Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Dividing the unity

Religion | Pro-gay Presbyterians and Lutherans gain; Episcopalians formalize split

Issue: "Playing with capitalism," May 23, 2009

The latest Presbyterian Church (USA) referendum on sexual morality upheld a law requiring all clergy and lay office-holders "to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." But it was a surprisingly close call for conservatives. Although that rule can apply equally to heterosexuals, approval for same-sex couples is the acknowledged flashpoint. A liberal proposal to repeal the law needed endorsement from a majority of the church's 173 regional presbyteries. By late April, a majority of 87 bodies had already voted to block change, though balloting continues through this month.

While traditionalists won, there is a strong leftward trend. In previous repeal attempts, 67 percent of presbyteries voted no in 1998, followed by 73 percent in 2002, but only 56 percent so far this time. More significantly, 28 presbyteries that opposed repeal in 2002 have switched sides in 2009. Only two have moved rightward.

That pattern is energizing pro-repeal groups like More Light Presbyterians, which said the denomination "is remarkably close to removing the barriers so that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people can faithfully answer God's call to serve."

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

Conservative leader Terry Schlossberg of the Presbyterian Coalition said, "It is well past time to acknowledge that the church today, as throughout her history, knows her mind on this matter" and called on revisionists "who constantly disturb the peace and unity of the church" to back down. Yet a fourth repeal attempt next year appears virtually inevitable.

Most presbyteries went left or right by sizable majorities, underscoring the divided nature of Presbyterianism. Despite the conservatives' shrinking support, they appear to have a lock on at least the 87 presbyteries they will need in any future referendums. Meanwhile, there's ongoing disagreement on whether an action by last year's Presbyterian assembly allows a local option for actively gay clergy, no matter what the national law mandates.

In other denominations:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: The Church Council approved a task force proposal to allow gay clergy and transmitted it for decision by an August assembly. Crucially, the council asked the assembly to require only a simple majority for passage instead of the two-thirds normally required for major policy changes. Three members of the task force issued a dissent in late March, contending that the proposal from majority colleagues is "contrary to Scripture and the apostolic faith" and would "splinter our congregations, alienate many of our members, further divide the unity of this church and, we believe, grieve the heart of God."

But the ELCA intelligentsia largely disputes current church teaching. A statement endorsed by 129 theologians insists that biblical texts on homosexuality "are not directly pertinent to the 21st-century discussion" because they deal with rape, or with Old Testament ritual that does not bind Christians, or bypass issues like "sexual orientation," or presuppose one particular interpretation of "nature."

The Episcopal Church: A July convention will consider legislation to further formalize a liberal approach to same-sex behavior, just after a conservative schism. The Anglican Church in North America, uniting 11 organizations and four former Episcopal dioceses, will hold a June organizational assembly, beginning life with 81,000 regular worshippers in 693 congregations. The new church has won recognition from the huge Anglican church of Nigeria and expects the same from Anglicanism in Kenya; Rwanda; Uganda; southern South America; Sydney, Australia; and perhaps elsewhere. A meeting of all bishops who lead branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion admitted they have "no consensus" on how to regard this conservative Anglican entity, which will exist alongside and in competition with The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

Richard N. Ostling
Richard N. Ostling


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…