Presbyterians move closer to full inclusion
July 6th, 2010
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is meeting in Minneapolis this week and high on the agenda is how to deal with gay and lesbian Presbyterians in committed relationships. And two decisions made so far give promise that this year may result in steps towards greater inclusion.
The first action was the election of gay ally Cindy Bolbach as Moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010).
Only one question from the floor touched upon any of the several controversial issues that this Assembly will tackle in the coming week: whether to change the constitutional definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two people.”
Four candidates – Leeth, Nielsen, Kim and Belle – endorsed support for the traditional definition. Though same-sex marriage is not legal in her native North Carolina, Lauterer said “in states where it’s legal, the church should have a part in that union … Covenant makes the community stronger.”
Only Bolbach expressed unqualified support for same-sex marriage. “Who poses the greatest threat – Larry King, who’s been married seven times, or a gay couple [friends of hers] in Washington, D.C., who have been together for 62 years and who got married two weeks ago?” Same-sex marriage is legal in the District of Columbia and five states.
Bolbach, who is a lawyer and legal publishing company executive in Washington, acknowledged, “I don’t think our denomination is ready for [changing the definition of marriage], but what do pastors do in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal?”
Bolbach lives in just such a jurisdiction.
Yesterday, the church addressed correcting a 1960’s mistranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism which included language not in the original German. This additional language (in part of the response to Quetion 87) made anti-gay theological interpretations a matter of catechism. In 2008 the church directed a panel review the issue and respond this year.
Additionally, the Belhar Confession came out of South Africa as a consequence of apartheid and calls for racial equality. It declares that God is on the side of those who been oppressed or who have had injustice engaged against them. It is a strong call against segregating groups or treating people unequally and has been used as support for full inclusion of gay men and women, a connection made stronger by opposition to the Confession from those who oppose gay equality in the church.
The Committee on Theological Issues and Institutions furthered the effort to revise the Heidelberg Catechism and to adopt the Belhar Confession.
The committee concurred, 51-4, with the report to appoint the presently constituted Special Committee to recommend to the 220th General Assembly (2012) a new translation of the present Heidelberg Catechism in The Book of Confessions in cooperation with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church of America (RCA), and to consider inclusion of appropriate scriptural citations and/or textual references that correspond to each article.
Following a lengthy and thoughtful process, the committee concurred, 43-11-1, with the Special Committee’s recommendation that the 219th General Assembly (2010) approve the inclusion of the Belhar Confession in The Book of Confessions, and that the amendment be sent to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes by June 2011.
The 219th General Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues voted 47-8-2 Monday to approve a report that urges Presbyterians to further study the issues and stay in covenant with each other while they do so.
The report of the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage, signed by 10 of its 13 members, passed the Assembly committee with minor amendments.
The committee rejected a minority report submitted by three members of the special committee. The minority report, which stated that “only marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God,” was defeated 40-15, with one abstention.
Additionally, the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues seems to be making some astonishing adjustments to church language. For example,
1. Shall W-4.9001 be amended as follows: [Text to be deleted is shown with a strike-through; text to be added or inserted is shown as italic.]
“Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between
a woman and a mantwo people. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a womantwo people are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each otherbetween two people, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.”
The vote was affirmative 34 to 18 with two abstentions.
The decisions are not all going in the favor of gay Presbyterians, but there is plenty to be happy about. More Light Presbyterians are providing live-blogging and other coverage from their facebook site.
We must keep in mind that these committee decisions do not, in themselves, place gay people on an equal standing in the Presbyterian Church; there are still a number of hurdles to clear. But they are steps towards that standing and are encouraging signs of what the future holds for gay Presbyterians and gay Christians on the whole.
What Does Ex-Gay Consolidation Mean?
August 12th, 2009
Exodus International is growing. Or, to be exact, they are going to be taking over functions previously administered by other organizations.
The largest and best know of these is the Love Won Out conferences previously run by Focus on the Family. Blaming a lack of finances, Focus is reassigning the conferences to Exodus. This is a move that is logical and will probably help both organization focus on their own mission.
