PCUSA ends gay-ordination ban, continuing long debate

Way back in 1997, I wrote an article about the “strong possibility” that Presbyterian Church (USA) could split over the question of whether noncelibate gays and lesbians could be ordained.

The denomination had just amended church law to ban ordination for anyone who wasn’t married or chaste. Liberal congregations and even regions threatened to bolt the denomination.

The debate over gay ordination has remained fierce since then. Some individual congregations have left the denomination and PCUSA’s overall membership has continued to slide.

But liberal Presbyterians did not break away en masse, as many expected.

Now conservatives within PCUSA are the ones who may threaten to leave.

The amendment to church law that required clergy to be married or chaste is being stricken, replaced by a general call for governing bodies within the denomination to be “guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

A majority of PCUSA’s 173 regional presbyteries had to approve the change, which was proposed by the denomination’s General Assembly last summer. Yesterday, the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area became the 87th presbytery to approve a change, sealing a majority.

The change will go into effect July 10.

Now what?

Who knows? I’m not as quick to believe that a chunk of congregations will seek to break away, although it’s likely that a stream of conservative congregations will make noises about leaving and some will actually do it.

But it seems quite possible that PCUSA will continue to slowly shrink — like other mainline denominations — as liberals, conservatives and moderates continue to ignore or get along with each other.

A letter from the denomination to members includes this:

*****

Reactions to this change will span a wide spectrum. Some will rejoice, while others will weep. Those who rejoice will see the change as an action, long in coming, that makes the PC(USA) an inclusive church that recognizes and receives the gifts for ministry of all those who feel called to ordained office. Those who weep will consider this change one that compromises biblical authority and acquiesces to present culture. The feelings on both sides run deep.

However, as Presbyterians, we believe that the only way we will find God’s will for the church is by seeking it together – worshiping, praying, thinking, and serving alongside one another. We are neighbors and colleagues, friends and family. Most importantly, we are all children of God, saved and taught by Jesus Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

*****

The letter also asks Presbyterians to say this prayer:

*****

Almighty God, we give thanks for a rich heritage of faithful witnesses to the gospel throughout the ages. We offer gratitude not only for those who have gone before us, but for General Assembly commissioners and presbyters across the church who have sought diligently to discern the mind of Christ for the church in every time and place, and especially in this present time.

May your Spirit of peace be present with us in difficult decisions, especially where relationships are strained and the future is unclear. Open our ears and our hearts to listen to and hear those with whom we differ. Most of all, we give thanks for Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord, who called the Church into being and who continues to call us to follow his example of loving our neighbor and working for the reconciliation of the world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

ELCA moves ahead (slowly) with sexuality study

Tomorrow, a task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will release its proposed “Social Statement on Human Sexuality.”

It’s the next step in a long, long denominational process — starting in 2001 — that’s been trying somehow, someway to deal with the Great Gay Debate.

Last year, the ELCA task force on sexuality released a draft statement that did not address the denomination’s current policy that bans “practicing” gays and lesbians from being ordained.

The document was a very broad look at the role of sexuality from a moderate Christian perspective. The intro included this:

On the matter of loving and committed same-gender relationships, after many years of study and conversation members in this church continue to hold strongly differing and conscience-bound understandings of Scripture. In discerning where God is calling us, this statement draws deeply on the historical Lutheran tradition of seeking a pastoral response to the needs of the neighbor. In seeking responsible actions that serve others, the statement recognizes various pastoral responses which are being and can be taken by congregations. The draft calls all persons to avail themselves of the means of grace and pastoral care.

Since then, the task force has been considering responses, as task forces are prone to do.

Its revised statement will be much chewed over before the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly considers the statement — and resolutions to change it — in August.

As these things go, if the statement does or does not recommend a change to church policy, it will disappoint one group — pro-gay clergy or anti-gay clergy.

If it doesn’t take a clear stand, the statement will disappoint everyone.

The ELCA has 4.8 million members.