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REACTIONS TO THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH 2001 RESOLUTION ON GAY/LESBIAN ORDINATION

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Background:

A massive chasm exists between religious liberals and conservatives in the Presbyterian Church over the matter of the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. At the General Assembly meeting in 2000, Bob Davis, director of the conservative renewal group Presbyterian Forum commented: "One side says we understand Scripture to say homosexual behavior is sinful, the other says it is a gift from God. Those are pretty disparate positions."

Most religious liberals in the Presbyterian Church (USA) view ordination of gays and lesbians to be largely a human rights issue. They see homosexual behavior within a committed, monogamous relationship to be acceptable and holy, for both  homosexuals and heterosexuals.

Religious conservatives view homosexual behavior as prohibited and condemned by the Bible. Allowing sexually active unmarried persons to be ordained would be an unacceptable lowering of ordination standards. The nature of their relationship, whether committed or not, whether monogamous or not, is immaterial; their behavior is intrinsically sinful.

On 2001-JUN-15, by a vote of 317-208 on JUN-15, the 213th General Assembly decided to:

bulletDelete section G-6.0106b from the church's Book of Order.  It currently requires candidates for ordination to follow one of two paths, either: "fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
bulletReplacing the deleted text with a statement that church officers' "suitability to hold office is determined by the governing body where the examination for ordination or installation takes place, guided by scriptural and constitutional standards, under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ."
bulletVoid what has been referred to as the authoritative interpretation of the constitution as having "no further force or effect." It has been in effect since 1978, and has barred the ordination of "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals."

If both actions by the General Assembly are approved by a simple majority of the church's 173 presbyteries, then sexually active gays and lesbians, and sexually active unmarried heterosexuals would not be excluded from ordination.

Many of the General Assembly commissioners (delegates) offered personal comments on the decision to modify ordination criteria. They demonstrate how far apart the two sides remain. We have collected some of their reactions below:

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Responses of some commissioners immediately after the General Assembly decision were:

bulletOpposed to equal treatment of lesbians and gays:
bulletThe Presbyterian Coalition is a group of organizations which formed in 1993 in opposition to gay ordination. They issued a statement which called the Assembly's action "deeply distressing...it is unthinkable that a majority of Presbyterians favor the removal of our ordination standards."
bulletThe Rev. Robert Thornton of Abingdon Presbytery in Virginia said "G-6.0106b represents standards of scripture, our confessions and our tradition... Someone will be hurt either way we vote...but I'd rather err on the side of the word of God."
bulletFavoring equal treatment of lesbians and gays:
bulletFormer General Assembly moderator John Buchanan, from Chicago Presbytery and co-founder of the pro-gay Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said that G-6.0106b has created an absence of peace in the church since 1996...[producing] "wrenching confrontations" at each yearly General Assembly. He said: "The approval (of the proposal) creates space to live and work together."
bulletElder Kathryn Morgan of West Jersey Presbytery said: "How can we talk openly and honestly while preserving legislation that prevents openness and honesty, and where some are kept away from the table?"
bulletPrimarily concerned about stress in the denomination:
bulletElder Ted Mikels of Salem Presbytery in North Carolina said: "Twice in the last five years we've voted on this and each time it tears the fabric of our presbytery. To send this out again will create greater rancor and polarization. We need prayer and study and dialogue, not more legislation."
bulletThe Rev. M. Paul Nelson of San Diego Presbytery called the proposal "an emotional bomb that will do great damage when it is dropped on the presbyteries." 1

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Responses of some commissioners at a subsequent press conference were:

