The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s highest governing body voted Friday in favor of a proposal that would allow for the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians.
The 218th General Assembly, meeting in San Jose, Calif., this week, voted 380-325 to send the overture – that would delete the requirement that clergy live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness" – to the denomination's 173 presbyteries for approval.
Adding to the blow to conservatives, the Assembly also adopted a supplementary authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) constitution that would allow gay and lesbian candidates for ordination to conscientiously object the current "fidelity and chastity" standard and the local ordaining body to discern whether the declared objection is disqualifying.
After decades of debate on gay clergy, commissioners and delegates at the meeting continued to argue on both sides, but the debate this year was shorter than in previous years, according to the Presbyterian news service from the General Assembly.
Approving the proposal of amending the PC(USA)'s constitution would "destabilize the denomination, obliterate trust and reduce funding for the church. Don't send a shock wave through the church," said the Rev. William Stepp of Tropical Florida Presbytery, who opposed the drop on the gay clergy ban.
The PC(USA) "needs a continuing strong witness to biblical standards for sexuality," he added, according to the news service.
But with discussion on ordination standards having gone on for 30 years, the Rev. Susan Fisher of Pacific Presbytery felt "compelled" to advance the amendment to the presbyteries to "let the wider church decide if now is the time" to change the standards.
The Rev. Dan Holloway of Providence Presbytery, who moderated the Assembly Committee on Church Orders and Ministries that brought the recommendation to the Assembly, stressed that the Assembly's vote has not changed the denomination's constitution. But with heated debates expected across the denomination as presbyteries decide whether to approve the proposed amendment – a process that could take up to a year – Holloway urged for "gracious and loving and welcoming" conversations "since we are not all of one mind."
Pleading for unity, outgoing General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick said, "There are people who are gay and lesbian who long passionately to be included. There are others who believe strongly, not that they don't love them, but that standards must be upheld. What is essential is the spirit of unity as we go forward to a new stage in the process."
Also on Friday, the Assembly approved a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order - which contains Rules of Discipline for the PC(USA) - declaring that interpretive statements related to sexual standards for ordination that predate the adoption of the "fidelity and chastity" requirement in 1996 "have no further force or effect," as reported by the Assembly news service.
The "fidelity and chastity" requirement had replaced language prohibiting non-celibate gays and lesbians from ministry.
This year's proposed new language requires ministers to "pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church."
The local presbytery or ordaining body would determine whether the gay or lesbian candidate meets those standards.
The vote comes a day after the Assembly approved a proposal to begin revising the Heidelberg Catechism – a document of the Reformed Christian faith – which would include removing the reference to "homosexual perversion" among a list of sinful behaviors.
In recent years, a small but growing number of PC(USA) congregations have voted to disaffiliate with the denomination over its liberal direction on Scripture and theology. While this week's Assembly votes are expected to spark another exodus of churches, one Presbyterian urges conservatives to do the opposite.
"Stay and compete," said William J. Weston, a sociology professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
Despite the ongoing attempts to liberalize church rules, Weston says the vast majority of people in the PC(USA) are conservative and believe in the essential tenets of the Reformed faith.
"The future is actually pretty bright for traditional Presbyterian faith. It is just the rules that are getting loosened, not so many of the people," he said in his latest blog post. "So stay and compete. How people vote with their feet matters the most in the end."
Past votes by the people back Weston's claim. In 1997 and 2000, the denomination's presbyteries had overwhelmingly rejected proposals to delete the "fidelity and chastity" requirement.