Leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) narrowly voted Thursday to open ordination to partnered homosexuals.
This is the fourth time since 1997 that the General Assembly, the highest legislative body, has attempted to remove the ban against noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy. Each time, the measure was rejected by the denomination's presbyteries.
A majority vote from the 173 presbyteries is required to ratify the overture.
Following the 373 to 323 vote on Thursday, General Assembly moderator Cynthia Bolbach said in a press conference that the action they took "is just part of an ongoing conversation Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been having for the past 15 years" or so.
Bolbach, who supports the "full inclusion" of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) persons, drew parallels between the debate on homosexual ordination and the debate from 70 years ago on women leaders.
She noted that society has now moved on to pretty much full inclusiveness while the church continues to try to decide how it feels about the role of gays and lesbians in ordained leadership.
Currently, the PC(USA)'s ordination standard states:
"Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."
The overture that presbyteries – regional bodies – will be considering for final approval over the next year would replace the fidelity and chastity standard with new language that contains no restrictions on behavior in regards to sexuality. It states:
"Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates."
The overture was submitted by the Presbytery of Western Reserve in Ohio.
Theresa Denton, moderator of the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, said she does not view the amendment as lower standards but rather as higher ones.
"The standards that the governing bodies will be held to is to evaluate the totality of a candidate's life, to interview them and see what their gifts are, what their talents are, what their whole life is about rather than one aspect of their life and ... all of this to be done under the Lordship of Jesus Christ," she contended. "I think that is an incredibly high standard."
In another contentious issue, the 219th General Assembly voted that same night to maintain the definition of marriage as between "a man and a woman."