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Presbyterian Panel Gives Green Light to Gay Ordinations

Assembly has yet to fully vote on controversial issue
( [email protected] ) Jun 30, 2004 11:35 AM EDT

The legislative committee of the Presbyterian Church USA approved a measure that would partly lift the church’s ban on the ordination of homosexuals, during the PC(USA)’s General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, on Tuesday, June 29, 2004.

The measure is one of five challenges to the current ordination standards; these measures vary from an outright rejection of the 1978 “fidelity/chastity” law that prohibits active gays from ministering, to the “loosening” of the Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of the fidelity/chastity law. The AI explicitly states that active homosexuals are not allowed to minister in any PC(USA) churches because they do not fit under the fidelity/chastity banner.

The measure that passed the legislative committee on Tuesday would dismiss the AI, thereby leaving the “fidelity/chastity” law up for interpretation. Ergo, with no standard definition of the law, homosexual activists can argue against what the “fidelity/chastity” law “meant to say.”

The General Assembly members will vote on the measure later on this week.

Even if the assembly passes the measure, active homosexuals would still be barred from ordination under a separate law passed only 7 years ago. Nevertheless, the repeal of the 1978 fidelity/chastity law would mark a major step toward the inclusion of gays in the church, and most likely cause unnecessary schisms within the church that will alienate biblically grounded Presbyterians.

Conservatives say that the purity of the church must come before haphazard unity, because the PC(USA) is a religion of the Scripture.

In past General Assemblies – specifically in 1997 and 2000 – participants passed proposed measures to ordain gay ministers, but these votes were repealed by a majority of the country’s 173 presbyteries.

This year’s General Assembly will last through July 3, 2004.

Meanwhile, on Monday, June 28, assembly participants heard a two-hour public hearing and debate on the controversial issue. According to the Presbyterian Layman – an independent PC(USA) newspaper run by the Presbyterian Lay Committee, there were an equal amount of supporters of the ordination standards as there were opponents.

The following is the Layman’s account of the hearing:

The hearing had its familiar faces.

For instance, the proponents who favor ending the Biblical ordination standards included Janie Spahr, a lesbian activist who recently helped to conduct the marriage of a homosexual couple in Canada. Presbyterian law also forbids ministers from performing same-sex marriages.

It was Spahr who said, as she has often said before, that the church "is the greatest perpetrator of violence against GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered] people" because of the ordination ban. "I'm asking you to stop the violence and welcome us home where we belong."

The other camp included the Rev. Robert "Bob" Dooling of the Presbytery of the Plains and Peaks in Colorado and James Tony of the Presbytery of Chicago, two of the leaders in the effort to maintain the church's Biblical standards.

Dooling argued for retaining both the constitutional standard, G-6.0106b, and the Authoritative Interpretation. The Authoritative Interpretation, he said, functions like a center pole in a tent, giving it shape and keeping it from collapsing. If the Authoritative Interpretation is nullified, the words in definitions in G-6.0106b "will be up for grabs."

Tony agreed, noting that the Advisory Committee on the Constitution has said just about the same in pointing out that, without the Authoritative Interpretation, presbyteries would apply their own understanding to G-6.0106b. "It's the same as local option," he said, which would allow some presbyteries to ordain practicing homosexuals while others didn't. That would "make a mockery" of the Presbyterian principle that ordination is an act on behalf of the whole church and create a "constitutional crisis nationally," he added.

The following are excerpts from comments by other speakers:

Martha Juillecat of the Presbytery of Twin Cities: "Sometimes it is more than I can bear to think that this church has decided to discriminate against an entire class of people."

Maria Carlos, an elder in the Presbytery of San Gabriel, reminded the committee of the way Jesus responded to sinners, by calling them to repentance. A former lesbian, she said she was transformed "from having a woman as a lover to having God as a lover."

"God has told us what is good and loving," said Douglas Heilman of the Presbytery of Donegal. "Our ordination standards are based on God's truth."

Roger Bouch of the Presbytery of North Puget Sound, noting that when "Eve partook of the apple, she let sin enter the world," and after that, God said, "'Love one another.' I believe the restrictions cause us not to love."

Mitzi Henderson of the San Jose Presbytery, a leader of More Light Presbyterians, said her conclusion that homosexuality was permissible came after her son announced that he had been gay for many years. "I felt in my gut what it meant to be marginalized and denigrated. I'm now 71 years old and I've been waiting since 1978" for the PCUSA to remove its ban on ordaining practicing homosexuals.

