Presbyterians Divided on Gay Ordination Ahead of Major Meeting

Leading up to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s biannual General Assembly next month, Presbyterians are evenly divided on the highly controversial issue of homosexual ordination, which is expected to hit the debate floor again.

This year, 22 proposals have been submitted by presbyteries regarding the church's sexual standards for ordination. Eleven of them support the current ban on practicing homosexuals and 11 oppose it.

While most of the overtures opposing the ban would scrap it from the church's constitution, some propose amendments that would at least soften the language of the ordination standard – which currently requires "fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman" or "chastity in singleness."

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The PC(USA) is one of many Protestant denominations wrestling with the issue of homosexuality. Last month, emotional debates broke out at the United Methodist Church's quadrennial meeting. Much to the dismay of pro-gay members, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted against changes to its ban on noncelibate gay pastors and its stance that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

On June 21, leaders of the 2.3-million member PC(USA) will convene in San Jose, Calif., to review similar proposals for change. The 2008 assembly follows a controversial decision made in 2006 by the General Assembly – the highest governing body of the church – to adopt an "authoritative interpretation" of the ordination standard. Many believed the decision gave leeway to local and regional governing bodies to ordain practicing gay ministers.

Earlier this year, however, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – PC(USA)'s highest court – ruled in local cases that candidates for ordination must follow the "fidelity and chastity" standard. The rulings were made when San Francisco Presbytery attempted to ordain a sexually active lesbian candidate and Twin Cities Area Presbytery tried to restore the ordination of a gay former minister.

Some in the denomination view the rulings as wide-sweeping and have hope the church is not heading further in a liberal direction.

But realizing the challenges they will continue to face, six presbyteries have proposed this year to toughen the language in the constitution to make clear that sexually active gays and lesbians cannot be ordained.

The 218th General Assembly is scheduled for June 21-28. Other top issues that are expected to be addressed include a revised Form of Government, or polity, that would be more flexible; the church's ecumenical stance with four other denominations; and strengthening the PC(USA)'s witness to peace with justice in relation to Israel/Palestine and Iraq. Commissioners will also be electing a new stated clerk to succeed the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who served three four-year terms.

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