Critics Say Presbyterian Report not Helpful for Homosexuality Debate

After a four-year-long wait, the theological task force appointed to “discern the Christian identity in and for the twenty-first century” for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. released its initial draft report. However, it made no mention of the church’s future, especially in regards to the most contentious issue threatening to split the denomination apart: homosexuality.

The report is the first fruit of the task force, which was created by the 2001 General Assembly to “lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century.” Specifically, the group was instructed to find ways for the church to address controversies in a non-confrontational manner.

On the topic of homosexual ordinations, the 20 members of the Theological Task Force committee agreed on some general beliefs: denying baptism or church members to gays and lesbians is a “grave error”; ordained members should live faithful lives; sexual behavior should not be taught as merely a personal matter; sexual orientation in itself should not be a barrier to ordination.

But they did not agree on the fundamental question about who should or should not serve as a pastor for the church.

“The Task Force was not asked to take a position on human sexuality or ordination and we have not attempted to do so,” the draft report stated.

However, at least one of the committee members said he believes the issue should have been addressed, especially because it links to the question about the church’s future.

The Rev. Jong Hyeong Lee, pastor of Hanmee Presbyterian Church in Itasca, Ill., said during the last day of the Task Force’s meeting last week that membership loss rates in the denomination has been staggering. Since 1982, the church last 25 percent of its members; the decline was from 3.2 million in 1992 to 2.4 million now.

"What has happened to our denomination?" asked Lee, according to the Presbyterian Layman. "We need to deal with that issue. It seems like the General Assembly gave us a mandate. We didn't follow orders."

Lee believes the membership problem links to both the ongoing discussion over ordaining practicing homosexuals and the possibility that the denomination would consider blessing same-sex unions.

"For the church to accept it, same-sex marriage, we have a problem," Lee said. "But I think God has given us the means to transform the world."

The debate over homosexuality was among the top reasons why the task force was created in the first place. But according to Jerry Van Martyr, communications director for the denomination, the task-force successfully did its job.

“The Task Force was created in response to a whole slew of theological disputes that have been creating increasing amounts of rancor," explained Martyr. "The hope is that this report will give Presbyterians everywhere the tools to discuss controversial issues.”

Alan F. H. Wisdom, the interim president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy – an evangelical watchdog group based out of Washington, agrees that the task force gave some good lessons on communications.

“It was encouraging that the task force members of diverse views were able to have a civil conversation on that issue, and we must cultivate that,” said Wisdom, who attends a PC(USA)-affiliated church in Washington D.C. “Their example of disagreeing strongly but with respect is certainly helpful.”

However, Wisdom said, the content of the report will “not likely be so helpful, sadly.”

That’s because the members of the task force – many whom held opposing views on the issue - tried to find a consensus based on their own diverse opinions.

“By trying to seek consensus among the members of the task force, it seems to me that they defeated any possibility that they could get a clear vision of our Christian identity because there was no consensus there,” Wisdom explained.

Wisdom believes members in the task force were unwise in their approach because they did not attempt to persuade one another with the basis of Scripture.

“The essence of Christian moral discernment is that we must try to persuade one another on the basis of Scripture. If you believe someone is wrong, it is a betrayal not to persuade them,” he said. “Simply saying there is a range of possible interpretations on passages related to sexuality is an abdication of their responsibility.”

To Wisdom, the future of the denomination lies in framing the church “more appropriately in terms of what God expects” and by clarifying the church’s view on such controversial issues.

“I really would like every possible effort to keep the PC(USA) together, but only by honoring our constitution,” he said, referring to the denomination’s law prohibiting the ordination of active homosexuals. “Not by watering it down so much that Presbyterianism would stand for nothing in particular.”

The task force held their meeting at the American Airlines Training Center near the Dallas Ft. Worth airport, July 18-21.

The next meeting is slated for Chicago from Aug. 24-25. The final report will be released on Sept. 15, and task force members will travel throughout the church to seek reflections and interpretations on the report before presenting their findings the General Assembly next summer.