Mary Brondyke of the Presbytery of Boston urged the committee to vote to retain the Authoritative Interpretation, noting that it was reaffirmed by 96 percent of the commissioners in a General Assembly vote in 1991. Furthermore, she said, G-6.0106b has been approved three times by presbyteries in denominationwide referendums – more than any other part of our Book of Order.

Donna Riley, who said she is 32 years old and a member of Generation X, told the committee that "members of my generation tend to be suspicious of institutions." She accused Presbyterians who support the ordination standard of being "hypocritical" because they are not equally opposed to other sins. "The emperor has no clothes," she said.

Jack Sharpe of the Carlisle Presbytery took issue with people who use Scripture in their argument against the ordination standard. "Those who claim a different interpretation do so by discarding those passages they do not like."

Nancy Maffett, a former candidate for moderator of the PCUSA, reminded the committee that nearly 75 percent of the presbyteries affirmed G-6.0106b during the 2001 referendum.

Arguing against the ordination law, Travis Stevens of the Presbytery of Pacific, urged the committee to "let justice roll down like waters."

Like many other speakers, Deborah Mullin equated the ordination issue to the civil rights movement, which "is not over. The time is now."

"Keep the current definitive guidance statements; they reflect our confessions," said David Horner of the Presbytery of Donegal. "Reflect the view that all Christians have had on this issue since the beginning of Christianity."

Lucy Harris, who said she is a single lesbian mother and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, told the committee she lives in compliance with the church law. "Nevertheless, I have encountered a great deal of hesitation [in receiving a call], not on the basis of my lifestyle, but on the basis of my orientation." She decried the "harsh and judgmental language" of the Authoritative Interpretation.

Michael Adee, who works for More Light Presbyterians, talked about coming out as a homosexual in his 20s and being rejected by his family and his church. "My own sister said I was going to hell," he said. "Remove the barriers, stop the prejudice, do the just, right thing, fulfill the promises you gave to us as children."

Amy Compton of the Presbytery of the James described herself as a lesbian woman living with another woman who is a professor in a medical school. She, too, spoke of feeling the rejection of her church. "Brothers and sisters, when you wall off a category of people, you wound the body of Christ. Commissioners, tear down these walls, tear them down now."

Dean Papapetrou, an elder from Live Oak, Fla., said his session had sent him to Richmond to plead with commissioners to retain the church's ordination standard. "My session asked me to ask you, 'Could our decline in membership be due to our failure to uphold our constitution?'"

Donald Stroud, a homosexual minister who has received the support of the Presbytery of Baltimore despite attempts to end the presbytery's validation of his ministry because of his homosexual behavior, argued that the Bible is clear: "The disturbing problem is the grace of Jesus Christ. The definitive guidance and G-6.0106b are attempts to nullify the grace of God."

Don Horner of Richmond was one of several speakers who viewed grace another way – as the transforming power that enables one to abandon a homosexual lifestyle and follow Jesus. "I eventually came to understand the boundaries God places are to protect us. It has been a long and difficult journey, but I have experienced healing. God has allowed me to become the man I thought I would never be."

Marvin Ellison of the Presbytery of Northern New England, a seminary professor, called the PCUSA's exclusion of practicing homosexuals "shameful and inconsistent with the gospel. Encourage us to put the focus on things that truly matter. Proper focus is not on homosexual orientation, but on character."

Jim Berkley of Presbyterians for Renewal countered arguments that G-6.0106b is unclear. "A lot of misinformation and disinformation is going around these days. It's disingenuous to claim we don't know what we mean. How could we ever again regain clarity by removing a brilliant explanation [the Authoritative Interpretation]."

Douglas Potter of the Presbytery of Genessee Valley described himself as being married by Spahr to a "man I have loved and shared my life with." A member of Downtown Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., where Spahr was prohibited from becoming an associate minister by a church court decision, Potter said, "The wider church's hostility to the ministry of our local church is baffling me."

Jim Rigbee of the Presbytery of Mission in Texas said the ordination law conflicts with the Book of Order assurance that "every governing body has an inalienable right to choose its own leaders."

Kim Richter, pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C., called for ending the Authoritative Interpretation, citing some of its "obsolete and offensive statements."

Responding to statements that the writers of the 1978 Authoritative Interpretation no longer agreed with what they said, Mary Naegeli said she decided to call one of the original writers, John Huffman, pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif. Huffman "does not endorse the removal of the 1978 statement. He does not want you to be misled … He expected it would be followed by every session and presbytery."