Written by Bennett Guess
Meeting in San Jose, Calif., the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination on June 27 cracked open the door to ordaining non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, though the decades-old fight is far from over.
Delegates at the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting here voted 54 percent to 46 percent to remove a clause in their constitution that requires clergy to be either married and faithful or single and chaste.
But the action still needs approval by a majority of the denomination's 173 regional bodies, called presbyteries, and similar moves in recent years have twice failed to win ratification on the local level.
In a related move, delegates approved an "authoritative interpretation" of church rules on gay clergy, a move that was meant to piece back together a delicate compromise forged two years ago that was rejected by the church's highest court.
Under the new interpretation, gay and lesbian clergy would be allowed to declare a conscientious objection to rules that would
otherwise prohibit them. Local bodies could then choose to ordain them, or deny them access to the pulpit.
"It is more than we expected from this General Assembly," said Jon Walton, co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which
supports gay and lesbian clergy. "But it is all that we hoped for."
"We cleared the slate," said Deborah Block, also of Covenant Network.
Not all delegates, however, were happy with the outcome.
"I think the word that best describes what we feel is grief," said Terry Schlossberg of Presbyterian Coalition, a group that sought to
preserve the ordination standards. "We think the implications are very serious and will do a great deal of harm to the church."
In the proposal that now heads out to local presbyteries, delegates voted to replace language in the church's Book of Order that required
ordination candidates to live "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
Under the new rules, candidates for ordination must "pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the
Church." It makes no reference to sexual orientation or activity.
The setting for this year's assembly in California proved an interesting backdrop for the debate, just a week after the state joined
Massachusetts in allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Presbyterians have wrestled with the role of gays and lesbians in the church before. Since the "fidelity and chastity" language was added
in 1996, each assembly has grappled with numerous attempts to redefine marriage. A proposal to change the current definition to a union between two people was defeated in committee earlier this week.
Among mainline Protestant churches, only the United Church of Christ officially allows sexually active gay or lesbian clergy, while some,
like the Episcopal Church, allow it in some quarters. Others, including the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America, officially prohibit it. Both the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism allow gay ordination.
Inside the San Jose Convention Center, debate on the issue illustrated the divide within and even beyond the church. Many who spoke
in favor of gay ordination were young people or seminarians, while many who spoke against it were older.
Alicia Maxwell, a young adult delegate from Wisconsin, said she had never met a gay person until she got to college. "I realized this issue
is not about a `them' but about real people with a real call from God," she told the assembly.
She was immediately followed at the microphone by William Stepp, a white-haired representative from Florida, who urged the assembly to keep
the current ordination standard. "To remove it will destabilize the denomination and our children will lose a clear call to sexual purity,"
In other business, the denomination elected its next top official, Gradye Parsons, who will serve as the church's Stated Clerk for the next
Accepting the position in a ceremony that included the placing of a deep blue stole around his neck, Parsons expressed appreciation for the
outgoing stated clerk, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick. "This ain't easy," he said.