On Friday, July 2, the commissioners to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 216th General Assembly voted to maintain the “authoritative interpretation” of a church law that forbids the ordination of self-affirming, practicing homosexuals in the church, at least for the next two years.
The vote came in opposition to an earlier proposal by the PC(USA)’s Committee on Church Orders and Ministries, which called on the commissioners to lift the AI for the sake of “fairness”.
The AI, adopted in 1978 and 1979, predates the G-6.0106b ordination law in the denomination’s Book of Order that says a minister must live with fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. The AI, unlike the 1997 G-60106b law, explicitly states that “self-affirming, practicing homosexuals” do not meet the biblical standards for ordination. Therefore, should the AI be repealed, a Pandora’s box of subjective interpretations on the standards will be opened, thereby clearing the way for the ordination of active homosexuals.
Following the controversial proposal, which passed with a close 35-30 vote, some of the committee members presented a minority report that asked the members to allow the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity to study the issue for two more years before taking a vote.
The minority motion stated: "We the 216th General Assembly, recognizing the church's commitment to a churchwide process of discernment with the leadership of the Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity, call upon the church to pray for the Task Force and to engage faithfully in the processes of discernment as led by the Task Force."
On Friday, committee members on both side of the debate presented their reports to the General Assembly.
The Rev. Scott Schaefer, of San Francisco Presbytery, the committee moderator, argued that the AI is “outdated” and “antiquated” and said the committee’s original recommendations must be passed for “greater clarity”.
“The 1978 statement was the best thinking at the time, but we felt it was based on outdated understandings of homosexuality,” he said. “And unlike the constitutional standard (G-6.0106b) enacted in 1997, the interpretation was not voted on by the presbyteries, so we don't believe this changes the constitutional standard. Finally, by setting aside this antiquated policy, we believe the task force will have greater clarity by being able to focus on G-6.0106b,” exhorted Schaefer.
However, the Rev. Kyle Otterbein, of East Iowa Presbytery, explained that the removal of the AI would “significantly disturb the peace of the church, undermining the trust of our members at the very time when it is needed."
“I became convinced that unity is possible, but requires the rebuilding of trust,” said Otterbein, who added that the removal “would be destructive of the climate of trust that is necessary, and will consume us in a new climate of hostility, returning us to the old ways of wrangling over words.”
The Rev. David Dobler, the moderator of the 1993 General Assembly, agreed with Otterbein, asking the members to give more time for the TTF to do its work.
“What you have before you is the precious work of the task force — don't upset this effort to find a still more excellent way,” he said. “This will be seen as a battle half-won by some or half-lost by others, and the swords will be unsheathed again. Please protect the theological task force.”
In addition, several Youth Advisory Delegates (YADs) offered their opinions on the controversial issue – while YADs have a voice in the committee meetings, they do not have the right to vote.
Jennifer Coulter, a YAD of the Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, said she believed repealing the AI would be a “compromise that doesn’t change the constitutional standard, but takes a step toward fairness and understanding.”
However, YAD Meghan Price of Mackinac Presbytery refuted Coulter’s argument by defending the importance of the AI.
“There's a lot of talk about how the authoritative interpretation isn't necessary and not very important, but even I can recognize that if it wasn't important, we wouldn't care about taking it out,” she said. “Let's be honest; it does make a difference.”
After hours of emotional debates, the General Assembly voted – with an incredibly small 50.3 to 49.6 percent margin - to substitute the committee’s original proposal with the minority report; the minority measure was then approved by a 297 to 218 vote.
Additionally, the commissioners decided not to consider any of the other overtures that called for the repeal of the original G-6.016b law, explaining that their decision to maintain the AI covered all questions about ordaining practicing homosexuals.
Following the defeat, pro-homosexual members of the Assembly gathered outside the Richmond Coliseum, where the weeklong Assembly was held, to pray and mourn their loss. The Assembly new moderator Rick Ufford-Chase met with the pro-gay advocates to support them as they prayed.
"Either way the debate goes, some of us are going to be deeply disappointed," he said. "As we finish, I would like to gather with those of you who are likely to be disappointed for a time of prayer. This is not a time of celebration, but rather a time to support one another."
The PC(USA)’s TTF, which is now charged with providing “discernment” on the controversial issue, will make its final report to the 217th General Assembly when it meets in Birmingham, Ala., in 2006.