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.

Bus ads, no-fly lists, gay debates

Three interesting notes for a Friday:

1. The NYC MTA has apparently removed some advertising featuring bikini-clad women from buses passing through Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The community did not like the ads.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, writing for the Wash Post’s On Faith blog, calls the decision “nothing less than complicity in the Talibanization of Brooklyn.”

He writes:


…like the members of the Hasidic community which objected to the ads and called for their removal, I agree about their being objectionable. But when any one group gets to decide what any of us has a right to see, we are all in trouble, especially when that conclusion is reached through political pressure as opposed to democratic process.

If the Hasidic community were to take the lead in organizing people across the political, cultural and religious spectrum to lobby for stricter guidelines about what belongs on any bus, I might join them. Or I might not, preferring to deal with the challenges of a pop culture saturated with ersatz sexuality in other ways than limiting expression.


2. CAIR — the Council on American-Islamic Relations — has issued an advisory to American Muslims that if they travel overseas they may not be able to get back into the U.S.

The group says that Muslims are being put on “no-fly” lists without explanation or access to legal representation.

CAIR says: “In the past few months, CAIR has received a number of reports of American Muslims stranded overseas when they are placed on the government’s no-fly list. Those barred from returning to the United States report being denied proper legal representation, being subjected to FBI pressure tactics to give up the constitutionally-guaranteed right to remain silent, having their passports confiscated without due process, and being pressured to become informants for the FBI. These individuals have not been told why they were placed on the no-fly list or how to remove their names from the list.”

3. Presbyterian Church (USA) has been fighting internally for so long about whether gays and lesbians can be ordained that it seems that outsiders are no longer paying much attention.

But, just so you know, at the denomination’s 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, a committee has approved an overture for new ordination standards — which would erase the current standards requiring that clergy be married or chaste.

The full assembly will soon vote. If the overtured is approved, it would have be passed by a majority of regional presbyteries across the country.

Denomination wins appeal in ‘divorce’ case with dissident church

In 2005, I wrote about a low-profile court case involving a Presbyterian church in Orange County that could have far-reaching ramifications.

The First Presbyterian Church of Ridgebury had decided to leave its denomination, Presbyterian Church (USA), because its few remaining members did not like the denomination’s tolerant stance toward gays and lesbians nor its general leftward drift.

The congregation renamed itself the Church at Ridgebury and decided to take its stuff — its church building and property — with it.

hudsonriverpresbytery_logoAs you might expect, the Hudson River Presbytery, the regional body of PCUSA, objected. The Presbytery went to court.

A 2006 ruling went in favor of the Church at Ridgebury, saying that the congregation was not obligated to listen to the mother church.

The decision was a big blow for the presbytery. Once insider told me that several churches would probably leave if they could keep their real estate.

The issue has been coming up for years in all the mainline Protestant denominations, where conservative or traditional congregations increasingly find themselves at odds with their denominations over “Culture War” issues.

The Presbytery appealed. And, this time, won.

Last month, the Appellate Division of NYS Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling.

The court ruled that the congregation failed to provide evidence that it owned the property in question:


With respect to the real property, the defendants submitted the deeds conveying the subject real property to them, which did not contain any express reversionary or trust provisions. They also submitted a title search listing Ridgebury Church as the record owners of the subject real property. However, the defendants acknowledge that the Book Of Order, a component of the constitution of PCUSA, contains language specifying that all property held by a particular church is held in trust for the national denomination. The neutral principles approach requires the courts to “look to the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property'” (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v Harnish, 11 NY3d 340, 351, quoting First Presbyt. Church of Schenectady v United Presbyt. Church in U.S. of Am., 62 NY2d 110, 122, cert denied 469 US 1037). The express trust provision contained in the Book of Order defeats the defendants’ efforts to demonstrate their entitlement to summary judgment because the enactment of such a trust provision is one way in which the national denomination or Presbytery may ensure that church property is retained by the faction loyal to the national denomination and Presbytery upon secession of any particular church (see Jones v Wolf, 443 US 595).


The court further held that several provisions of PCUSA’s Book of Order “are further proof that the PCUSA’s constitution expressly provided that all church property in the possession of local churches remained under the ultimate care and control of the Presbytery of Hudson River.”

