Mixed results at Presbyterian conference
by Chuck Colbert
The nation's 10th largest Christian denomination approved a measure that lifts a more than decade-long ban on ordaining openly LGBT clergy. But a few hours after the vote, delegates to the Presbyterians' 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis declined to reformulate the church's understanding of marriage to include same-sex couples.
The vote to defer any discussion of marriage equality prompted Soulforce, an LGBT faith organization, to interrupt assembly proceedings with a civil disobedience action in which 11 people were arrested when they refused to leave the convention hall.
Both votes in Minneapolis on Thursday, July 8 were close, with ordination equality passing 373-323 – a margin of 53 percent to 46 percent. The vote to table marriage equality – by accepting a final committee report to preserve the current marriage status quo – passed 348-324 with six abstentions, a slim 51 percent to 49 percent margin.
Consequently, the Presbyterians failed to give pastors discretion to marry same-sex couples in jurisdictions with civil marriage equality, including Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
And yet the next day, July 9, the General Assembly approved a measure, proposed by the Board of Pensions, to extend health care benefits to same-sex partners and spouses, including dependent children. The vote to approve passed by 366-287, with nine abstentions.
In striking down the celibacy requirement, the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted "one standard for all," said Michael Adee, executive director of More Light Presbyterians (http://www.mlp.org), an LGBT advocacy organization. "Instead of looking at one's marital status or sexual orientation or gender identity, it's about a person's life, faith, and character," he said.
Previously, candidates for ordination as ministers, deacons, and elders were held to a "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness clause," which in effect, Adee said, "mandated compulsive heterosexuality or the imposition of celibacy or chastity, depending on how one reads the text."
Under the new overture, the wording of "joyful submission to worship of Christ" replaces the language of "fidelity" and "chastity."
Oklahoma native Heather Grantham, a seminarian at the Marin County-based San Francisco Theological Seminary, considers the new ordination standard "a better and higher standard," she said, adding, "It's a step forward on all fronts, whether gay or straight."
Now, "it's not all about sex," said Grantham, who attended General Assembly in two capacities, young adult and theological student advisory delegate. She also serves as family ministry director for the Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, which is a More Light welcoming and affirming congregation.
For ordination equality to become church law, however, it must be approved by ratification votes in a majority of the 173 U.S. governing bodies or presbyteries.
Harry Knox, religion and faith director for the Human Rights Campaign, voiced hope that church presbyteries will ratify the equal ordination overture.
"The last time, they fell short but it was pretty close," he said.
This time, Knox said, the LGBT affinity groups, namely, More Light and That All May Freely Serve (http://www.tamfs.org), another LGBT Presbyterian advocacy group, have "solidified their support for ordination" through a "detailed process of public education" with a "priority to move presbyteries" that need to be brought along.
Still, "I don't take it for granted," said Lisa Larges, the San Francisco-based minister coordinator for That All May Freely Serve. "One of the things we've talked about is that the presbyteries won't talk about it if they are not forced to. So this forces us to have the conversation [about ordination equality] one more time."
Marriage may well now be on the cutting edge for the church, Larges believes.
"That gives me hope that as ordination becomes more mainstream, the church is finally ready for it," she said. "If the Lutherans are ahead of us, the water cannot be that dangerous to jump into."
Meanwhile, the close vote to dodge marriage equality took some delegates by surprise. Earlier in the week the assembly's committee on civil union and marriage had voted 38-18 to change the church constitution's understanding of marriage as a covenant between "two people" rather than "a man and a woman."
The change, a committee statement said, "Would recognize committed, lifelong relationships that are already being lived out by our members."
"We Presbyterians like to study, which is not a bad thing," Cindy Bolbach, a church elder and the assembly's elected moderator, told the Associated Press.
The assembly's deferral buys time for the 2.8 million-member mainstream Protestant denomination, enabling Presbyterians, least for now, to sidestep controversy as the church studies the issue for the next two years.
But some marriage equality supporters voiced disappointment over the assembly's deferral.
"I am disappointed," said the Reverend Shawna Bowman, who serves as a chaplain at Rush University City Hospital in Chicago. "Change is inevitable. The longer we drag our feet, the less relevant we're going to be to communities that already minister to LGBTQ individuals."
The marriage piece is particularly disheartening for Bowman, who attended the assembly and is also affiliated with That All May Freely Serve.
"I think we made a conscious decision to bury our heads in the sand and operate out of fear," she said. "We're afraid of this and are not going to go there," leaving "LGBT individuals out to dry," as well as "pastors who are having to make difficult decisions every day" about "how to navigate pastoral care and these [same-sex] relationships without any guidance."
Still, other LGBT advocates rejoiced over the Presbyterian embrace of ordination equality.
"Certainly the vote on ordination, and even getting the marriage vote out of committee, was a huge step forward," said More Light's Adee. "This says to LGBT people of faith within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in other faith traditions that you are morally and spiritually equal, which is a life-giving and life-saving blessing."
For Adee, the assembly's action sends a "clear message," he said, the denomination recognizes that "all children of as created in the image of God" and all Presbyterians are "welcomed and affirmed within our tradition."
Adee also said the move to fuller inclusion "encourages us to live out our baptismal vows" to "support and nurture in faith this child into adulthood." In other words, "there are no conditions," he explained. "We don't say when a 15-year-old says he's gay that we are going to withhold those promises."
Presbyterian advocacy for a truly affirming and welcoming church dates back to the 1970s. During the summer of 1974, the Reverend David Sindt, a graduate of the McCormick Theological Seminary, held up a large sign at that year's General Assembly. It read: "Is anyone else out there gay?"
The lifelong Presbyterian's visibility and outreach enabled him and others to found Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. Eventually that group became More Light.