An openly lesbian minister's bid to join the clergy may be the first national test of a controversial policy adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
After being denied ordination twice over the past couple of decades because of a ban on ordaining openly gay persons, Lisa Larges made some headway this past week when she gained support from a regional body of the PC(USA).
The San Francisco Presbytery voted Tuesday 167-151 to support Larges' application for ministry. The vote came after a long debate and despite warnings that the action violated the church's constitution and would be appealed.
According to its constitution, the PC(USA) requires "fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman" or "chastity in singleness" for its clergy.
But Larges' third bid comes after the Presbyterian national assembly adopted an "authoritative interpretation" of the ordination standard in 2006 – a decision that opponents say allows some leeway to churches for homosexual ordination.
Larges' latest attempt is thought to be the first test of the 2006 policy, said Jerry Van Marter, news director for the PC(USA).
"I'm in shock," Larges, 44, said of the support she's receiving, according to The Los Angeles Times. "I still feel stunned, honestly, and deeply grateful both to the folks who supported me and to the presbytery for stepping up."
Larges must pass an oral examination, known as the "trials of ordination," by the presbytery before she can be ordained. The test can come as early as April.
But many are hoping to halt the process.
The Rev. Mary Naegeli, who opposed the Larges' ordination on Tuesday, said they are taking "immediate steps" to stop the ordination process. "This really is the defining case for the Presbyterian church on this question."
Larges told the LA Times that she couldn't pursue ministry and stay in the closet after graduating from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She applied for candidacy in the Twin Cities presbytery but was turned down in 1992. She was again rejected for ordination in 2004 by the committee that oversaw candidates for ordination for the San Francisco Presbytery. But the committee let her continue as a candidate.
When the General Assembly approved the policy change in 2006, she decided to try for a third time.
In a "statement of departure," Larges has written that she cannot abide by the church's requirement that she be married to a man or be celibate in order to become a minister.
While Larges has been commended for her giftedness in the ministry and her dedication to her cause, many are opposed to her joining the clergy.
"Lisa has publicly and without ambiguity stated that she will not comply with a requirement for ordination," Naegeli said. "The problem is not the fact that she disagrees with a feature of the church constitution, but that she won't abide by it. And that's a very important distinction."
Also weighing in on the controversy, James D. Berkley, Director of Institute on Religion and Democracy's Presbyterian Action Committee, commented, "A requirement should be required. A standard ought to be standard across the denomination. San Francisco Presbytery has capitulated to the spirit of the age, ignoring the clear and consistent witness of the Bible, our Presbyterian creeds and constitution, and repeated, overwhelming decisions by the church here, abroad, and across the ages."
Following the 2006 General Assembly decision, several Presbyterian churches have taken steps to withdraw from the national church. The churches have opposed the liberal direction the denomination is going on homosexuality as well as other issues, including the singular lordship of Jesus Christ.
The gay ordination issue is expected to be taken up again at PC(USA)'s biennial General Assembly in June.
The PC(USA) is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country with 2.3 million members.