Presbyterians Advance Gay Clergy Proposal

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) moved forward Tuesday with proposals that would allow for practicing gay clergy while rejecting one that would have redefined the definition of marriage.

In a 41-11 vote Tuesday night, the Committee on Church Orders and Ministry recommended to the 218th General Assembly – the denomination's highest governing body – that it delete wording in the ordination standard that requires "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."

The ongoing debate over ordination requirements in the PC(USA) began Monday morning in a public hearing before the committee. Some members of the committee did not return to the meeting room after a dinner break Tuesday evening when a decision was set to be made, according to the Presbyterian news service from the General Assembly, which is meeting in San Jose, Calif., this week.

The Rev. Emily McColl, who opposed the overture, or resolution, said she was "so saddened by their absence that my heart can hardly stand it."

Debate over whether non-celibate gays and lesbians should be ordained has gone on for more than 30 years in the 2.3 million-member church. The 2006 General Assembly sparked controversy and confusion when it adopted an "authoritative interpretation" of the ordination standard, which some said gave leeway to local and regional governing bodies to ordain practicing gay ministers.

Earlier this year, however, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – the church's highest court – upheld the "fidelity/chastity" ordination standard. The court ruled that although church officials are allowed to express disagreement with the wording or meaning of provisions of the constitution, they are not permitted to disobey those behavioral standards.

Supporters of gay rights are pushing this week, during the biennial meeting, an amendment to the standard. The Boston presbytery submitted an overture, or resolution, calling for the deletion of the "fidelity/chastity" requirement. It also offered replacement wording that "reaffirms standards that are important to us in our ordination questions," as overture advocate the Rev. Roderick MacDonald stated.

McColl said approval of the proposal would mean that they will no longer be considered Reformed in their understanding of biblical interpretation and theology.

And the consequences can be severe, some said.

"Churches won't wait for the ratification votes [by the presbyteries] but will leave immediately, though I hope they won't," said committee member David Reimer, according to the news service.

McColl expressed hope that congregations that could not tolerate another debate over ordination standards be allowed to "graciously leave" the denomination, as reported by the news service. A motion urging a gracious and pastoral response to congregations seeking to leave the PC(USA) was approved.

The General Assembly will decide on whether to send the motion amending the ordination standard to the presbyteries for a vote this week. It will also consider a proposal, approved by the committee, for an authoritative interpretation that would countermand the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission's ruling requiring candidates to obey the current "fidelity/chastity" standard.

Also on Tuesday, debate over the definition of marriage ended in a vote by the Committee on Church Polity to reject a proposal that would have changed the PC(USA) constitutional definition of marriage from a man and a woman to "two people."