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.

Episcopal gay debates getting old?

Is it me, or are we seeing less intense media coverage of the Episcopal Church’s internal gyrations over homosexuality?

I mean, the EC’s General Convention has been underway for a week out in Disneyland. First, Episcopal leaders passed measures saying that ordination should be open to all — softening, if not erasing, the church’s 3-year-old restriction on ordaining gay bishops. That’s Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop, addressing his fellow bishops at the GA.

Yesterday, bishops authorized the church to start drafting a prayer for the blessing of same-sex couples.

You could argue that these are important steps that will further divide the EC from the worldwide Anglican Communion. And there has been plenty of media coverage. But the coverage seems to me to less vigorous then in recent years.

I get the feeling that after years of waiting for some sort of Episcopal/Anglican break-up, with every Episcopal action cited as potentially the fuse that will set it off, anticipation is starting to wane.

Haven’t we seen a pattern? The Episcopal Church does its thing, embracing gays and lesbians. Conservative Episcopalians and Anglicans condemn it all. A few Episcopalians break away. And life goes on.

Maybe there won’t be a pivotal turn, but the EC will slowly shrink and isolate itself a bit. Maybe.

Certainly here in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, where almost all Episcopalians are gay friendly, it’s much ado about nothing. That’s not to say that New York Episcopalians want to lose their Anglican friends overseas.

But they will be the church they want to be. And they’ll see what happens. I think.

(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Another new Episcopal position on ordination?

Who can be ordained in the Episcopal Church?

Yeah, it’s still the $25,000 question.

Back in 2006, the EC’s General Convention decided that dioceses should show “restraint” when choosing bishops whose lifestyle could upset the wider Anglican Communion. They were talking about gays and lesbians, of course, in light of the super-controversial consecration of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Well, yesterday at the 2009 General Convention, the House of Deputies (consisting of clergy and lay leaders) voted 2-to-1 for a resolution declaring that the ordination process be open to all.

The House of Bishops will have to agree for the resolution to be enacted.

Does the new resolution clarify things or further muddy the ordination waters?

According to an EC write-up: “Committee vice chair the Rev. Ian Douglas (Massachusetts) noted that the committee chose not to propose a straight-forward repeal or support of B033 (NOTE: showing restraint) but instead chose this language as a more comprehensive description of the church’s current reality.”

Time for the usual round of condemnations and shows of support.

More on the ELCA’s ‘gay ordination’ struggles

More on the never-ending “gay debate” in mainline denominations…

I mentioned last week the latest ELCA move on the question of ordaining gay clergy: a task force has recommended that a national assembly this summer decide whether congregations and synods (regional bodies) should have the flexibility to choose clergy in monogamous, same-sex relationships.

The task force recommendations are hard to absorb. Here is a summation from Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, head of the Metro NY Synod of the ELCA:

*****

“In brief, the Churchwide Assembly this coming August will decide whether to create “space” for congregations and synods to publically recognize and hold accountable the relationship of same-gendered couples (step one), and (step two) whether our Church ought to find ways to allow the rostered ministry of such persons. The task force acknowledges that conscience-bound faithful Christians find themselves on different sides of this issue. The task force also acknowledges that we are bound not only in our own consciences but in love to the conscience of the other. Because of the lack of consensus in the church, the task force believes that we need to respect our differences and accept the different places in which the baptized find themselves. The recommendation affirms that our distinctive positions on this issue should not be church-dividing. No congregation or institution will be forced to call a leader they do not wish to call.”

*****

Rimbo also writes in a message to the NY synod:

*****

“There has been a range of emotions – from anticipation to anxiety – surrounding the release of the Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Now that it is here, it is important to familiarize ourselves with its contents. Most of the statement is a non-controversial, comprehensive, Biblically-based understanding of human sexuality. As mentioned above, theological themes like trust, hope, joy, grace and faith are extraordinarily helpful in our efforts to reflect on healthy human sexual response and behavior.”