bulletOpposed to equal treatment of lesbians and gays: These responses came from representatives of Presbyterians for Renewal and the
Presbyterian Coalition who were first to address the reporters:
bulletMatt Robbins from California, co-moderator of the Youth Advisory Delegates (YAD) at this Assembly, said, "I am disappointed with the vote but I am pleased with the way YADs discussed it. I think there was too much pressure to make everyone happy. I think the decision was brought through our culture. It's hard enough to be a young person trying to be faithful to Jesus.  We need the church to stand up and say there is truth in the Bible."
bulletJoe Rightmyer, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, said, "I am saddened by statements of unbelief in yesterday's debate on salvation through Jesus Christ.  It was not just a difference of opinion.  The question is not how we get to God but to reaffirm how God comes to us."
bulletJerry Andrews, representing the Presbyterian Coalition, said the vote was not unexpected.  "There will be a better reflection of reality in the presbytery votes."
bulletFavoring equal treatment of lesbians and gays: These comments came from representatives of More Light Presbyterians, That All May Freely Serve and The Shower of Stoles Project:
bulletBill Moss, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians and an openly gay elder at Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco read a statement: "We join together in giving thanks to God for this action of the General Assembly that paves the way for the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians. Today the church has returned to its historic principles of allowing local churches and presbyteries to make decisions about ordination. The statement expressed gratitude to "everyone who worked in their local churches, presbyteries and synods...to everyone who prayed for us, wrote letters, spoke in public, signed covenants of dissent or otherwise offered a witness to the working of the Spirit."
bulletIn a media release, Martha Juillerat, Director of the Shower of Stoles project, said the decision impacts more lives than the Assembly commissioners imagine.  The Shower of Stoles Project is a collection of over 800 stoles donated by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals called to serve in ordained positions.  About half of the stoles are from Presbyterians. She said "The stoles bear powerful silent witness to the host of impassioned, qualified, and faithful people knocking at the church's door, or waiting silenced within the church for the day they can serve openly."
bulletPrimarily concerned about stress in the denomination:
bulletNancy Maffett, elder commissioner from Colorado Springs, said, "There is a great weariness in the church.  I feel this will be damaging to the Body and its unity."
bulletRuss Ritchel, Jr., a minister from Salem Presbytery in North Carolina, said in response to a question about a possible split in the denomination as a result of the vote, "There already is a split in the church.  It's like we're in a British comedy where we are all handcuffed together.  We are handcuffed together by our property.  How can we expect others to take us seriously when we have not figured out a way to live together and affirm one another?" Rightmyer said he had talked to pastors with tears in their eyes who say they don't know if they can keep their congregations together.  "How many will still be around to vote in the presbyteries?" he asked.
bulletThe group who supported lesbian - gay ordination commented that they expect to go back to churches that are "overjoyed" at the decision rather than dismayed.

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Remarks by others:

A reporter at the press conference asked which group has the word of God. Don Stroud, commissioner from Baltimore Presbytery, said, "No one can box up and contain the Word of God. A legislative process can never put God in a box."

Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly spoke:

"The scriptures say 'Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.'  I am rejoicing that this group now has hope and weep with those who sincerely believe the church has done a wrong thing."

"I have friends in both groups. What you've seen with these two panels is what I've been experiencing as moderator.  As I have looked out at the commissioners I have come to believe they represent the broad center of the Presbyterian Church.  I have seen other Assemblies when most commissioners came pre-set for one position or another.  These are regular folks who didn't seem to come here pre-committed.  Some said they'd changed their minds since they came here."

"I don't doubt the sincerity of any of them. Some believe they are reading the Bible right and think the others aren't."

"This Assembly has affirmed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior every day. The thing that hurts deep in my soul is that almost everybody feels like a victim in this situation.  I hope in the year to come we can address that. There are good people on all sides looking at this differently.  I am hopeful that the Task Force, listening widely, can begin to address this."

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Other about the Presbyterian Church (USA) on this web site:

bulletThe Presbyterian Church and homosexuality (church history; general statements on homosexuality, Shower of Stoles, etc.
bulletRecognition of same-sex unions
bulletGay / lesbian ordination
bulletResolution by Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area (Minneapolis/St. Paul) titled "Resolution of Witness to the Gospel in Response to Amendment B."
bullet The Covenant Network of Presbyterians' " A Call to Covenant Community"
bullet Statement of apology by Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area  

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References:

  1. Jerry Van Marter, "Assembly sends out an amendment to delete G-6.0106b: Proposal to open the way for gay ordination passes with 60 % approval," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-15
  2. Jane Hines, "Press conference offers reactions from two sides to ordination action," PCUSA News, 2001-JUN-15

Copyright 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-16
Latest update: 2001-JUN-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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