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The Presbyterian Church (USA) & gay/lesbian ordination

Events during 2008 & 2009

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General Assembly held:

The church's 218th General Assembly was held during 2008-JUN-21 to 28 in San Jose, CA. Its motto was a paraphrase taken from Micah 6:8: "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God."

This was the 30th anniversary of a 1978 decision by one of its predecessor denominations, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America  (UPCUSA) on homosexuality. They formally welcomed gays and lesbians as members. But they also prohibited the ordination of openly homosexual persons to the ministry.

Overture to amend G-6.0106 passes committee:

On 2008-JUN-24, the Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministries voted 41 to 11 to accept an overture proposed by Boston Presbytery. It recommend that the General Assembly amend the denomination's Book of Order. The vote would have been closer, except that some members who opposed the overture left the committee before the vote was taken.

The change:

bulletDeletes the present wording of paragraph G-6.0106b. This clause requires ministers and other church officers to live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."  1
bulletReplaces it with a new wording:
"Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), 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. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards."
2

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution has repeatedly stated that elimination of G-6.0106b is one of the preconditions before homosexuals and bisexuals in committed relationships can be freely ordained.

Some comments by members of the Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministries:

bullet

Andrew Cook favored the overture, saying: "It seems to me the revised language reaffirms the importance of all the ordination standards, rather than singling out just one. It says we care about standards and determining if candidates are prepared."

bullet

David Reimer predicted that: "... the ramifications will be severe. Churches won’t wait for the ratification votes [by the presbyteries] but will leave immediately, though I hope they won’t."

bullet

The Rev. Emily McColl opposed the overture. She said that: "... many churches will no longer consider us Reformed in their understanding of biblical interpretation and theology."

bullet

Robert Bruce, a youth advisory delegate, hoped that "... we will look at God’s will for this church, not at the numbers."

bulletThe Rev. Sue Fisher said: "I feel compelled to take a motion to the floor so the Assembly can decide whether to send it to the presbyteries." 4

Overture to amend G-6.0106 passes General Assembly:

The recommendation was passed on 2008-JUN-27. Demonstrating once more the serious divisions within the denomination, the vote was narrow: 380 to 325. Since this is a major change to the Book of Order, the new wording now must go to the 173 presbyteries for authorization.

Rev. Dan Holloway of Providence Presbytery, moderator of the Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministries said, "It is important to say that at this point our Constitution has not been changed. As we move forward it is essential that we have conversations that are gracious and loving and welcoming, since we are not all of one mind."

Some comments by attendees to the General Assembly:

bulletMinister commissioner the Rev. William Stepp of Tropical Florida Presbytery was opposed to the amendment. He said that the denomination: "... needs a continuing strong witness to biblical standards for sexuality." He warned that the amendment will "... destabilize the denomination, obliterate trust and reduce funding for the church. Don’t send a shock wave through the church."
bulletThe Rev. Walter Hamer of John Calvin Presbytery, presented a minority report that urged more study. He said: "Though we may be hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit here, many of our churches have not heard that same Spirit and are not ready, Let us continue the conversation with the whole church at the table to build trust, learn about various positions and give us a chance to understand each other. We need more time for study and conversation.. His proposal was defeated 319-375.
bulletThe Rev. Susan Fisher of Pacific Presbytery said that the matter had been under discussion for three decades, and that a proposal for "... dialogue but not action doesn’t move us forward. She said that she felt "compelled" to support the proposal "... to give the church voice and vote to change language, to let the wider church decide if now is the time" to change ordination standards.
bulletOutgoing General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick pleaded for church unity. He anticipates a heated debate at the presbytery level. He said: "There are people who are gay and lesbian who long passionately to be included. There are others who believe strongly, not that they don’t love them, but that standards must be upheld. What is essential is the spirit of unity as we go forward to a new stage in the process." 2

History of presbytery votes on the "fidelity and chastity" clause:

bullet1996-7 - Amendment B: G-6.0106b was originally put in the Book of Order in 1996, by a referendum vote of 97 to 74.
bullet1997-8 - Amendment A: Presbyteries rejected a referendum on replacing G-6.0106b. The vote was 57 to 114. 6

There are two trends that gave the new referendum a chance at passing:

bulletAfter three decades of arguing over the matter, some in the church are getting tired of the endless debate.
bulletAs in the American population generally, there is a major split between young and old members, with the former being much more liberal than the latter. This is generating gradually increasing support for equality of persons of all sexual orientations.

Interpretation of the Book of Order:

The PCUSA website states:

"In another ordination standards-related action, the Assembly adopted a supplementary authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) constitution that applies the historical practice of 'scrupling' -- the declaration of conscientious objection by candidates for ordination, coupled with discernment by the ordaining body whether the declared objection is disqualifying -- equally to all ordination standards of the denomination."

This does not represent a change to the Church Constitution, merely a reinterpretation of the existing clauses. It would allow gay and lesbian candidates to conscientiously object to the existing standard for ordination.

"The authoritative interpretation reaffirms the scrupling practice affirmed by the 217th General Assembly (2006) when it approved the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church and effectively overturns a recent General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling — Bush vs. Presbytery of Pittsburgh — that G-6.0106b, the commonly called “fidelity and chastity” ordination standard, cannot be scrupled."

"The GAPJC ruling also stated that scrupling on any provision of the church’s Constitution does not give the conscientious objector license to disobey it." 2

This action by the General Assembly is difficult to understand. So we just reported it verbatim.

Definition of marriage:

The General Assembly voted 77% to 33% in against changing the current church definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman to a covenant between "two people."

Overture to amend G-6.0106 rejected by the Presbyteries:

During the summer of 2008, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to remove a constitutional requirement that ministers, deacons and elders must live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." This would allow gay, lesbian and bisexual candidates for these positions to live in a loving committed same-sex relationship.

The decision had to be ratified by a majority vote of the denomination's 173 presbyteries. By 2009-APR-26, the voting results were 88 presbyteries opposed and 68 in favor. This means that, whatever the final results, a majority has voted to retain the status quo. The discriminatory clause will be retained in the denomination's constitution; However, it appears that the margin is significantly smaller than in previous years.

Both sides expect the issue to be addressed again in the near future. With the gradual increase in the acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality nationwide, it appears inevitable that the constitutional requirement will eventually be dropped. 7

References used:

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

  1. Note: Loving committed same-sex couples who have been married in Massachusetts, California, Canada or elsewhere are considered by the church to be single roommates. Gays and lesbians in committed (and presumably sexually active) relationships) are lumped together with adulterers and denied ordination.
  2. Jerry L. Van Marter, "Assembly proposes amendment to delete G-6.0106b and replace it with a new version Paragraph covers 'fidelity and chastity' ordination standards," PC USA, 2008-JUN-27, at: http://www.pcusa.org/
  3. "Statement of the Session of the First Presbyterian Church Stamford, Connecticut in response to Amendment B," 1997-MAY-20, at: http://home.earthlink.net/
  4. Jerry L. Van Marter, "Church Orders votes 41-11 to recommend deletion of G-6.0106b," PC USA, 2008-JUN-24, at: http://www.pcusa.org/
  5. Eric Gorski, "Presbyterian Assembly votes to drop homosexual clergy ban," Associated Press, 2008-JUN-28, at: http://www.onenewsnow.com/
  6. "Presbyteries will vote for 4th time on sex issues," The Layman Online, undated, at: http://www.layman.org/
  7. "Presbyterian Church gay clergy bid gains, but is voted down again," Associated Press, 2009-APR-26, at: http://www.latimes.com/

Copyright © 2008 & 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2009-MAY-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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