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Pre-2003 background:

Since 1998, the Presbyterian Church's policy has excluded sexually active gays and lesbians -- whether single or in loving, committed relationships -- from consideration for leadership roles in the denominations. These include ordination and/or installation as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and sacrament.

Various General Assemblies have passed resolutions to allow ordination; they once declared a two year moratorium on legislation. But no changes have been approved by the presbyteries. The problem remains unresolved. An internal tension between liberals and conservatives within the denomination appears to be widening in two main areas: the criteria for salvation and whether to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians.

bullet Opinions on salvation are largely determined by the members' views in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible.
bullet Opinions on the homosexual ordination are very heavily influenced by the members' beliefs concerning the nature of homosexuality. Most express one of two viewpoints:
bullet Conservative Presbyterians generally side with Fundamentalist and other Evangelical denominations in their belief about the nature of homosexuality. They view it as sinful, condemned by the Bible, hated by God, abnormal, unnatural, chosen and changeable. They encourage gays and lesbians to seek therapy to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual. They regard any sexually active homosexual as unfit for service in a leadership role in the church, regardless of the nature of the person's relationship.
bullet Liberal Presbyterians generally side with the vast majority of mental health professionals, human sexuality researchers, gays, lesbians and religious liberals. They view homosexuality as normal and natural for a minority of adults. It is neither chosen nor changeable. They reject suggestions to change a person's sexual orientation as useless and potentially devastating. They see safe sexual activity within a committed, monogamous relationship to be free of sin, whether the couple is gay or straight. They view gay ordination and recognition of gay relationships as fundamental human rights issues. They believe that denial of these rights are akin to racism and sexism.

Essentially no dialogue exists between the two sides. None seems possible.

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Year 2003 pre-General Assembly status:

As of 2003-MAY, there are nearly 30 cases pending in church courts in which clergy have been charged with violating the Church's constitution by knowingly ordaining gay clergy. 1 Some conservatives within the denominations initiated a petition which would have required the Church to call a special assembly to enforce the ban on gay clergy. They originally obtained sufficient signatures to require the creation of the assembly -- the first ever in the history of the denomination. However, 13 signers withdrew their names, and the petition fell short of the minimum required under church law.

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Year 2003 General Assembly:

2003-MAY-24 to 31: The 215th General Assembly was held in Denver CO, from 2003-MAY-24 to MAY-31. Ironically, the theme for the Assembly was "A House of Prayer for All Peoples."  This implies an inclusiveness within the denomination which is not present for persons with a homosexual or bisexual orientation.

bullet Selection of moderator: Rev. Susan Andrews of Bethesda, MD, became the first female parish pastor to be elected as moderator of her denomination. In a demonstration of the liberal-conservative split in the denomination, she narrowly won with 53% of the votes against the Rev. Harold Kurtz, a conservative with missionary experience in Africa. Andrews said that it was her "fondest dream" that the church will lift its ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians during her lifetime. But she feels that now is not the time to attempt this change. Referring to a continuation of the ban on ordination, Kurtz said: "This is what the church has said and we have to abide by this." 2 Pastor Parker T. Williamson, editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine, the Presbyterian Layman, called Andrews' selection "unfortunate. " He said: "Susan Andrews stands for everything that has caused the decline of this once great denomination. She is part of an organization called the Covenant Network of Presbyterians that has been lobbying for the full inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender persons into the leadership of the church." 3
bullet Controversies: The main controversial issues before this Assembly were:
bullet The church's ban on the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, and
bullet Whether those clergy who defy the ban should be dealt with more harshly. 1
Some comments by church leaders:
bullet Church spokesman Jerry Van Marter said: "There's been considerable discontent over the last year that there's too much defiance going on, that people just aren't enforcing the constitution."1
bullet The Covenant Network of Presbyterians has decided that another vote on whether to ordain homosexuals would further divide the membership. They have decided to concentrate their effort in creating "...a climate in which change can and will occur." 1
bullet Referring to the ban on sexually active gay and lesbian clergy, Mitzi Henderson of More Light Presbyterians said: "Whatever happens in this General Assembly, this isn't going to go away." 1
bullet Overtures (motions) considered by the Assembly:
bullet "Fidelity and chastity" clause: The Assembly's Committee on Church Orders and Ministry considered and rejected a local option resolution which would have allowed individual churches and regional presbyteries to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians. The committee recommended that the Assembly consider for the third time the deletion of section G-6.0106b from the Book of Order. It states that candidates for ordination as elder or minister must be "faithful in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chaste in singleness." This overture was rejected by the Assembly.