According to the Presbyterian Layman, a generally conservative publication/website that covers these issues with great interest, the Church at Ridgebury has few options: request permission from the NYS Court of Appeals to appeal; go find a new church; or reach a settlement with the presbytery.

This is a much-needed reprieve for the Hudson River Presbytery.

But we’ll be hearing more about these property issues.

In fact, the conservative Washington Times just ran an article about traditional congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American wanting to leave their denomination, but encountering opposition, even “bullying.”

What’s up in the Hudson River Presbytery?

The Rev. Susan Andrews of the Hudson River Presbytery of Presbyterian Church (USA) has been on the road quite a lot over the past year.

Andrews, the general presbyter or chief executive of the presbytery, preached or participated in worship with 40 of the presbytery’s 90 congregations, she wrote in a recent report on the presbytery website.

She also met or broke bread with 69 pastors. In the picture, she is preaching at Central Presbyterian Church of Haverstraw.

She writes that building relationships with clergy and lay leaders is “central to my job.”

The presbytery serves about 15,000 Presbyterians in seven counties through the Lower Hudson Valley.

Her report includes numerous developments, big and small, across the presbytery, such as this one:


The Presbytery Prison Partnership, under the leadership of Ricardo “Shepp” Sheppard and funded by he synod, the presbytery and 8 congregations, has engaged 45 congregations and 10 correctional institutions through worship, Christmas and Mother’s Day cards to inmates, Bible donation and distribution, education about the criminal justice system, and advocacy efforts to support criminal justice reform in Albany.


She notes that a “new South Westchester Clergy Support Group was birthed this year” and that “The Yonkers Initiative continues to coordinate the mission outreach of the three Presbyterian congregations in Yonkers.”

Andrews opened her report with the presbytery’s “calling statement,” which looks like this:


As members of the Body of Christ
Hudson River Presbytery
is called to live resurrection
with passion and partnership
in a changing world.


And she closed it with these thoughts:


Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God is at work in HRP inviting us to practice resurrection – to live resurrection – and to become resurrection for a world hungry for Good News. Thank for your partnership in this exciting, difficult, and challenging Resurrection Work.

Still no gay clergy for PCUSA (at least, officially)

Presbyterian Church (USA)’s offical ban on gay clergy lives on.

The denomination’s regional bodies have voted down a proposed change to church law that would have allowed gays and lesbians to be ordained.

Delegates to a denominational assembly approved the change last year, but a majority of presbyteries — 87 out of 173 — had to support the move.

Presbyteries have been voting for several months. As of Saturday, 88 presbyteries voted against the change, meaning that the closely watched vote is over.

Back in 1996, denominational law was changed to prohibit the ordination of anyone who wasn’t married or chaste. The move was aimed at prohibiting the ordination of gay clergy.

This was the third unsuccessful effort to overturn the law.

The Hudson River Presbytery, which represents 91 congregations in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and four northern counties, voted in favor of rescinding the ban. Delegates in the gay-friendly region voted back in February: 94 yes, 12 no, 1 abstention.

The proposed new amendment looked like this:


“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.”

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.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian to celebrate 200th

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church — New York’s flagship PCUSA church — will celebrate its 200th anniversary this Sunday (Nov. 16) at both its 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. services.

The denomination’s top elected official, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), will preach at the services.

Fifth Avenue has a membership of 3,375.

In a few weeks, on Dec. 7, the church will install its 17th senior pastor, the Rev. Scott Black Johnston. A New Jersey native, he was most recently the senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, by the way, is that big church on 55th Street…

The early days of female ministry

A few days back, I got to spend some with the Rev. Margaret “Peggy” Howland, who this month is celebrating the 50th anniversary of her ordination as a Presbyterian minister.

She has great stories to tell.

tjndc5-5m6pcg1bqbo7q0nbky9_layout.jpgHowland was ordained in 1958, only two years after the main Presbyterian denomination in the northern U.S. started ordaining women. She was the 12th female Presbyterian minister and one of the first female pastors in the country.

Think about it: We’re talking the late ’50s and early ’60s. Women were not in ministry. Presbyterians and Methodists started ordaining women in ’56. The largest Lutheran denomination wouldn’t start until 1970 and Episcopalians until 1976.