But there was another consolidation that occured last month that is even more interesting. on July 17, Focus’ news site CitizenLink announced:
One by One, an outreach equipping the Presbyterian and Reformed faith communities to compassionately and effectively address biblical sexuality and Transforming Congregations, a likeminded ministry to The United Methodist Church, announced plans to merge with Exodus International. Exodus is the world’s largest Christian outreach to those dealing with same-sex attraction.
Together, the ministries will form a new division under the leadership of Exodus that will equip church leaders worldwide to break the polarizing debate over homosexuality through an approach that is both biblically orthodox and truly compassionate.
One by One came out of a Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) conference in 1994. They are a ministry within the Presbyterian and Reformed faith communities and, as such, have traditions and religious perspectives that are a bit outside the fundamentalist/charasmatic/megachurch affiliations that seem to dominate Exodus’ spiritual sphere. One by One’s website expresses an intention to establish a church network, but there does not seem to be one in place. They seem, to my eyes at least, to be less harsh and less political than either Exodus or Transforming Congregations.
Transforming Congregations was founded in 1988 to address the issue of homosexuality within the United Methodist Church. At one time it had at least 75 congregations that affiliated with the organization. However, now Transforming Congregations is a national education and lobby group within the church and they have for some while left individual ministry to Exodus.
Over the years, we have found that to be impractical. A change in pastors or lay leadership often resulted in an “about face” on the issues of human sexuality. Because most of these churches did not request removal, it became virtually impossible to keep our list accurately updated. So now we refer folk to the Exodus International Church Network.
Neither organization appears to be focused primarily on individual one-on-one ministry or even on addressing the specific needs of same-sex attracted congregants. Rather, they seem to be organizations within their denominations that seek to support and encourage those who have an anti-gay theology and to encourage others who may not yet have addressed the issue of the roll of gay men and women within the body of faith.
One by One’s mission statement is:
OneByOne’s mission is to educate and equip the church to minister the transforming grace and power of Jesus Christ to those in conflict with their sexuality. OneByOne’s goal is therefore two-fold: (1) to serve as a resource for educational material; and (2) to help create and/or support local ministries to those struggling with sexual brokenness, including but not limited to homosexuality. OneByOne representatives are available to provide seminars and workshops for church leaders and/or members who want to learn how to minister Christ’s compassion without compromising Christ’s standards.
And that of Transforming Ministries is:
Our Purpose: Equipping the Church to model and minister sanctified sexuality through Biblical instruction … Personal and Public Witness … Compassionate Outreach
So it seems clear that Exodus is not merging with external collections of congregations to increase their base size. Nor are they establishing new relationships; these two organizations – along with Focus’ Love Won Out – already work closely with Exodus.
What they are getting, is two mainline denomination affiliated groups that are, as best I can tell, dropping the denomination affiliation and becoming a “project” of Exodus, an outreach to mainline churches under the Exodus label. They are picking up two voices for anti-gay theology from a mainline perspective.
I can, of course, only speculate. But here’s what I think is happening:
Mainline churches are adopting a welcoming and affirming approach to gay Christians at an astonishing rate. While neither the PC(USA) or the UMC are as fully inclusive as, say, the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church, they are steadily marching in that direction. “Compassionate” condemnation, such as that coming from such Presbyterians as Dr. Robert Gagnon or Methodists like Karen Booth is increasingly seen by their fellow worshipers as bigotry and outside of the message of Christ.
If I had to guess, I’d suppose that Exodus is recognizing that anti-gay activism is losing the home front. Perhaps they are wanting to let up on some of the anti-gay political activism and bolster their forces in the pews. And that may be reflected also in Exodus pulling a bit away from the highly political Focus on the Family.
So it may well be that these groups are experiencing fatigue and losing heart. Perhaps they think it best to retreat and consolidate resources so as to present one face of anti-gay protestant Christian response to same-sex attracted persons.
But that comes at a cost. Those who fight from without are never as strong as those who fight from within. I very much doubt that Exodus can be as effective a lobbyist on church policy in either the PC(USA) or the UMC as were One by One or Transforming Ministries. And neither organization was, frankly, doing that great of a job to begin with.
We’ll have to wait and see what eventually happens as a result of this transition.
Church of Scotland Approves Gay Minister
May 24th, 2009
The Church of Scotland, the mother of the Presbyterian churches, has taken a very significant step.