Rev. Fitz Neal, from Indian Nations Presbytery in Oklahoma, initiated a substitute motion which urged the Assembly to call the church to "a time of prayer" for the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA). It noted that the fidelity and chastity clause was already being considered by the Task Force. Neal said: "To send such an overture to the presbyteries before the task force has been allowed to complete its task might short-circuit the hopes we all share for finding a way to live with and minister to and with one another in harmony." This motion was approved by a vote of 431 to 92. 4
bullet Internal church discipline: The Presbytery of Redstone initiated an overture concerning those governing bodies in the Church which have been ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians in violation of church rules. They instructed the stated clerk of the PC(USA) to issue a pastoral letter to the clerks of congregations, presbyteries and synods, reminding them of their obligations to correct these bodies. The vote was 366 to 124. 5
bullet Other conflicts: Additional liberal/conservative conflicts which emerged at the Assembly include:
bullet Some commissioners (delegates) were critical of a 47 page report produced by the Advisory Committee of Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and issued at the meeting. It dealt with the changing nature of families in the U.S. and was titled: "Living Faithfully with Families in Transition. " The report gives equal weight to families with non-traditional structures, such as those headed by single parents, grandparents and same-sex couples. 1 The commissioners voted to return the report, and a two page substitute which had been proposed during debate in committee, to its authors. 6
bullet The church's stand on abortion was also discussed. Conservatives pressed for a more restrictive stance. They advocate that women be counseled that continuing pregnancy until childbirth is the only moral choice for a woman in late pregnancy in which the fetus is viable. They wish to reverse earlier Assembly resolutions which consider late term abortions ethical in the case of rape or incest. They failed to have their viewpoint accepted. The vote was 450 to 108. More details.
bullet The Assembly called upon "the church at every level to raise awareness about gender discrimination in the church." It approved celebrations of two upcoming anniversaries — the 75th anniversary of of the first female ordination as an elder which will be celebrated in 2005, and the 50th of the first ordination of a woman minister, which will be celebrated in 2006. 4

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Presbyterians May Debate Gay Clergy Ban," The Associated Press, 2003-MAY-23. Online at: at:
  2. Eric Gorski, "Liberal female pastor elected head of Presbyterian assembly," Denver Post, Denver, CO, 2003-MAY-25, at:
  3. Jim Brown and Jody Brown, "PC(USA)'s New Moderator Favors Homosexual Clergy:
    For Third Time, Denomination Considering Lifting Ban on Ordination of Gays, Lesbians,
    " Agape Press, 2003-MAY-29, at:
  4. Emily Enders Odom, "Assembly won’t call for vote on G-6.0106b. Commissioners decide to put the matter in hands of theological task force," Presbyterian Church (USA), 2003-MAY, at:
  5. Alexa Smith, "Assembly chooses gentle corrective to governing bodies’ defiance. Stated clerk directed to send pastoral letter on correction, oversight," Presbyterian Church (USA), 2003-MAY, at:
  6. Evan Silverstein, "Family report returned for further study. Assembly wants ACSWP, Theology and Worship to rethink family policies," Presbyterian Church (USA), 2003-MAY, at:

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Copyright © 2003 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2005-NOV-18

Author: B.A. Robinson

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