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:

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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.

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The letter also asks Presbyterians to say this prayer:

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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.

PCUSA still debating and shrinking

It’s hard to put a positive spin on some things.

For instance: Presbyterian Church (USA) has now seen its national membership fall by half since the mainline Protestant heyday of 1965. We’re talking from 4 million people to 2 million.

Peter Smith, the terrific religion writer at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, recently broke down PCUSA’s fall.

The Rev. Gradye Parsons, a top official with the denomination, said in a statement: “What continues to sadden me is that the overwhelming majority of the loss in membership is in the category of ‘other,’ which means these are brothers and sisters in Christ who did not die or transfer to another congregation, but probably quietly slipped out the back door.”

PCUSA is best known these days for its knock-down, drag-out internal debates over gay clergy and the Middle East.

These issues, as usual, dominated the denomination’s recent General Assembly.

In a wrap-up of the General Assembly on the website of the Hudson River Presbytery — the regional PCUSA body that includes the Lower Hudson Valley — someone wrote this (it’s not signed):

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There will be much discomfort in the Church because of this Assembly. More politicking. More crying. More nail-biting moments as we await the results of all the votes to come.

There will also be many opportunities to remember who we are as Presbyterians: people of forbearance, lovers of Scripture, students of Jesus and seekers of God’s will.

It isn’t our Church after all. I know I wasn’t going to mention that, but it’s true. The more tightly we grip the reins of the Church the more we struggle.

I am convinced that the Spirit is at work in the Church – and that none of the Assembly’s actions is outside of God’s ongoing work. I got a few too many goosebumps this week, and not just from the incessant air-conditioning.

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:

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…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.

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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.