The Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant denomination with more than 2 million members, last week approved a change in its Book of Order effectively permitting district church governments to ordain gay and lesbian clergy.
Some say the amendment opens a door that long has been unjustly shut to many who seek honestly to answer a calling from God; others say the change is unbiblical and could signal the death blow of the church.
Regional governing bodies, called presbyteries, are still voting on the revised language, but a majority was reached Tuesday evening when the 87th and 88th districts of the church's 173 presbyteries approved the change, according to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians website (www.covnetpres.org), which has been publishing ballot results, and other sources. A simple majority was required to pass the amendment, which takes effect July 11.
Voting members of the local Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery, which oversees 49 churches in the southern quarter of the state, opted against the change in a close tally: 49-55. Three other South Carolina Presbyteries, New Harmony, Foothills and Trinity, also voted "no." Another, Providence, had yet to file its votes as of Friday.
The amended language, which applies to the whole church, strips out explicit reference to "the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness," instead stating that "the governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office."
The revised language concludes with an imperative that some say compromises the clear meaning of Scripture and invites an inconsistent application of ordination standards across the church, critics say.
While no presbytery or congregation is required to ordain gay clergy, neither is it required to allow those ordained in another district to assume a leadership role should they transfer to the area. Such decisions are to be made on a case-by-case basis, according to the new rules.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is the latest mainline Protestant denomination to change the rules regarding gay clergy. In recent years, the United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Episcopal Church have changed provisions to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians.
Local clergy consulted for this article expressed a variety of administrative and biblical concerns. Some said the change was a positive development, others worried that it could lead to serious trouble for a denomination that already has seen membership declines in recend decades.
The Rev. Dr. Earl Bland
The pastor of James Island Presbyterian Church said the amendment raises profound questions for Christians.
"Homosexuality per se is not the issue at all," the Rev. Dr. Earl Bland said. "It's calling what God calls sin not a sin. We don't call good what God calls evil; we don't call evil what God calls good."
He quickly added that he is concerned not with sexual identity but with sinful behavior, and not only sexual behavior.
"Should someone be allowed to steal or fight because 'that's how God made them'?" he said. "I approach this with fear and trembling because I am a sinner, too."
Jesus treated people according to their actions, not their identity, Bland said. To the adulterous woman, Jesus said, "Go and sin no more."
"He didn't say, 'Go and continue with your lifestyle.' "
Christians, he said, are called to a new life and new identity that requires repentance from sin and behavior modeled after Jesus Christ.
"If we change the rules (that Scripture sets forth), what is sin? The sacrifice on the cross has less value," he said.
The Rev. McKinley Washington
Edisto Presbyterian Church's pastor set the current debate in the context of diversity, suggesting that homosexuality is not a behavioral choice but part of human identity in the same way gender or race is part of identity.
The Rev. McKinley Washington said the Gospels clearly are concerned most with social and economic justice. Jesus devotes his attention to the poor, lame, imprisoned and sick, improving their lives on Earth and promising them salvation in the hereafter.
Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, he noted. And Scriptures can be used to support almost any theological position.
"I don't think there should be discrimination against anybody God has called," Washington said. "When we do (discriminate), we get into the position of judging. We are not in a position to judge. Only God is in a position to judge."
For the most part, the congregation of Edisto Presbyterian is not concerned with sexual identity issues or gay ordination, he said.
"We don't spend a whole lot of time with this particular thing. ... There is always a lot of tension going on within denominations anyway. This is one of those fights that's going to be going on for years."
The Rev. Spike Coleman
The pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church questioned the wisdom of emphasizing the issue of gay ordination over other concerns, such as poverty, incarceration and terrorism.
"For some people, they don't see it (gay ordination) as unimportant, but they don't see it as ultimate," the Rev. Spike Coleman said.
Many churchgoers are more concerned with matters of worship and the daily life of the church, he said. A big question raised by this dispute (and others) is how to "find a way to live together as the body of Christ."
"How do we care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ when we do have different positions?" Coleman asked. "Do we risk dividing what appears to be an already fractured body?"
Different people have different priorities, he said.
In the church and in society at large, young people don't tend to think homosexuality is a big controversy, he noted. Older people might feel differently.
"I am pastor of all these people, and I am willing to talk with them, pray with them and read Scripture together, to try to work through these issues together," Coleman said.
The Rev. Daniel Massie
First (Scots) Presbyterian Church's pastor said the current debate over homosexuality "reflects the change going on in society."
"There is a new openness about it," the Rev. Daniel Massie said.
The past is characterized by "a lot of shame and violence" perpetrated against gays and lesbians, but many now realize that they know gay and lesbian people personally, and they are better able "to put themselves in their shoes," he said.
"That's new. That's healthy. That portends well for the church," he said. "No one has a monopoly on truth."
Christian revelation, he said, is progressive. It happens over time. The church has been wrong about many things in the past, and likely will be wrong about other matters in the future, he said.
