The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s high court rulings this week upholding the chastity requirement for gay ministers is expected to douse years of fiery debate over a controversial decision on ordination standards.
Since the 2006 General Assembly adoption of an "authoritative interpretation" of the ordination standard, the national body has been wracked with confusion with many seeking clarity over what the decision means, notably for gay ordination. Some felt the decision gave leeway to local and regional governing bodies to ordain practicing gay ministers, pushing several churches to leave the PC(USA) over its seemingly liberal direction on homosexuality.
But in three separate decisions on Monday, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruled that candidates for ordination must follow the sexual behavior standards of fidelity and chastity and no ordaining body has the right to ordain a candidate in violation of those constitutional standards.
Unless there is a constitutional amendment to the standard, ordaining bodies must adhere to it.
Essentially, the rulings clarify that the 2006 decision did not change the denomination's standards requiring "fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman" or "chastity in singleness."
The decisions are a "huge deal," says Michael Walker, a Theologian-in-Residence at the prominent conservative Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas.
Although the rulings were made in local cases – Presbyteries of Pittsburgh, Olympia and Washington – the landmark decisions are believed to apply to the entire national church.
"What was at stake was how to interpret the constitution and the constitution is binding on the entire church," Walker told The Christian Post. "So the ruling applies to all of the governing bodies of the PC(USA)."
Walker believes recent decisions by other local presbyteries in favor of ordaining openly gay ministers who have rejected the constitutional requirement will not stand.
Last month, Lisa Larges, a lesbian who refused to comply with the ordination standard, received support from the San Francisco Presbytery when she made a third bid to join the clergy. The presbytery approved Larges' application for ministry despite warnings that the action violated the church's constitution. The approval was seen as the first national test of the "authoritative interpretation" adopted by the 2006 General Assembly.
Also in recent weeks, Presbyterians in Minnesota voted to restore the ordination of an openly gay man who has refused to pledge celibacy – a decision also testing the 2006 policy.
The GAPJC clarified in this week's rulings that church officials are allowed to express disagreement with the wording or meaning of provisions of the constitution. But they are not permitted to disobey those behavioral standards.
In other words, church officials do not have to conform to all the standards and beliefs of the national church, but they do have to live by them, Walker of Highland Park explained.
Following the high court's rulings, Walker said he believes the PC(USA) is still a good place for orthodox believers despite some areas of discontentment.
"Like any church, some things about the denomination we're praying for some improvement," he said. "But at the same time, there are a lot of signs of God's continuing presence and activity in the life of this denomination."
Several churches, however, have already withdrawn from the PC(USA). Many conservative churches have said the issue goes beyond homosexuality and are leaving over the denomination's liberal direction on Scripture. But some specifically cited the 2006 "authoritative interpretation" adoption as their cause for leaving, Walker noted.
Walker believes this week's rulings gives conservative churches that are still considering withdrawal a "cause for pause."
"What we have found in these high court rulings is the Presbyterian constitution still works and it has turned out that the GA (2006 General Assembly) decision did not have the negative consequences that many people feared it would have," he highlighted.
The latest court decisions are expected to help shape the debate over homosexuality at the upcoming PC(USA) General Assembly in June 2008. Supporters of gay rights are already pushing for an amendment to the ordination standard of fidelity and chastity.