The church’s ruling body voted 326 to 267 Saturday to support the appointment of the Rev. Scott Rennie, 37, who was previously married to a woman and is now in a relationship with a man.
Rennie was first appointed as a minister 10 years ago, but has faced opposition since he moved to a church in Aberdeen, Scotland, last year. He has been unable to take up his post while the Church of Scotland considered appeals from his critics.
Before the vote, the Church had voted down efforts to discuss or debate the greater issue of the place of gay men and women in the Church. Conservatives had hoped that such a debate would result in positions that would make it difficult to seat Rennie.
The decision is a positive indication that the Church is at least willing to allow those congregations that wish to be led by a gay person the right to that position.
Although the Church voted not to debate sexuality this year, they have put a hold on any other ordination and sent the matter to committee. (
At its General Assembly in Edinburgh, it was decided that a special commission should be set up to consider the matter and report in 2011.
There will be a two-year ban on the future ordination of gay ministers.
What Mainline Clergy Believe
May 22nd, 2009
“Mainline Christianity” has deep roots and wide branches. With about 18% of Americans (and 24% of all voters), the denominations that makeup this more-liberal end of the Protestant Christian world trace to the founding of our nation. When Americans think of church – the steeple, the stained glass windows, the minister in a clerical collar – these are probably the Christians that come to mind.
However, in today’s sound-bite driven media and take-no-prisoners politics, moderate Christians with nuanced positions and non-combatant values don’t make for good television. Instead the fire-breathing “Bible believing” family values culture warrior gets to speak for all of Christianity. So to non-believers, the impression is that Christianity is at war with the rest of the world, and gays are enemy number one.
But a recent survey of Mainline ministers finds quite another Christian response to gay and lesbian Americans. On most issues, these denominations are quite supportive.
The six denominations included, in order of support are:
- United Church of Christ
- Episcopal Church
- Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Evanglical Lutheran Church in America
- Presbyterian Church (USA)
- United Methodist Church
- American Baptist Churches (USA)
(for those unfamiliar, American Baptist Churches is a smaller Baptist organization that is not affiliated with the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention)
Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gay and Lesbian Issues: Findings from the 2008 Clergy Voices Survey was released this month. And it provides us with better understanding of the beliefs of clergy in Mainline Denominations.
In general, these ministers are supportive of gay civil rights. Additionally, they are fairly supporting of the inclusion of gay persons into the body of the church – though that differs by denomination.
Some of the more interesting public policy issue findings are:
- 79% agree with the statement “Homosexuals should have all the same rights and priveleges as other American citizens”
- 67% support passing gay-inclusive hate crime laws
- 66% support employment non-discrimination laws
- 55% support adoption by gay persons
The one area where there is not majority support is for marriage equality. Only 33% support gay marriage with another 32% supporting civil unions. However, as I discuss in another commentary, support for marriage goes up to 46% when religious assurances are given.
There is also a large variance between denominations on this issue.
- 67% – United Church of Christ
- 49% – Episcopal
- 42% – Disciples of Christ
- 38% – Presbyterian
- 37% – Lutheran
- 25% – Methodist
- 20% – American Baptist
After clergy were reassured that churches and ministers would not be forced to conduct such marriages, support for civil marriage laws were over 50% for all denominations other than United Methodist and American Baptist.
The report goes on to break Mainline Christianity into three camps in relation to gay and lesbian issues; 29% are a supportive base, 30% are an opposing base, and 41% are in an uncertain middle. They find that on most issues the middle tends to side with the supporting base.
They also found that 45% of mainline clergy report that they are more supportive than 10 years ago. Only 14% are more conservative. The following is how those who became more supportive explain the change.
Among clergy who reported becoming more liberal on gay and lesbian issues, the top factors they cited as being very or extremely important to this change were discernment through prayer and reflection (66%), having a friend, congregant or colleague who is gay or lesbian (58%), and additional Bible study (55%).
We have long known that coming out is a valuable way to influence public opinion. Those who have real life examples from which to draw – rather than lies and stereotypes from anti-gay activists – are more likely to find that gay men and women are a valuable part of the social fabric.
