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The Presbyterian Church (USA) and gay/lesbian ordination

Events during 2006

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Analysis of the Theological Task Force's report (TTF):

The TTF had been created by the 213rd General Assembly in 2001. They completed a four year study and issued their report on 2005-AUG-25. This gave Presbyterians ten months to analyze and discuss the report before the 2006 General Assembly.

Twenty Presbyterians of diverse backgrounds and beliefs formed the task force. Their goal was to:

"discern the church's 'Christian identity in and for the 21st century' and to devise 'a process and instrument' to help the church deal with issues that are causing conflict, including sexuality and ordination, interpretation of the Bible, questions about Jesus Christ and salvation, and the use of power in the church." 1,2

Their main recommendations were:

  • The denomination stay together, while discerning "God's will on matters about which there is no consensus" at the present time.
  • Local discernment groups made up of Presbyterians with diverse views meet for "worship, community building, study, and theological reflection."
  • Governing bodies first use methods of discernment before moving on to debate and vote.
  • That Presbyterians study the theological reflection part of the TTF report.
  • The 217th General Assembly in 2006-JUN approve an "authoritative interpretation" of the PC(USA) Constitution that supports an approach to ordination that is both more flexible and more rigorous than current practice." It would allow an ordaining body to examine a particular candidate for ordination to see whether her or his departure(s) from standards is acceptable. "They may decide in a particular case that a person's departure from a standard is not a departure from essentials, but a body that makes that decision may not determine that the standard is invalid or inapplicable." 3 Higher governing bodies would be able to review the decisions of ordaining bodies.
  • If the previous recommendation is accepted at the Assembly, that no constitutional changes be made concerning ordination and other areas covered by the task force.
  • Presbyterians seek conciliation and mediation before resorting to formal action. 4

Under this proposal, the constitution of the denomination would remain intact. The standards for ordination will continue to require the candidate either be celibate or married to a person of the opposite sex. However, a candidate who does not meet these standards, whether heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, may still be be ordained due to a form of local option, if the ordaining body feels that they can make an exception.

This proposal does not satisfy many gays, lesbians, bisexuals and their supporters, because they feel that the exclusion of non-celibate sexual minorities is profoundly immoral. It does not satisfy traditionally minded Presbyterians who feel that homosexual behavior is profoundly immoral; they want a denomination free of homosexual leaders. But faced with the gut-wrenching horror of a schism in the denomination, the "authoritative interpretation" appeared to many to be the lesser of two evils.

Year 2006 General Assembly:

The 217th General Assembly was held in Birmingham, AL on 2006-JUN-15-22. It was unusual in two ways: This was the denomination's first-ever biennial assembly. It was held together with the general assemblies of two of the PCUSA's sister denominations: the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America.

By a relatively close vote of 298 to 221, the Assembly approved the "authoritative interpretation" of the denomination's constitution as recommended in the Theological Task Force's (TTF) main report. A minority report had called that the authoritative interpretation be deleted from the TTF recommendations. It failed 234 to 287. A motion to refer the tandem proposals to the presbyteries for further discussion and comment also failed 234 to 281.

Some responses:

  • The Rev. Joan Gray, moderator of the 217th General Assembly, told the press:

"Today we saw the Presbyterian process of doing things at its best. We saw people working fairly and treating each other justly."

  • The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, added:

"With the vote today we have not altered the fundamentals; we have the same standards as before. The report encourages a more pastoral approach to ordination and encourages our governing bodies to do a thorough work of examining people for office."

  • the Rev. Gary Demarest of Pasadena, CA, co-moderator of the TTF said:

"We were not instructed to solve any of the issues included in our mandate. It was our mandate then and it is now that the issues run deep and will not end soon. But we know that winner-take-all solutions will only perpetuate the conflict."

  • Elder Jenny Stoner of Craftsbury Common, VT, also co-moderator of the TTF said:

"We have concluded that though we may be on different pages, we are all in one book -- biblical, Presbyterian and Reformed. We need each other, we are a faithful but diverse body of Christ and we must learn how to remain one body."

  • The Rev. Blair Monie of Grace Presbytery said that the authoritative interpretation:

"...clarifies what is already in the Constitution." [When applied to ordination it] "....includes four important Presbyterian ordination principles: maintaining standards, rigorously examining candidates, protecting individual conscience and protecting the church through judicial review."

  • Elder Marj Carpenter of Big Spring, TX, a former General Assembly moderator, said:

"I'm against the ordination of homosexuals, though I love 'em. But we've been fighting in this ditch for 28 years and ditch is getting deeper. It's starting to affect our mission work, our youth ministry and our evangelism and I'm ready to try something else. Please, let's get on with being the church, taking the gospel into the world and offering them something else other than arguments."

  • The Rev. David Miller of Tampa Bay Presbytery, FL, called the measure:

"...a wrong turn....a overlook clear standards that have been set, a license to ignore the larger discernment of the body of Christ and a license to legislate by interpretation."

  •  The Rev. Michael Carey of Central Florida Presbytery said that approval of the measure would:

" the floodgates of controversy...[people are] looking for churches where people are gracious but have clear boundaries."

The Assembly passed four additional TTF recommendations with a 87% majority:

  • To "strongly encourage" all Presbyterians to witness to the church's oneness and "to avoid division into separate denominations."

  • To urge congregations, governing bodies and other groups of Presbyterians to engage in "intensive discernment" in the face of difficult issues

  • To study the theological reflection section of the TTF report.

  • To encourage church bodies to "explore the use of alternative forms of discernment and decision-making as a complement to parliamentary procedure."

The Assembly also accepted the TTF's recommendation to make no changes to the constitution in 2006. By overwhelming margins, they voted to disapprove more than 20 proposals that would have deleted section G-6.0108 of the Book of Order. Thus the requirement that clergy and other church officers exhibit "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness" remains the universal standard. However, local ordination and installation bodies now have some wiggle room when reviewing candidates who don't meet the standards.

References used:

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

  1. "Final report resources," Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, at: You can order a copy of the report online.
  2. William Johnson, "Same-gender relationships in the church: Seven theological viewpoints," A study paper for the Theological Task Force, at: **
  3. Jerry L. Van Marter, "A TTF Primer: Quick Reference Guide to the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church," at:
  4. Bulletin insert about the Theological Task Force at: **

** These are PDF files. You may require software to read them. Software can be obtained free from:

Copyright © 2006 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2008-JUN-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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