PCUSA Gay Clergy Decision Changes Nothing, Scholar Says

While supporters of gay ordination say a recent vote by the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gives the green light for gay clergy, one professor is arguing that the decision changes nothing.

In a soon-to-be published analysis, Dr. Robert A. J. Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said he believes there is a "reasonable possibility" that the actions by the 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA) last weekend in favor of homosexuality "will have no material effect on changing the denomination's stance against ordaining, unrepentant, homosexually active persons to church office."

During the biennial meeting in San Jose, Calif., the Assembly on June 27 approved an "authoritative interpretation" (A.I.) of the church constitution – which currently bans ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians. The vote would allow gay and lesbian candidates for ordination to conscientiously object the current standard requiring fidelity in marriage (between a man and a woman) and chastity in singleness. And the local ordaining body would be required to discern whether the declared objection is disqualifying and consider such requests on a case-by-case basis.

An authoritative interpretation does not change the church constitution and is thus effective immediately.

Gay advocates in the denomination praised the decision and some believe gays and lesbians can be ordained now.

Gagnon, however, has reason to believe otherwise.

He argues that nothing in the language of the authoritative interpretation states that "a higher governing body cannot overturn the ordination or installation decision of a lower governing body when the lower governing body 'ignores or waives a specific standard that has been adopted by the whole church.'"

Earlier this year, the PC(USA)'s high court – the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – 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. The ruling was issued in February in a case involving the Presbytery of Pittsburgh.

Although reports indicate that the new authoritative interpretation supersedes that ruling, Gagnon argues that "a careful examination of the text of the 2008 A.I., piece by piece" shows that it actually does not overturn the GAPJC decision.

Additionally, he says "nothing" in the wording of the 2008 A.I. prevents the high court from coming to the same conclusion – of disallowing any departure from the fidelity and chastity standard – in future cases.

Nevertheless, the Pittsburgh professor cannot guarantee that the high court will rule similarly in future cases, but he says "they should."

For now, he and others in the denomination opposing gay ordination will just have to "adopt a wait-and-see approach to future GAPJC cases," he said.

The PC(USA) has been debating ordination standards for three decades. Among other more radical actions the 218th General Assembly approved was a proposal to delete the fidelity and chastity standard from the church constitution. The nation's 173 presbyteries, or regional church bodies, will be voting over the next year on whether to give their approval for the proposed deletion, which would have a huge impact.

But many believe the required majority approval by the presbyteries is unlikely as they had rejected such efforts to drop the gay ordination ban both in 1997 and 2001.

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