Conservatives, Liberals Scorn Presbyterian Report on Sexuality

Both conservatives and liberals in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. are not satisfied with the denomination’s four-year report on maintaining unity despite differences in understanding homosexuality.

The two predominant affinity groups within the two-million-member denomination largely thanked the Theological Task Force that drafted the report on “Peace, Unity and Purity,” but rejected the task force’s conclusions on how to deal with the thorny sexuality issue that is dividing the Church.

The Presbyterian Coalition – a conservative group that works to uphold and maintain the church’s ban on active homosexual ministers and same-sex marriage blessings – condemned the report, calling it an “unconstitutional” attempt of making an “end run” around the denomination’s law.

During their annual gathering on Nov. 10 in Orlando, Fla., members of the Coalition heard presenters say the report “would permit behavior that would have scandalized Jesus.”

“[It is a] recycled amendment to the constitution that has been rejected by increasingly large margins three times in the last 10 years,” said the Rev. James Berkeley, interim director of Presbyterian Action – an agency of the Washington D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy.

At issue for conservatives is one key recommendation: A proposed “authoritative interpretation” of denominational law that would allow candidates for ordination an option of declaring “scruples” – or conscientious objections – to constitutional standards, and still be ordained. This potentially means that an individual can pick-and-choose which standards they want to uphold and ignore the others, pending the presbytery ordaining the individual believes the same.

Meanwhile, liberals have a problem with another recommendation: a proposal that the current ordination standards will not be debated or changed during the upcoming 217th General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., where the report will be up for adoption.

During a board meeting in Memphis early November, members of the Covenant Network – a group that strives to change the church’s standards on sexuality – said the report provides a “neutral” stance on the debate but that more must be done to bring “justice.”

Barbara Wheeler, a member of the Covenant Board network and one of a dozen task-force members that drafted the report, said the proposals are “not large leaps, but they’re better than the all-or-nothing wars,” according to the Presbyterian News Service.

Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York said that at least 10 more years are needed before the church is ready to lift its ban on ordaining gays and lesbians, but added that the recommendations would make the church safer for homosexuals.

Some members of the Covenant Network criticized the assessment, saying that waiting would make it increasingly morally acceptable to exclude gays and lesbians from ordination.

“Exclusion should never be morally acceptable,” said Jenny Stone, a Witherspoon Society board member. “We work, not for comfort, but for engagement.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. Jane Spahr, a well-known Presbyterian lesbian activist, agreed that the report is too slow in bringing “justice.”

“It’s time NOW for justice, because it’s the right thing to do; and there’s an urgency because there’s hundreds of us already serving,” said Spahr, according to PCnews.

Other Covenant members were more cautious in their approach, saying the report marks a “huge step forward” since it opens some doors and windows to individual gay and lesbian pastors.

The Rev. Tim-Hart Andersen, a member of the network’s board, said he hopes “every candidate for ordination or installation will declare a ‘scruple’ with G-6.0106b.”

These are exactly the reasons why conservatives also reject the report.

“A standard is no standard if it is not standard,” said Berkley. “Non-essential requirements are a mockery of language and morals.”

“Homosexuals would be ordained wherever there’s a majority,” Berkley said, “which would result in the ‘Balkanization’ of the PC(USA)…with myriad battles everywhere all the time…. God will not be thwarted. This is not about church politics. This is about life.”