Last week, the PCUSA General Assembly meeting in Minnesota approved a decision to accept openly gay or lesbian pastors without any requirement of celibacy. This move, widely reported, follows a similar decision by the ELCA in the same venue a year ago. This should be a clear cause for celebration - but hold the applause for now. The same decision has been taken in previous years, without coming into effect. First, the GA decision must be ratified by local presbyteries, which is where it has come unstuck in the past. Does the present assembly decision represent real progress, or will there be yet another failure at grass roots?
At "More Light Ministries", who will carry a major share of the work promoting the idea to local congregations, the mood is optimistic, but conscious of the hard work involved:
We rejoiced with the extraordinary pro-LGBT vote approving by 53 to 46% a "Revise-B" Ordination Overture. This vote advances the moral equality of LGBT persons in both Church and society within the USA and around the world. There are Presbyterians in over 100 countries. So, creating one standard for ordination for all persons regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or any other human condition in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is remarkable statement for justice and equality.
This is the fourth year that this decision has been approved at GA - but the margin this year is almost unchanged from last year (in fact, support has slipped slightly - from 54 /46 last year, to 53/46 this year. At least one report from the grassroots, in a region where the decision was rejected last year, the expectation is that there will still be no ratification. This is from "The State" (South Carolina):Historic levels of support for Ordination Equality during the 2008-2009 Ordination Amendment 08-B Campaign offer hope and encouragement. We look forward to the life-giving and liberating conversations and work of a national ratification campaign to ensure passage of this overture. Everyone participating in this national grassroots ratification campaign will ensure its passage.
The debate over the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church USA once again moves to the local level, leaving some clergy energized and others worn out by the continuing debate.
“I’m frankly weary of it,” said the Rev. Scott Bowerman, pastor of New Kirk Presbyterian Church in Northeast Richland and an opponent of a more liberal ordination policy. “I’ve been talking about it for 20 years, and I’ve been involved in study groups and debates and conversations. I’ve not changed my position over time.”
“I hesitate to count the number of ways that we have dealt with this,” said the Rev. Alan Arnold, leader of Trinity Presbytery, which oversees 67 PCUSA congregations in the Midlands. “It has been four or five times that it has gone back to the presbyteries.”He predicted Trinity Presbytery would again reject the new overture, despite updated language that makes no mention of gays and lesbians. The new language states that “standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”
-Read more at "The State"
Does that mean that the motion is doomed, yet again, to an endless stalemate? Not necessarily. There are strong grounds for hope, even so - and even if the ratification drive does fail.
First, the new moderator is strongly in favour of LGBT equality and inclusion. It is likely that her backing will help to strengthen the continuing work on the ground, at local level. It is entirely possible that some of the presbyteries that narrowly defeated the proposal last year may now switch sides.
Even if ratification is not achieved, gains will have been made. In a less widely reported move, the Assembly also voted to extend spousal benefits applicable to staff to LGBT couples on exactly the same basis as married staff. This is in itself an important symbolic move (and a hugely practical one for the people directly affected), and will help to set the mood for future votes, if they are required again.
Win or lose, the process is important. Once again, I am impressed by the discussion, debate and prayer that goes into decisions at these assemblies, which is such a contrast to the Vatican method of simply dictating from on high. We know from experience that where people of good will sincerely discuss pray over matters of homosexuality and faith, minds are changed. Sometimes firm opposition becomes tolerance, sometimes indifference is moved to active support - and sometimes a full Damascene conversion takes place, whereby former hostility is replaced by repentance and advocacy. The Rev. Peter Hobbie, a religion professor at Presbyterian College, said Monday he believes the continued examination of the issue is reflective of the Presbyterian system where “you keep dealing with it until there is a resolution.”
But the most important source of hope is fundamental. Ultimately, it is not human actions that will decide these things, but God, who will not allow injustice to prevail. (For the arguments in favour of full ordination for gay and lesbian clergy, see the "Overture Advocates' Speeches"“I know that some people are getting tired of talking about it,” Hobbie said. “But you have to admire the people who deeply believe that it is a cause for justice and what it means to be a Christian.“I think this is a very crucial issue in the life of the church and I think that it is one we should pursue,” Hobbie said, likening it to the battles over women’s ordination and integration 40 and 50 years ago. “I hope that more and more people are getting to know gays and lesbians and know what these Christians have done for the church.”