But those within the Christian fold will also find it interesting that prayer, reflection, and Bible study can yield greater support for gay persons. Religion, when applied by devout and sincere people seeking to find meaning from sacred Scriptures for real life situations, need not be the enemy of freedom and equality.
As for the inclusion of gays and lesbians into religious life, the study found
- 94% – welcome gay persons in their church
- 63% – believe that the gospel requires their full inclusion in the church
- 51% – believe the church should not work towards making homosexuality unacceptable
- 45% – support ordination of gay and lesbian ministers without special requirements
- 13% – lead congregations that have formally become “open and affirming congregations”
These denominations have the potential to become strong allies in our question for civil equalities. Already many ministers from these denominations are active in showing legislators and voting citizens People of Faith who do not agree with the political agenda of “Christian” and “Family” groups that seek the exclusion of gay persons from civil equalities.
As time goes on, it is increasingly likely that Mainline Christianity is going to move in the direction of fuller acceptance, inclusion, and support. We should, as a community, be appreciative of their help and proactive in efforts to build bridges to these churches.
Presbyterians Down to the Wire
April 23rd, 2009
The various presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) are voting on whether to ratify a change in position that would allow gays and lesbians to become pastors and elders.
The church has a total of 173 presbyteries and of them 154 have now voted. The tally now stands at 68 yes to 86 no. If even one of the remaining 19 bodies votes to oppose the change, it will fail.
While it is likely that the PCUSA will not accept gay pastors with this vote, this is a significant improvement over the last time the change was presented, and the very close outcome holds promises for the future.
March 11th, 2009
Presbyterians around the country continue to consider lifting the ban on gay clergy. And voting is illustrating a shifting on the position.
The commissioners of the Presbytery of Transylvania, which includes 56 Central and Eastern Kentucky counties, voted 83-61 Tuesday to approve an amendment that, if approved by the majority of the presbyteries in the U.S., would open the door for gays and lesbians to be ordained as pastors, elders and deacons.
This was a change in the Trasylvania position from prior votes. The current vote tally is 42 in favor of the change, and 68 opposed. Although it is likely to fail, so far 19 presbyteries have changed to a favorable position since the last vote in 2002.
No doubt Robert Gagnon is having a conniption.
Presbyterians Move Towards Acceptance
February 25th, 2009
Charlotte Presbyterians have, historically, not been particularly supportive of gay ministers. But this has changed.
In a close vote Saturday that reflected deep division, Presbyterian church leaders representing the Charlotte area officially ratified a proposal to end their denomination’s long-standing ban on gays and lesbians becoming pastors and elders.
But this significant victory does not speak to the eventual outcome of the proposal.
For the change to take effect, it will have to be endorsed by 87 of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries by mid-May.
Currently the national tally is 46 presbyteries against the change and 36 for it. The odds are against passage, but it is expected to be much closer than a similar ratification effort in 2002.
Meanwhile, the largest Presbyterian church in Arkansas isn’t waiting for permission.
Little Rock’s Second Presbyterian Church elected Michael Upson as a deacon, along with several other deacons. Upson is openly gay, and has been in a relationship with another man for over twenty years.
Council of Churches Ad
October 27th, 2008
The Santa Clara County Council of Churches is so committed to the Christian principle of justice and compassion that they ran a full page ad in the San Jose Mercury News giving their brothers, sisters, neighbors, and parishioners the following message:
As people of faith,
We believe that all people are made in the image of God.
We believe in loving, faithful and committed relationships.
We affirm everyone’s right to the freedom to marry.
We urge you to..
VOTE NO ON PROPOSITION 8.
Don’t eliminate marriage for anyone.
The ad was signed by 23 member churches. There is also an accompanying videowith statements from ministers from Unitarian Universalist, Disciples of Christ, MCC, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Jewish congregations. The Council is also running phone banks for No on 8 out of local churches.
Too often anti-gay activists coopt the name Christian or Religion in the same way they seek to control the word Marriage. It is encouraging to see people of faith willing to stand up for principles that are inclusive and based on love, compassion, and a deep desire to treat their neighbor as they want to be treated and declare to the world that neither faith nor Christianity is any barrier to equality and decency.
