With the vote of its regional organization in Minnesota, the PCUSA became the fourth mainline Protestant church to allow gay ordination, joining the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches and the United Church of Christ. Reform and Conservative Judaism also ordain gays and lesbians.
The 205-56 vote Tuesday in support of Amendment 10-A, which will allow the PCUSA’s regional bodies, or presbyteries, to ordain homosexuals if they choose to, was taken by delegates from the Presbytery of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
Amendment 10-A was adopted by the denomination’s General Assembly in July 2010, but to take effect it required the approval of more than 50 percent of the regions. The support of the Twin Cities region means the amendment won approval of 87 of the PCUSA’s 173 presbyteries.
The change in ordination standards — often called the “local option” — will go into effect July 10.
“I think this is an important step toward acceptance,” said David Rice, pastor of Anniston’s First Presbyterian Church. “What this means is that an entire category of people have been de-marginalized. As the church says, we are all children of God, and through science and psychology we are gaining a deeper understanding of human sexuality and thus a greater understanding of what it means to be children of God.
“Personally, I’m rejoicing,” Rice added. “What officially happened is that Amendment 10-A put the authority back where the authority belongs, and that’s in the congregation for the election of elders and deacons and the presbytery for the election of ministers.”
Rice said the amendment’s passing isn’t likely to bring sweeping changes to the denomination as a whole. He isn’t expecting much outcry or negativity from his congregation.
“For us, it really hasn’t been a major topic of conversation,” Rice said. “I consider ours to be a welcoming congregation that embraces a wide variety of theological views. At the end of the day, what brings us closer is our common communion and fellowship; we’re not prone to overreaction.”
Perhaps that is because First Presbyterian has already had several gay members. “At first there was some anxiety because there was a fear of the unknown,” Rice said. “But we shared worship and fellowship and that was it. We learned from the encounter and grew from it.”
The negative reactions
Nationally, the years the PCUSA spent considering and arguing over the inclusion of gay clergy took its toll, explained the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the church’s stated clerk, its highest elected official, to the New York Times. He attributed the turnabout in the votes to both the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the larger culture, and to church members simply wearying of the conflict.
“We’ve been having this conversation for 33 years, and some people are ready to get to the other side of this decision,” Parsons told the Times. “Some people are going to celebrate this day because they’ve worked for it for a long time, and some people will mourn this day because they think it’s a totally different understanding of Scripture than they have. I hope that going forward we can stay together and be faithful witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
There were negative reactions to the vote. An organization called Presbyterians for Renewal released a statement: “While in some ways this vote is just another step in the ongoing disintegration of a denomination we have known and loved, this particular vote verifies the deep and unquestionable divisions among us — and consummates a significant institutional departure from the Christian faith we have been called to proclaim.”
‘Chastity in singleness’
Previously, the Book of Order of the PCUSA had required that ministers — including elders and deacons who must also be ordained — adhere to “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” In effect, that meant no sexually active gays or lesbians, even those in committed relationships.
Four previous attempts to strike down the “chastity in singleness” standard have failed. The disputes have taken a toll, especially on more conservative congregations that believe that homosexuality is in direct opposition to the Bible. The Presbyterian News Service estimates that approximately 100 congregations have left the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the last five years. Several were large conservative congregations, which could help explain why the vote in some presbyteries switched from the last vote in 2009, allowing for its passage this time.
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