Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Presbyterian Compromise

While the Episcopal Church was grappling with their own form of compromise, it appears the Presbyterians were having a very similar struggle. Here's how Reuters summed up their deliberations:

The largest U.S. Presbyterian Church body approved a measure on Tuesday that would open the way for the ordination of gays and lesbians under certain circumstances.

The new policy was approved on a vote of 57-43 percent among 500 church representatives at the biennial meeting of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. It gives local church organizations more leeway in deciding if gays can be ordained as lay deacons and elders as well as clergy, provided they are faithful to the church's core values.

"It permits local governing bodies to examine candidates on a wider criterion than sexual orientation ... it allows these bodies to look at the whole person and not categorize them," said John Walton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New York's Greenwich Village and a member of the "Covenant Network of Presbyterians" which backed the change...
A more detailed explanation of this decision is provided by the Presbyterian Church.

Having read the report of the Theological Task Force and the resolution that was approved by a rather close vote (281/234), I don't see much of a compromise here. Our local Presbyterian pastor does not feel very optimistic either. One could interpret it as keeping the door open a crack, I suppose, but it looks to me to be an extremely narrow opening.

More Light Presbyterians offers this response, which confirms my rather pessimistic reading of the documents:

...Bear Ride, Co-Moderator, said of this decision: "This is not where we had hoped to be, but this is where we are - not an altogether unfamiliar place for those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And yet, somehow we remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA)."

The approval of the Task Force Report and its recommendation to not send a constitutional amendment from this year's General Assembly that would have removed the discriminatory ban against faithful LGBT Presbyterians seeking ordination inevitably led to the defeat of the Heartland Ordination Overture. "We are grateful for the 22 presbyteries that believed in the full embrace of our LGBT sisters and brothers who came to Birmingham to work for justice. MLP is committed to bringing ordination overtures every General Assembly until our Church gets it right," responded Kim Smith King, Co-Moderator.

Michael J. Adee, National Field Organizer said, "How long will the Presbyterian Church continue to be a church for heterosexuals only? People tell me that they don't like it when I say that. When it's no longer true, I'll stop saying it. I kept thinking that being in Birmingham would challenge and inspire our Church to do justice now. And in the midst of the Assembly's decisions today, the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give me hope: 'The arc of history bends toward justice'"...
MLP is not the only organization disappointed in this decision, however. A number of conservative groups are upset as well. Among them is Presbyterian Action, which is a front organization for our old friends, the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Imagine that. The most infamous demolition crew within the Church was busy in late June, being called to crusade for purity not only in Columbus, but Birmingham as well. Here's part of their response:

...The General Assembly action, earlier on June 20, had the effect of greatly weakening the requirement in the PCUSA constitution that church officers shall "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." The Assembly approved a new authoritative interpretation of the constitution that would allow local churches and presbyteries to determine whether this provision-or any other ordination requirement-is an "essential." If they deem the provision not to be "essential," then they could proceed to ordain persons in homosexual or other sexual relationships outside of marriage.

The renewal leaders warned that this action effectively changed the PCUSA constitution. "The mandated requirements of ordination, rooted in Scripture and our Confessions, have been made optional," they stated. "Sessions and presbyteries have been allowed to treat the Seventh Commandment as 'not essential.'" The leaders said that the Assembly decision "throw[s] our denomination into crisis." They pledged to "redouble our efforts to bear witness to the Gospel in this troubled time and place."

The IRD's Berkley commented: "It is of crucial importance that all these renewal leaders are standing together against the action of the Assembly. They will also be working together through a period of monitoring the fallout of the decision and formulating an appropriate response. Presbyterian Action wants no one to mistake our measured response for 'business as usual' following this General Assembly action"...
It appears that the IRD believes they can muster enough troops to wage schism on two fronts. If that is true, or just more of the kind of bluster not based on reality crafted into an art form by the Bush administration, remains to be seen.

The Covenant Network, who before General Assembly continued to recommend the deletion of the clause from the Book of Order banning gays and lesbians from the ordination process, has issued a supportive response to the Task Force Report:

The Covenant Network has prayed that the Holy Spirit would lead commissioners to a faithful response to the Theological Task Force report. In approving the report as amended, the General Assembly has called the church to a higher standard of life together. While the Church still faces deep disagreements, the Assembly has given us an opportunity to recover our oneness in Christ.

The Assembly has reaffirmed the responsibility of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination standards set by the whole church. In doing so, the Assembly has clarified the historic responsibility and authority of local governing bodies to discern gifts for ministry in those whom they know best. We look forward to working with Presbyterians across the church to live into this new time with serious theological and biblical reflection and faithful discernment.

We remain committed to working toward a church as generous and just as God’s grace.
We are not alone in this struggle. Many brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran churches walk with us. We need to keep in mind that the breeze of the Spirit is renewing all God's people, and God's Spirit will not be trapped and contained by cages of words created by fearful human hearts.

When possible, we need to be more intentional about working together with other traditions. The message we proclaim of God's radically inclusive love can be heard more clearly if we work with those who are engaged in this struggle with us, and speak with one united voice.


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