When Howland started, she had no role models. She had to make it up as she went along.

She will be honored in White Plains on Sunday. My article about her should appear on LoHud.com/The Journal News that day.

In the meantime, though, here is Howland talking about the early days:


Catching up with religion news

I’m back.

My family went down to suburban Atlanta to visit my parents, who retired down there. I purposely avoided religion news all week — we all have to clear our heads — but couldn’t help craning my neck to see all the churches.

newhopebaptist.jpgThey have the big non-denominational churches off the highways, and little Baptist churches (like the one in the picture) that were there long before the suburbs grew around them. Pretty much wherever you are, there’s a church close by.

I started off my week this morning with a visit to a Christian Science family in New City. I’m working on a feature about how Christian Science parents raise their kids in the suburbs without doctors. It seems to me that the Burbs are increasingly pediatrician-centric — with all the vaccinations, school physicals, worries about ear-infections and allergies, etc., etc. — so I wanted to see how Christian Scientists live their lives.

I think their stories will make for a real interesting feature.

Having gone through a few hundreds emails so far, I see that the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA) did indeed approve an amendment to church law that would remove the controversial “fidelity and chastity” requirement for ordination. (I really didn’t read religion news all week…)

Now the denomination’s 173 presbyteries have to each vote on the change. A majority will have to support it for the amendment to hit the books.

Twice — in 1997 and 2000 — General Assemblies have approved proposals to remove the “fidelity and chastity” requirement, which makes gays and lesbians ineligible for ordination. But both times, not enough presbyteries supported the move.

We know that the gay-friendly Hudson River Presbytery, which includes PCUSA churches in the Hudson Valley (thus the name), will approve the change by an overwhelming margin.

For a local summary of the GA, you can read the Rev. Chris Shelton’s blog here.

PCUSA revisits (again) its requirements for ordination

010.jpgPresbyterian Church (USA)’s 218th General Assembly is underway in San Jose, meaning that hundreds of Presbyterians are attending committee meetings, sorting through great piles of resolutions and amendments and other paperwork, and preparing for lots of votes.

That’s the Presbyterian way. (You have to love the John Calvin bobblehead doll in the exhibit hall.)

It also means that a debate is underway (or an old debate is continuing) on the status and future of Amendment B. This is the 1996 amendment to church law that requires “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” and is supposed to rule out gays and lesbians for ordination.

There have been several efforts over the years to strike Amendment B from the books, all failures (so far).

Last night, a committee recommended that the full Assembly delete the amendment. The committee had several overtures to choose from, including one put forth by the Hudson River Presbytery, which includes PCUSA churches in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and northern counties.

The committee approved this proposed amendment put forth by the Boston Presbytery:

“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.”

At some point, the full Assembly will consider the amendment. If it passes, the amendment would still have to be approved by a majority of presbyteries across the country.

The Rev. Chris Shelton, a minister from the Hudson River Presbytery, is blogging about the GA. He writes:

And so, I refer you back to the beginning of these thoughts — “Lift up your hearts!” However you feel about the actions taken by these committees, the time for prayer is now. These are exciting, trying, and tiring times here in San Jose. The Commissioners and Advisory Delegates need our continued prayers for strength, for wisdom, for the sustaining hand of the Spirit. Pray for all our sisters and brothers as we face the challenging conversations ahead.

I should note that PCUSA lost 2.5% of its membership from 2006 to 2007. Here’s a brief from the AP:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suffered its worst annual membership decline in decades last year.

The Louisville-based denomination reported 2.2 million active and confirmed members in 2007, a loss of 57,572 members and a 2.5 percent decrease from 2006. It’s the denomination’s largest membership loss in terms of numbers since 1981 and the steepest percentage loss since 1974, when it fell 2.7 percent.

The church has steadily been losing members since peaking at 4.25 million in the mid-1960s.

“Any decline in membership is a disappointment, to be sure, because those numbers represent members we know and love who are no longer part of our congregations,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who is completing a 12-year term as stated clerk of the PCUSA.

Opinions differ about the cause for the decline, including controversies over homosexuality, low birth rates, an aging white population and a societal move away from institutions in general. Some congregations also have left for a more conservative Presbyterian denomination.