*****

Also, the head of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod — a somewhat smaller and more conservative national Lutheran denomination — has released a statement lamenting the step taken by the ELCA task force.

Gerald B. Kieschnick, president of the LC-MS, writes that the ELCA move would “constitute a radical departure from the 2,000-year-long teaching of the Christian tradition that homosexual activity, whether inside or outside of a committed relationship, is contrary to Holy Scripture.”

PCUSA grapples, again, with ordination of gays

I’ve mentioned before that the first article I wrote on the religion beat — on March 20, 1997 — had to do with Presbyterian Church (USA) banning the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The change to church law — widely known as “Amendment B” — became the focus of a denominational controversy that has never gone away. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to rewrite the amendment.

Here we go again.

Last year’s national gathering of PCUSA delegates — the 218th General Assembly — voted in favor of rewriting the amendment to remove a requirement that clergy “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman…or chastity in singleness.”

A new amendment would require “Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation…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.”

For the change to go through, a majority of presbyteries — regional bodies — have to approve it. That means 87 out of 173.

So far, according to one tally, 36 presbyteries have voted for the change, 46 against.

The Hudson River Presbytery — which includes 91 congregations in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and four counties north — voted this week. Clergy and lay delegates voted overwhelming in favor of the change: 94 yes, 12 no, 1 abstention.

So that’s one presbytery among the 36 that want to change Amendment B.

Other presbyteries will vote through June. It’s hard to say right now when a majority will be reached.

On covering the Great Gay Debate

I had a long and interesting chat the other day with Father Charles Colwell, an Episcopal priest who is retiring next week after 36 years as rector of the Church of St. Barnabas in Irvington.

He has just published a book, “Collision of Worlds: A Priest’s Life,” that is an incredibly frank tale about his faith and his ministry. The title of the book has to do with his belief that the religious and secular worlds should not be separated, but that too many people force church and clergy into an artificial religious sphere.

More on that in the article I’m writing for the Journal News/LoHud.

2570d13665854be98aa4249086e26127.jpgDuring our talk, though, one thing we agreed upon is that we are both worn out by the continuing debate over homosexuality. That’s not to say that the subject is not important and of great interest to people. It’s just that the issues don’t change and all sides continue to repeat the same positions over and over.

From Father Colwell’s perspective, of course, homosexuality has overshadowed so many other issues in the Episcopal/Anglican world.

And as for me, I’ve written so many times about the religious debate over same-sex unions, same-sex marriage and gay ordination that it seems that time is standing still. A big series that I wrote about it in 1997 could be reprinted today with little change.

Homosexuality is also among the most difficult subjects to write about. The journalistic goal (in the U.S., anyway) of objectivity doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone when it comes to writing about gay matters. Why?

People who support, say, gay marriage tend to see it as a justice issue. It’s about equality — which no one should oppose and journalists must fight for. They expect journalists to cover the subject as we might write about justice for African Americans or Jews or women. Clergy in this camp often say that equality for gays and lesbians is Christian or what God might want.

People who oppose gay marriage, though, tend to see the whole thing as being about moral standards. They believe that the culture is lowering its moral bar and that journalists, by writing about gays as we would any other group, are inherently supporting the lowering of the bar. Clergy in this camp, of course, say that Scripture and religious tradition see homosexuality as abnormal — so objective journalism is making behavior that is abnormal seem possibly respectable, just another subject that thoughtful people disagree over.

So people on all sides of the debate tend to see objective news coverage — he said, she said — as being a cop-out. How can you not defend justice? How can you not defend moral standards?

Another challenge: The silent or undecided middle seems to be tired of hearing about the whole thing. People who feel strongly about homosexuality, on all sides, continue to force the issue, producing news that journalists have to cover. But in recent years, I’ve gotten quite a few comments from people in the middle saying, basically, “Can’t you write about something else?”

Anyway, Protestant ministers are gathering in Albany this morning to protest recognition of gay marriage. Let’s see what the AP files later today.