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The Presbyterian Church (USA)

Gay/lesbian ordination: 1978 to 1997 incl.


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These events deal with whether gays and lesbians in committed relationships can be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

  • 1978 GA: The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America  (UPCUSA) formally welcomed gays and lesbians as members. But they prohibited the ordination of openly homosexual persons. However, they allowed all gay and lesbians who were already ordained to remain members of the clergy.
  • 1983 Merger: Church merger occurred between the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the UPCUSA.
  • 1988: The General Assembly commissioned a report to examine all aspects of the church's approach to human sexuality.
  • 1991: The commissioned report: "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice," contained both a minority and majority statement. General Assembly records indicate that neither was adopted.
  • 1992: The Rev. Janie Spahr, an openly lesbian minister, had been ordained before the General Assembly specifically prohibited such actions in its 1978 Statement. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GA PJC) barred her from accepting a call as either minister or pastor. Also in 1992, Lisa Larges was an openly lesbian candidate for ordination in Rochester NY. The GA PJC prevented her presbytery from declaring her eligible for a call.
  • 1993: The General Assembly called for a 3 year study and dialogue on human sexual behavior and ordination. The assembly voted 72% in favor of continuing a ban on lesbian/gay ordination. Also in 1993, two deacons, one gay and one lesbian had been illegally ordained in Oregon. The GA PJC refused to annul the ordination.
  • 1995: Rumors circulated that the 1st Presbyterian Church of Sag Harbor, NY had ordained openly gay candidates as elder and deacon. The Presbytery of Long Island decided to not have the rumors investigated. Their rationale was that it would disrupt the 3 year study on sexual orientation authorized by the General Assembly in 1993. The GA PJC permitted them to take no action.
  • 1996: The Church's 208th General Assembly, which started on JUN-29 in Albuquerque NM was faced with 45 proposals relating to lesbian and gay ordination:
    • 24 would have altered their Book of Order to specifically prohibit homosexual ordination. Most would have limited ordination to those who are single and celibate or married and monogamous.
    • 20 would have let individual congregations decide for themselves
    • 1 would have continue the study and take no action at this time

    75 congregations (0.6% of the total) have announced that they are willing to ordain homosexual clergy at this time.

    At the General Assembly, John M. Mulder, president of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said that Biblical authority is "right at the heart of this debate," and that both sides use Biblical language to bolster their cause.

    An amendment to the Book of Order was proposed that would have allowed congregations and presbyteries to decide for themselves whether to ordain gays and lesbians. It was defeated 323 to 226.

    The church's "Human Sexuality and Ordination Committee" recommended that candidates for ordination should be either celibate or involved in a monogamous marriage. The delegates agreed, with a vote of 308 to 213 (One source 1 says 313 to 236). (57% to 43%). The Assembly proposed that the Book of Order be amended with what was later called the "Fidelity and Chastity Amendment" or "Amendment B." The text read:

    "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and sacrament."

    This amendment stigmatized gays, lesbians, and unmarried heterosexuals in sexually active relationships.

    Amendments must be approved by a simple majority of the church's presbyteries before they come into force. Then, they have to be accepted at the next year's General Assembly. This amendment implied that:

    • Any gay or lesbian in a committed relationship, or
    • Any heterosexual who was sexually active outside of marriage,

    would be denied ordination, unless they first acknowledged that their behavior is sinful and repent. By implication, repentance includes a commitment to not repeat the act in the future. Also, by implication, any existing deacon, elder or minister who is involved in a homosexual relationship might be dismissed; so too might be any church leader who is sexually active outside of marriage.

  • 1997 Pre-conference activity: The 1996 "Amendment B" proposal had been submitted to the church's 171 presbyteries. As the first presbyteries voted, a slim majority were against the amendment. By 1997-FEB this had switched to become a slim majority in favor. On 1997-MAR-18, the 86th presbytery voted in favor, thus passing Amendment B. The vote showed how closely balanced the two groups are within the church. At the same time, it showed major regional differences in the denomination. Presbyteries throughout New York, New Jersey, the rest of New England and Northern California voted overwhelmingly against the measure; the southeast, Texas, southern California and Pennsylvania strongly supported it. The amendment probably deepened the division within the church.

    Some groups planned to test the amendment's constitutionality within the denomination's court system. Some Presbyterians believed that many ministers (both homosexual and heterosexual) would now leave the church. Many will go to the United Church of Christ which accepts persons of all sexual orientations as clergy. The two churches have similar beliefs and a common origin.

