For three decades pro-gay factions within the Presbyterian Church (USA) have pressed for the ordination of homosexual church officers. This time they've carried the day, with a majority of presbyteries now voting to amend the PC(USA) Book of Order to permit sexually active gays and lesbians to be ordained.
Prior to the amendment, the Book of Order directed the governing bodies of presbyteries (regional organizations of the denomination) to ordain as deacons, elders, and ministers only those who lived "a life of obedience to Scripture," whether in single "chastity" or married "fidelity." Those "persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin" should not be ordained.
The newly passed Amendment 10-A removes this language and directs the governing bodies simply to be "guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates." The presbyteries are not compelled to ordain non-celibate homosexuals, but they are no longer forbidden to do so, just as they are no longer forbidden to ordain heterosexuals who are sexually active outside of marriage.
The denominational debate about homosexuality, and related issues of biblical interpretation and authority, has been going on ever since Northern and Southern Presbyterians joined to form the PC(USA) in 1983. The debate grew so intense that the denomination declared a three-year moratorium on the subject in 1993. Conservatives won a victory in 1997 when they successfully added the "fidelity and chastity" requirement. Ever since, liberal Presbyterians have proposed a series of possible substitutes that would permit gay ordination. While those proposals were defeated every time, the margins of defeat grew progressively smaller-until May 10, when the Twin Cities presbytery in Minnesota gave the new ordination standards majority support among presbyteries. The new rule will take effect on July 10.
Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the PC(USA)'s General Assembly from 2008 to 2010, said he could "weep with joy for friends long yearning for this day." Presbyterians for Renewal, a group devoted to strengthening the denomination's commitment to biblical authority, expressed "unspeakably deep grief." Some noted that the earlier standards called for "a life of obedience to Scripture," whereas the new standards only ask the governing bodies to "be guided by Scripture." As author and minister Mark D. Roberts wrote, "Guidance implies far less than obedience," and viewing the Bible as only as a source of guidance "appears to put Scripture on a par with other sources of guidance."
The amendment to PC(USA) ordination standards occurs against the backdrop of a long numerical decline. The denomination has lost one-fifth of its membership in the past decade, and four out of five worshippers in its pews today are over the age of 45. At the same time, the movement for gay ordination across Christian denominations may be slowing down. Although many mainline denominations have opened the doors to homosexual priests and pastors, no other denominations are waiting in the wings to follow their lead. There is no obvious next battleground for this fight.
For the Presbyterian Church (USA), the battle will now shift to individual presbyteries as they will decide for themselves whether or not to ordain gay candidates, as renewal movements will continue to protest. The Fellowship PC(USA), a nascent movement led by prominent Presbyterian traditionalists, stated tartly, "We as a Fellowship choose to remain obedient to Scripture and guided by the Book of Order."