PCUSA Continues to Walk a Fine Line
October 3rd, 2008
A Presbyterian court has found that a pastor accused of violating church law by conducting a marriage between two women was not guilty (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
A church court of Pittsburgh Presbytery ruled 9-0 that the Rev. Janet Edwards did not violate scripture or the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) when she conducted what she has always said was the marriage of two women in 2005.
However, their decision appears to be based on creative reasoning and a desire to be two opposite things at once – one dictated by policy, one by an urge towards decency.
Since church and state define marriage as between a man and a woman, she cannot have done what she was accused of, the court ruled yesterday.
“It can’t be an offense to the constitution to attempt to do the impossible,” said the decision, read by the Rev. Stewart Pollock, chairman of the Permanent Judicial Commission of Pittsburgh Presbytery.
Even the prosecution appeared to be going through the motions, calling only one witness.
That no one seems scandalized by the decision and because the process seems more of a formality than a battle, I have hopes that the PCUSA is moving ever closer to full inclusion of their gay and lesbian members into the life of the church.
Presbyterians Allow Ordinations
June 28th, 2008
According to the LA Times, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has taken a step towards full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the church.
Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overturned a long-standing ban on the ordination of gays and lesbians Friday, providing yet the latest example of a religious denomination struggling with how, and whether, to incorporate homosexuality into church life.
This change however must be approved by a majority of regions called presbyteries.
The General Assembly voted in favor of the ordination measure 54% to 46%, but its decision must still be approved by a majority of the nation’s 173 regional presbyteries over the next year. Several prominent church leaders predicted it would fail.
Conservatives are predicting that individuals and churches will leave the denomination rather than be part of a body that allows gay ministers. To my way of thinking, gay and lesbian Presbyterians who are willing to fellowship with those who dispise them are far closer to showing the heart and message of Christ than are those who would leave rather than fellowship on an equal status with a gay person.
Presbyterians and Lutherans
This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of others authors at Box Turtle Bulletin
June 20th, 2008
From the Chicago Tribune:
The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination will tackle the question of gay and lesbian clergy at its biennial General Assembly next week (June 20-28) in San Jose, Calif.
From Deutche Welle:
German Lutherans in northern Schleswig will decide on July 12 whether to elect an openly gay bishop. Conservatives have opposed Horst Gorski’s candidacy, saying it would lead to divisions within the church.
These are but two examples of the ongoing battle within Mainline Protestant denominations over the issue of homosexuality. And I think that the end result is predictable.
Those who favor full inclusion and social justice will continue in their efforts to bring gay and lesbians Christians fully into the fold. In the meanwhile, they can continue in fellowship with those whom they believe are not quite there yet.
In time, as younger more gay-accepting people gain influence, these denominations will reach a tipping point in which gay acceptance outnumbers hard-liners. When that happens, these denominations will vote for full inclusion… and discover that fellowship only works in one direction. Those who ardently oppose gay inclusion will not be willing to stay in fellowship with “heretics” and scism will result.
However, I think that this will result in fewer denominations rather than more. It is my belief that this is a time of great religious realignment in America. And that after division liberal mainline denominations will join in a uniting movement towards a common identity. And to a lesser extent, the conservatives will do the same.
My prediction is that within the next 10 years at least one, and probably several, splits will occur in mainline denominations and that at least two will merge.
But, of course, this is all just speculation.
Good News for Gay Presbyterians
April 29th, 2008
In 2005, Rev. Jane Spahr was brought up on charges for officiating at the celebration of gay unions. In 2006, a regional church court found that she had not acted appropriately.
The AP reports that the highest court of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has overturned the regional court’s decision.
The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has found that a Northern California minister did not violate denominational law when she officiated at the weddings of two lesbian couples.
The ruling announced Tuesday by the Louisville, Ky.-based court overturns a decision against the Rev. Jane Spahr last year. A regional judicial committee had found Spahr guilty of misconduct and gave her a rebuke — the lightest possible punishment.
The church’s high court found that the ceremonies Spahr performed were not marriages, so she did not violate the church’s constitution.
The panel reiterated the church’s position that Presbyterian ministers can bless same-sex unions as long as the ceremonies don’t too closely mimic traditional weddings.