    Concerning Amendment B:

    • Some feared that conservatives within the denomination would start a "witch-hunt" for gays and lesbians if the amendment was approved.
    • Richard Sprott, a part-time professor at California State University and an openly gay elder said "It's urban vs. suburban...As a gay man, it directly affects my participation in a congregation I have been a member of for six years."
    • An article in the Washington Post stated: "Some deacons and elders have privately told their ministers that they plan to resign in protest if it passes. Church scholars say the controversy over homosexuality is so fundamental it could eventually lead to a split in the Presbyterian Church or in other mainline Protestant denominations." 1
    • Rev. Anne McKee, an associate pastor at Farragut Presbyterian Church said: "There are gay and lesbian Presbyterians who exhibit all the gifts of ministry...The entire church is hurt when the ministry is deprived of some of its best leaders."
    • Rev. Laurene Lafontaine, co moderator for Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (PLGC) said: "It is truly a sad and tragic moment in our church's history...The leadership of PLGC, 'More Light Churches Network' and 'That All May Freely Serve' strongly denounce the passage of Amendment B. We are deeply disappointed and outraged that our denomination has chosen to make gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians second class members. Amendment B not only affects gays and lesbians, it affects everyone in the local church including single and divorced persons, who desire to serve God by the imposing of a purity code, unheard of since the Middle Ages."

    The opposition to gay-rights within the church was seen as possibly affecting merger plans of the Presbyterian Church with the United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Episcopal Church.  A Consultation on Church Union (COCU) amendment which would have allowed the church to negotiate a merger was defeated: 36 in favor and 56 against.

    Presbyterians in the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area (Minneapolis/St. Paul) held a meeting on 1997-JAN-11 to discuss Amendment B. They subsequently issued a document titled "Resolution of Witness to the Gospel in Response to Amendment B." They found that the amendment was in "severe conflict" with their understanding of the Gospel and "with the Reformed tradition expressed in the Book of Confessions." On 1997-JUN-10 they issued a Statement of Apology "to all persons whose Christian faith and relationship with the church, as well as their personal God-given dignity, have been assaulted or in any other way diminished by the inclusion of Amendment B in the Constitution of the PCUSA. To those our Christian sisters and brothers so terribly betrayed by their church we say, 'We are truly sorry'".

    On 1997-JUN-4, about 2,000 Presbyterians in at least 18 states took part in the first National Presbyterian Teleconference. They gave members and clergy the opportunity to ask questions of 6 denominational leaders. 23 did so during the 90 minute conference. Several questions referred to Amendment B:

    • General Assembly stated clerk, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, said: "I am deeply pained that congregations, individuals and even one presbytery [Milwaukee] feels it necessary to distance themselves from the polity and discipline of the church." He is opposed to "other tactics that have been used in the past -- such as withholding funds" He advised Presbyterians that their best approach, "no matter what they disagree with, is to work hard to change those things with which they disagree."
    • A woman believed to be a minister from Illinois bluntly asked "Why is the Presbyterian Church prying into my sex life?" Kirkpatrick replied: "We aren't, but many believe it's critical to Christian character how we conduct ourselves sexually...I personally believe it's tragic when we are so absorbed by this one aspect of Christian life that we fail to consider other aspects -- the gospel is so much broader and richer..."
  • 1997 General Assembly: The 209th General Assembly was faced with a major problem. Amendment B had been ratified by a margin of less than 2% of the denomination's membership. It had been rejected by a sizable minority of its Presbyteries, and exposed a major geographical split within the denomination. The Assembly first rejected a minority report from seven members of its Assembly Committee on the "Book of Order". That resolution would have reaffirmed the passage of Amendment B and pledged Presbyterians "to walk together through the grief which is felt by many in the Presbyterian Church and do all we can to embrace each other with the grace of Jesus Christ."

    Rev. Robert (Bob) Browne, of the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in New York commented in PCUSA News on the eternal battle within religious denominations of institutional dogma vs. the belief that "God alone is Lord of the conscience.". He said:

    "Jesus' chief targets were religious leaders who perpetuated their minute control of people's behavior through managing a hypocritical religion of obsessive external regulation... On the other hand, if the institution could seize this moment and respond to it gracefully, this time could generate an outbreak of faith, love, hope and greater truth than we now understand."

    The assembly voted on 1997-JUN-20 to create a new amendment and send it to the Presbyteries for a vote. The vote for Resolution A G-6 was 328 to 217, (60% to 40%). This was slightly greater majority than the original Amendment in 1966.

    Original Amendment B  

    Replacement Amendment A

    Ratified by the presbyteries, 1997 Proposed by the 1997 General Assembly
    The Fidelity and Chastity Amendment The Fidelity and Integrity Amendment 
    G-6.0106b A G-6

    "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and sacrament."

    Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and instructed by the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life. Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office.

     "Amendment A" represented a major change to the original amendment. Candidates for ordination would be required to:

    • be "in obedience to Jesus Christ", who is not recorded as having said anything about homosexuality
    • be "under the authority of Scripture" rather than being "in obedience to Scripture." That is a significant weakening of the statement.
    • be "instructed by" the historical confessional standards of the church rather than in "conformity" with those standards.
    • "demonstrate fidelity and integrity" in all relationships, rather than to be faithful in marriage or celibate if single. This generally-worded phrase could be interpreted as referring to all committed, monogamous relationships, including gay and lesbian unions and heterosexual common-law relationships.

    The new amendment would seem to leave a great deal up to individual interpretation. It would be an obvious first step towards permitting gay and lesbian ordination.

    Members of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (PLGC) and a member of the board of a conservative group Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) held a joint press conference shortly after the vote. A joint meeting was itself an encouraging sign. Scott Anderson of the PLGC called the resolution "a mid-course correction, not a stunning reversal." He said that "Amendment A" would not allow gay or lesbian ordination. "It is a nuance, not so harsh, more gracious," he said. " Fellow board member, Laurene Lafontaine, called the action "a necessary small step toward justice and reconciliation....a note of grace." James Logan of the PFR expressed concern for the peace, unity, and the funding and membership levels of the denomination. Apparently many congregations who were opposed to homosexual ordination had withheld funds until after the original Amendment B was ratified. He is also concerned that "A" would water down the historical standards of the church. It "sends a fuzzy message to young people" when clarity is needed. Jane Spahr of the PLGC said: "Jim (Logan) finds homosexuality a sin, we find it a gift...How can we share our faith together? It's our very being you're saying no to." Anderson asked" "Is my sexual practice an essential tenet of the reformed faith?...I don't see it as a Christian fundamental, my sexuality. Our polity is set up to put us in conflict with each other. That's the way we are as Presbyterians. The Holy Spirit is always moving, always challenging us to grow." Lafontaine compared the present conflict with that over women's ordination 40 years previous. Logan rejected the validity of the analogy.

    Mark Carpenter, a Sunday school teacher and delegate expressed concern about what he views as an abandonment of orthodox theology: "The fact that we don't have this thing straight is an example of the pathetic teaching in this denomination...That we're even talking about it is a disgrace. It shows how me far we have fallen away...They ripped the guts out of the original [Amendment B] I'm furious that they fiddled with it."

    Cleve Evans, a delegate from Omaha and a past board member of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns took the opposite view: "These are standards that are more appropriate for the church...It's a big step in the right direction...We're utterly amazed...We thought this was five or 10 years down the road...We see this as the same kind of movement as racial and gender equality. That gives us our conviction and staying power. It took 50 years to get women's ordination. We've only been dealing with the gay issue for 20 years." He predicts a break in the denomination: "The church is trying to satisfy both camps...It just cannot be done."

The conservative reform group, Presbyterian Coalition, was organized to oppose gay and lesbian ordination. 2 About 1,000 members of the coalition held a strategy session in Dallas TX during 1997-SEP. Spokesperson  Rev. Jack Haberer expressed concern that Proposition A "...sets the wheels in motion for what will be a change in policy that will in effect [permit] extramarital sex between individuals who believe their relationships are of fidelity and integrity...There will be no objective standards."

A new liberal group, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (CNP) was formed to encourage acceptance of Amendment A within the denomination.

On a different topic, on JUN-21, the General Assembly overwhelmingly rejected Resolution 97-32 which called for a type of loyalty oath for new seminary professor candidates in the denomination's theological institutions.


Continue reading:

Developments in gay/lesbian ordination during 1998 to 2000


References used:

  1. Laurie Goodstein, "Chastity Amendment Divides Presbyterians; Proposal Indirectly Addresses Ordination of Gays", The Washington Post, 1997-JAN-28
  2. Laurie Goodstein, "Chastity Amendment Divides Presbyterians; Proposal Indirectly Addresses Ordination of Gays", The Washington Post, 1997-JAN-28
  3. Jeff Wright, "Church wrestles morality," Eugene Register-Guard, 1998-MAR-7
  4. J L. Van Marter, "Covenant Network of Presbyterians Vows to Carry On,"   PC(USA) News mailing list, Item #98380, 1997-NOV-18

Copyright © 1996 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Excerpted from our web site's main Presbyterian-Homosexuality Ordination on 2001-OCT-24
Last update: 2001-
OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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