to influence the Baptists to do or not do anything; they have their church and I have mine, and the price of their not interfering in my church is that I don’t interfere in theirs.

    As far as your question as to whether there’s a “clear text,” the answer is no. I’ve repeated my essay on the Anglican three legged stool enough times that everyone here knows the position of the traditional churches on this: The Bible is a factor in theological decisions, but hardly the only factor. If other denominations would be honest, they’d admit that this is their interpretation as well. After all, this is a document which, in the same passage that many people cite to oppose gays and lesbians, gives explicit instructions on how to sell one’s own daughter into slavery, a practice largely frowned on today even by the Baptists. It is clear that male homosexuality was widely practiced in the Roman Empire and largely associated either with idol worship or the exploitation of young men by older ones. Lesbianism doesn’t seem to have come under the same attack, perhaps because there was less of a history of oppression. There is no evidence that the type of voluntary, consensual and non-abusive relationships among same sex couples that exists now existed then.

    I’m not anti-Bible, but a bit of common sense and honesty has to intrude at some point, if one is to take the gospel of Jesus seriously.

  15. Well, I still have trouble with the gay issue taking precedent over the christian issue. A good christian is a servant to God and his actions will excel him or her in their quest to serve God, gay or not. The gay issue is a mute point, the point should be service to God. We all face prejudices daily.

  16. I always thought and still think of you as a good man Caleb, I know we haven’t always agreed, but I have always respected you, now for the rest of the story, in not really wanting to argue, I have my beliefs on gay marriages, gay pastors, I don’t agree with this. However, the main goal of the church, is to lead the lost to Christ, and feed the children of God through the word, and teach them to pray. I try hard to stay off the hobby horse stuff.

  17. Mike, if you think giving equal rights to everyone is a “hobby horse” issue, you should talk to the people affected by it. Was inclusion of women into the fold of Christ a hobby horse issue? Not to the women. Was inclusion of blacks and other minority groups a hobby horse issue? Not to those who had been discriminated against. If you’ll recall, the very first theological issue ever considered by the early church was whether to include “Greeks” who had not first converted to Judaism into the fold. And the answer was yes. St. Paul scoffed at the idea that there was litmus test for inclusion into God’s church. And we should, too.

    I agree that the function of any church is to bring the love of Christ to everyone. The problem is that I take the word “everyone” seriously. I don’t think it means just people we like. I understand that there’s a lot of homophobia in this country, especially in the South. I also recall that thirty and forty years ago, there was a lot of racism in this country, not limited to, but prevalent in, the South. The southern churches in those days were just as adamently against the inclusion of blacks in the full fellowship of their folds as they are today in excluding gays and lesbians. They claimed to have biblical authority for what they did then, and they claim to have biblical authority for what they do today.

    I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. Look back sometime at speeches and sermons given in the ’50s and ’60s by otherwise good, upright, Christian people, and you’ll see that it is quite possible for big portions of God’s children to be significantly out of touch with reality. Intolerance was neither a Christian nor a family value then, and it’s not today, either.

  18. As a life long Presbyterian, I can tell you that Presbyterians are Biblical Christians. Presbyterians were against slavery before the civil war as being wrong, the Baptist felt slavery was justified by the bible. Would any Baptist dare stand up today with a Bible in hand and say the Bible justifies slavery? I think not. David and Jonathan are ones that need to be looked at today as being a gay couple. Christ never said a word about gays. The gay issue has only been an issue the last 40 years. Search the internet on gays in the Bible. See what you find.

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