Members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on May 11 woke up to a new day in the life of their strife-torn, fast-shrinking 2.1-million-member denomination. That previous night, the 87th and 88th of the PCUSA's 173 presbyteries (regional governing bodies) voted to ratify a jolting change in the church's constitution, surpassing the required majority needed for churchwide approval.
Effective July 10, gone will be explicit language in the church's ordination standards that require pastors "to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. . . , or chastity in singleness." Instead, the new language permits local ordaining bodies to apply their own interpretations of denominational standards when examining ministerial candidates. It opens the door for liberal-controlled presbyteries to ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians.
The change didn't come as a surprise to conservative leaders in the PCUSA. The issue of whether to admit open gays to the ministry has been debated in the church's governing General Assembly for more than three decades. Four times in the past 15 years the biennial general assemblies passed measures challenging the ordination standards, all of which failed ratification in the presbyteries (where only pastors and elders-elected congregational leaders-vote). But each subsequent vote saw less support for holding the line on ordination, with more pastors caving than elders. Conservative leaders saw what was coming when 19 presbyteries earlier in the current round of voting surprisingly switched sides.
One reason: "People are simply weary of this seemingly ceaseless struggle and have disengaged from the process," suggested Paul Detterman, head of Presbyterians For Renewal, a coalition of conservative groups in the PCUSA.
In press interviews, Gradye Parsons, the PCUSA's top executive, likewise attributed the vote partially to "church members simply wearying of the conflict" but also to the "growing acceptance of homosexuality in the larger culture."
For some presbyteries, nothing has changed. For others, everything has changed. Although a candidate is ordained by the local presbytery, it is done on behalf of the denomination, and his or her ministerial credentials are considered valid throughout the entire church. Some conservative leaders predict further erosion of biblical authority in future actions of the PCUSA's governing bodies-and tougher disciplinary rules for those unwilling to toe the line. Also, as word spreads, they say, it will be more difficult to attract new members.
The PCUSA joins three other troubled mainline denominations that have voted to accept open gays and lesbians as clergy: the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
So, where to go from here?
"Now is not the time for quick action or far-reaching decisions," leaders of the Presbyterians For Renewal alliance counseled in a letter to conservative PCUSA congregations. "That time is coming." They listed as immediate options for action "dissenting in place" and "defecting in place" (withholding funds, not participating in unbiblical ordinations, working for change). Meanwhile, they indicated that long-range plans already are under consideration. The options for "distancing ourselves from the crisis" include forming a separate non-geographic entity within the denomination or "a new Presbyterian and Reformed association" outside it. The "inside" plan appeals to many pastors whose pensions and health plans are ties that bind them to the PCUSA. And for churches, it would remove the risk of litigation and loss of property that leaving the PCUSA would pose.
Looking ahead, the emboldened gay activists and their advocacy cohorts in the ruling ranks of the PCUSA aren't through with their extreme makeover efforts yet. As in 2010, there's bound to be a proposal at next year's General Assembly to change the constitution's definition of marriage. They want it defined as a covenant between "two people" rather than between "a man and a woman." The 2010 proposal lost. But stay tuned.