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The Presbyterian Church (USA) and homosexuality


Lesbian/gay/bisexual ordination (1978 to now).
Over 3 decades of debate, finally settled in 2011.

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Quotations from delegates to the 2001 General Assembly:

Three quotations showing three irreconcilable positions:

bullet Doctrinal purity: "Biblical obedience is mandatory, not optional. If we can't call sin 'sin,' how can we have any credibility? " Mary Brondyke, an elder in Boston Presbytery.

bullet Justice: "We've had enough talk. Equal opportunity has been paralyzed by G-6.0106b. Justice comes first." Mary Kuhns, a minister member of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery.

bullet Ignore the problem; it may go away: "I'm against the ordination of homosexuals, though I love 'em. But we've been fighting in this ditch for 28 years and ditch is getting deeper. It's starting to affect our mission work, our youth ministry and our evangelism and I'm ready to try something else. Please, let's get on with being the church, taking the gospel into the world and offering them something else other than arguments." Elder Marj Carpenter of Big Spring, TX, a former General Assembly moderator, at the 2006 General Assembly.


Many authors divide Protestantism into three wings : conservative,liberal, and mainline denominations.

bullet Conservative wing: A near consensuses can be attained among conservative denominations on sexual matters, such as same-sex behavior. They base their beliefs on a group of passages from the Bible. They interpret these passages as describing same-sex sexual behavior as inherently sinful and disordered, chosen, caused by poor parenting and/or child molestation, and changeable through prayer and/or counseling.

bullet Liberal wing: Meanwhile, liberal denominations have adopted the findings of most lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals (LGBTs), human sexuality researchers, and mental health professionals: that homosexuality is morally neutral, as are the other two sexual orientations: heterosexuality and bisexuality. Sexual orientation, whether heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual is not chosen, it is discovered. It is unchangeable, and is caused largely by genetic factors. They interpret the same "clobber passages" quite differently as condemning same-sex rape, same-gender sex in pagan temples, men molesting children, and men engaging in bestiality with another species. Most are also certain that their interpretation of these passages is correct.

bullet Mainline wing: A consensus within the mainline denominations seems impossible to attain; they are divided within families, congregations, presbyteries, and geographical regions between religious conservatives and liberals.  Gulfs have opened between young and old members, between urban and rural areas, and between northern and southern sections of the country. Intelligent, devout, prayerful Presbyterians all read the same Bible, they agree with what the words say, but they have come to opposite conclusions about what the Bible means about homosexuality.

The hottest debate within Protestantism in recent years is whether sexually active gays and lesbians should be eligible for ordination. Back in 1993, the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly voted 72% in favor of continuing a ban on lesbian/gay ordination. Since that time, there has been an increasing acceptance within society of homosexual orientation and behavior as a valid, normal, and acceptable form of sexuality for a small minority of adults. Some members of the Presbyterian Church have followed these social trends; others retained their conservative beliefs.

The debate reached a crisis point in the late 1990's when the opposing sides became roughly equal in influence. Acceptance of sexually active gay and lesbian candidates for ordination who are in "a covenanted relationship" with a same-sex partner increased through the first decade of the 21st century.

By 2011-MAY-10, a majority of presbyteries had ratified the 2010 General Assembly's decision to remove the bar to ordination. It is an open question whether the church can stand the strain of this transition without triggering a schism. Five months later, they are still together,

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Lesbian, gay and bisexual ordination essays in this section:

Author's personal thoughts:

This denomination is seriously divided, as are other mainline Christian faith groups:

bullet Liberal Presbyterians generally approach lesbian/gay ordination as a civil rights issue. They stress "liberty and justice for all." They tend to base their beliefs partly on biblical themes that run through Scriptures -- like justice, equality, and love. They generally deny that any of the six "clobber passages" in the Bible that have been traditionally used to condemn same-gender sexual behavior can be legitimately interpreted in this way.

bullet Conservative Presbyterians generally regard same-gender sexual activity, no matter what the circumstances, to be a very serious sin. It is sufficient important to automatically preclude a person from being considered for ordination -- regardless of their talents and other factors which might make them suitable to be a minister. They generally base their beliefs mainly on their interpretation of the six "clobber passages" in the Bible which they feel all condemn same-sex sexual behavior.

The question simply will not go away. The historical record in the U.S. shows that when a minority organizes and demands equal rights, they generally attain equality eventually. This has happened with human slavery, racial segregation, women's right to vote, inter-racial marriage, women's equality in employment, etc. It is happening with respect to les/gay ordination on a denomination by denomination basis. This has tended to start with the most liberal faith groups and progress towards the more conservative denominations. 

My view in 1991 was that there was a strong possibility that the Presbyterian Church (USA) would undergo a schism, as it did over slavery in the 19th century, and over female ordination in the early 1970s. This would split the denomination into two approximately evenly sized faith groups: one accepting and one rejecting gay ordination and civil unions. This would be a largely geographical and a urban/rural division. Unfortunately, separations in religious denominations tend to resemble marital separations -- they may start out with people behaving rationally, but they tend to quickly degenerate.

At the time, I felt that the only other obvious path was to continue the debate for years in to the future. If Presbyterians could wait long enough, support would probably swing to the liberal side. Opinion polls of high school seniors indicate a far more liberal stance on homosexuality in the future. This has been confirmed two decades later as national surveys show that most adults favor the legalization of same-sex marriage.

By 2001, Presbyterians seemed to be growing weary of the endless conflict, which has extended over three decades. Another option began to look attractive: that of a local option: leave the existing standards in place which discriminate against gays and lesbian candidates for ordination, and give the ordaining bodies some wiggle room to approve at least some candidates who do not meet the standards. This satisfied nobody. But many Presbyterians saw it as the only alternative to church schism. It was approved at the 2006 General Assembly. This may provide a model which other mainline denominations can choose to follow to avoid schism.

It is interesting to note that at the same time that the 2006 General Assembly was discussing the local option, the Episcopal Church, USA was meeting to discuss two matters related to human sexuality:

bullet Consecration of a homosexual priest involved in a loving committed relationship as a bishop, and

bulletPerformance of rituals to recognize same-sex couples in loving, committed relationships.

The Episcopal Church chose to proceed along a different path which may threaten the stability of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

In 2010, for the fourth time, the denomination's General Assembly approved an amendment to change section G-6.0106b of the denomination's Book of Order to allow lesbians, gays and bisexuals in covenanted relationships to be considered for ordination. This was ratified by a majority vote of most of the denomination's 173 presbyteries.

If a schism is in the PCUSA's immediate future, this amendment will probably trigger it.

End of Author's thoughts:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update: 2011-OCT-14

Author: B.A. Robinson
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