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The Presbyterian Church (USA) & lesbian/gay/bisexual ordination

A religious and demographic profile
of Presbyterians during the Fall of 2008

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Religious profile of Presbyterians:

Research Services, an office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) produces a religious and demographic profile of Presbyterians every few years. They produced a report to cover the 2009-2011 period by sampling the opinions, practices and beliefs of 5,188 Presbyterians among the denomination's members, elders, pastors, and specialized clergy. The survey data was actually collected during the fall of 2008

Two factors are of general interest:

  • The denomination is almost completely monoracial: 96% of the members, 95% of the elders, 92% of the pastors and 89% of the specialized clergy described themselves as white or caucasian.

  • The median age of the membership is 60 years, and has been steadily increasing for decades. A major cause is probably the departure of youth and young adults from the denomination.

Some of the results that might impact the lesbian/gay/bisexual ordination question are:

  1. Theological outlook: As is normal for mainline denominations, the clergy is significantly more liberal than is the membership. Polled subjects were asked to rate their personal theological outlook. The most common self-assessment is shown in bold:

    Theological outlook:
    Members
    Elders
    Pastors
    Specialized clergy
    Very conservative
    6%
    7%
    5%
    2%
    Conservative
    28
    35
    26
    16
    Moderate
    41
    36
    37
    28
    Liberal
    18
    17
    25
    34
    Very liberal
    7
    5
    6
    18

  2. 2008 General Assembly amendment: Presbyterians were asked what they would personally like the presbyteries to do with regard to the proposed change to the constitutional concerning the ordination of lesbians, gays and bisexuals that was passed by the 2008 General Assembly.

    Outcome?
    Members
    Elders
    Pastors
    Specialized clergy
    Reject
    39%
    50%
    49%
    29%
    Approve
    32%
    29%
    42%
    70%

    Rejecting the constitutional amendment would keep the Book of Order unchanged, and would require elders, deacons and ministers "to live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." This would continue the exclusion of all non-celibate lesbians and gays from ordination. Approving the amendment would have replaced this clause with a generally worded section requiring that they declare only "their fidelity to the standards of the church."

    When the vote was actually taken among the presbyteries, during the second half of 2008 and early 2009, the amendment was rejected.

  3. Ordination of elders: "Would you personally like to see the PC(USA) permit sexually active gay and lesbian persons to be ordained to the office of elder?"

    Ordained?
    Members
    Elders
    Pastors
    Specialized clergy
    Yes
    45%
    40%
    47%
    67%
    No
    44%
    51%
    46%
    27%

  4. Ordination of deacons: "Would you personally like to see the PC(USA) permit sexually active gay and lesbian persons to be ordained to the office of deacon?"

    Ordained?
    Members
    Elders
    Pastors
    Specialized clergy
    Yes
    46%
    41%
    48%
    67%
    No
    43%
    49%
    45%
    25%

  5. Ordination clergy: " Would you personally like to see the PC(USA) permit sexually active gay and lesbian persons to be ordained to the office of minister of Word and Sacrament?"

    Ordained?
    Members
    Elders
    Pastors
    Specialized clergy
    Yes
    35%
    30%
    44%
    64%
    No
    53%
    60%
    48%
    30%

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Deficiencies in the survey:

The questions referred to the ordination of "sexually active gay and lesbian persons." Unfortunately, this description covers a broad range of lesbian, gay and bisexual lifestyles. At one extreme are those who commonly engage in promiscuous "one-night stands." At the other extreme are loving, committed, monogamous same-sex couples who may have been be married or "civil unionized." An individual taking the survey might support the ordination of the latter, but reject the ordination of the former.

A second deficiency in the report is the lack of information showing the degree of support for the ordination of elders, deacons and clergy as a function of the age of the individual responding to the survey. All of the polls by Gallup, Pew Research, and other polling organizations that show such information reveal that youths and young adults are far more accepting of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals (LGBTs) than are older persons. By studying support as a function of age, one can get a rough idea of how many years it will take for the a sufficient number of Presbyterians to support LGBT ordination, so that a constitutional amendment similar to that in 2008 would pass. Unfortunately, although the Research Services had collected this data, its analysis was not included in their report.

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Prediction for the future:

Major cultural changes proceed very slowly.

Taking interracial marriage as an example:

  • In 1948, when the Supreme Court of California legalized interracial marriage in the state, about 90% of American adults opposed it.
  • In 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage throughout the U.S., about 72% of adults were still opposed to interracial marriage.
  • It took until 1991 until a majority of adults favored allowing interracial marriage.
  • Opposition dropped at about 1 percentage point per year between 1948 and 1991.

Taking same-sex marriage (SSM) as a second example:

  • In 1989, opposition to SSM was about 73%, nationally.
  • By 2010, this had dropped to 50%
  • Opposition dropped about 1 percentage point per year between 1989 and 2010.

If support for ordination were to rise and opposition were to fall within the Presbyterian Church (USA) at about the same rate as national data for interracial and same-sex marriages have, then one could expect that after the passage of about a decade from the time of the survey, support by the members of the Church for ordination would increase from 35% to about 45%. (See Question 5 above). During the same interval, opposition would drop from 53% to about 43%. A simple majority of Presbyterian members then would support ordination of non-celibate LGBTs. Pastors and specialized clergy would continue strongly support ordination, and only the elders would still oppose it.

A decade from the time of the survey would take until the year 2018. By that time, the debate on the issue would have been discussed for over four decades.

However, Question 2 asked whether Presbyterians supported or opposed the constitutional amendment passed by the General Assembly. This was a type of local option which would give committees some wiggle room in accepting LGBT candidates for ordination. Apparently more Presbyterians support some degree of local autonomy over LGBT ordination than support ordination directly.

The gap between members supporting and opposing the amendment was much smaller than for Question 5; the separation is only 7 percentage points. This might only take four years to reverse before a small majority favored a similar amendment. Most presbyteries could conceivably pass a similar amendment if passed by the General Assembly scheduled for mid-2012. By that time, the elders would still oppose an amendment, but they are numerically small and would be swamped by the clergy's vote.

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Reference used:

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

  1. "Religious and demographic profile of Presbyterians, 2008," Research Services, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at: http://www.pcusa.org/ This is a PDF file.
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Copyright © 2010 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2011-JAN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson
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