Jesus made it clear to his followers that he was leaving some things unsaid because they weren't ready to hear them, Massie said. "The spirit will lead you into all truth," he said, paraphrasing the words of Jesus recorded in John 16:13.
Massie said he didn't think the new amendment would change significantly the way the church operates.
Individual districts and churches can decide for themselves who to ordain, and disagreement is hardly a new phenomenon, he said. The current debate has the potential to divide the church, "but that's always been the case."
The Rev. Jonathan Van Deventer
The pastor of Johns Island Presbyterian Church said the issue of homosexuality and gay ordination "taps into a deep-seated emotional vein" that can trigger a disproportionate response.
But the Rev. Jonathan Van Deventer said, "The issue isn't the issue. The real issue is: What is the source of authority for the church?"
Van Deventer said sinfulness has no hierarchy.
"It's not that one sin is worse than another," he said. "The challenge is defining what is sin."
For him, and many others, it is sinful to have sex outside of marriage.
Searching Scriptures carefully will show no ambiguity toward homosexuality, unlike other matters of behavior and identity, Van Deventer said.
Slavery is condoned in places, but there is no explicit mandate for keeping slaves, and the emphasis of Scripture is on God's efforts to liberate people from sin, he said. A compelling argument can be made that the Bible ultimately speaks forcefully against slavery.
It also includes examples of female leadership and allows for the possibility of broken marriage, he said.
But nowhere does it suggest that same-sex relationships are acceptable in God's eyes. Interpretation, he said, goes only so far.
"As far as I'm concerned, PC(USA) just put a bullet in its own head," Van Deventer said.
All five pastors and several other church officials said they were prepared to work through the issue as loyal members of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and all said they were pleased about the respectful tone of the discourse.
Bland struck a conciliatory note. "Everyone's welcome in this church, no one is better than anyone else," he said.
Van Deventer declared that, despite the tendency to speak hotly about gay ordination, the debate is overblown. "Of all the issues on the human condition, I rank this in the bottom third of importance," he said.
Washington said he is "going along with the change," and not dedicating much energy to the dispute.
Coleman said he was most concerned with fostering relationships among those who hold differing views.
Massie took note of the thoughtful way in which people in the church, "poles apart" on the issue, have engaged with one another.
"I am frankly amazed at how civil the conversation has been," he said.
Following is a statement from the Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery:
"There is no doubt that the passage of Amendment 10-A is a historical event in our denomination. One that has resulted in conflicting emotions throughout the 173 Presbyteries representing PC(USA); the 49 churches representing Charleston Atlantic Presbytery; and our membership serving in our local churches. However, just as our faith is often tested as Christians in overcoming insurmountable challenges, I have confidence that we will weather this challenge as well.
"One of the core beliefs of Presbyterians is that we are called to seek the heart and will of God in all our decisions. As such, in all of the debate and preparations leading to the votes, we have endeavored
(through worship, prayer and discussion) individually and together to be guided by the scriptures and our polity; all in commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ.
"It is also very important to reiterate to our membership and those watching from afar, that although 10-A allows for a change in ordination standards, it is very clear that the new standards require that all called to ordain service must 'submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of Life.' The uniqueness of this requirement allows local governing bodies (sessions and presbyteries) to interpret and determine qualifications of individuals considered for ordained office serving among them. I truly believe that if we all step back for a moment and discern the will of God, as faithful Presbyterians do, we will be guided peacefully and faithfully through this time in the life of our denomination."
- Clarissa Walker Whaley, moderator, Charleston Atlantic Presbytery
William E. Chapman, a Presbyterian Church polity expert, defines "the middle way" as "the need for both national, objective standards and the pastoral application of those standards in the consideration of individual candidates (for ordination)."
The middle way was the church's early attempt to reconcile two strains of Presbyterianism in the U.S. The Scots-Irish tradition "emphasized subscription to the traditions of the church," while the English-Puritan tradition "was more open to the evaluation of a particular candidate's religious experience, call, and gifts," Chapman writes.
The Rev. Jonathan Van Deventer of Johns Island Presbyterian Church said the original ordination language was a good example of the middle way, but that the church has abandoned a clear assertion of tradition and scriptural authority in favor of focusing more on a candidate's "religious experience, call, and gifts."
"The reason PC(USA) has hemorrhaged (membership) so badly for so many years is we've been very reluctant to make those declarative statements," he said. "That's the muddle in this middle way."
But the Rev. Daniel Massie of First (Scots) Presbyterian Church said he didn't think the new amendment would make a big difference in the way the church functions. Individual districts and churches can decide for themselves who to ordain (something that's always been the case), and disagreement is hardly a new phenomenon, he said.
"On the whole, I think it is a good thing if it brings human beings together," Massie said. "Loving God and loving neighbor are more important than all else. We can look at the particular laws and rules, or we can look at the larger picture. I think people want to be alive spiritually, and I think they want to be connected to God and others."