22 June 2000 (Newsroom) — Seventeen resolutions concerning gays and lesbians will confront delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) when they gather for a week in Long Beach, California, beginning Saturday.
For Presbyterians, as with their mainline Protestant counterparts, the issue is a flash point that underscores a deep theological divide within the more than 2 million-member denomination. “One side says we understand Scripture to say homosexual behavior is sinful, the other says it is a gift from God,” explains Bob Davis, director of the denominational renewal group Presbyterian Forum. “Those are pretty disparate positions.”
The resolutions, or “overtures” as they are called, include both sides of the most frequently disputed issues: ordination of gays and performing of same-sex unions.
Three overtures seek to amend the Book of Order, the church’s constitution, with an explicit prohibition of same-sex unions. Approval by the assembly would then require ratification by a majority of the church’s 172 presbyteries, boards that represent a local grouping of congregations.
In May, the denomination’s highest court ruled that same-sex unions can be performed in church as long as they are not confused with marriage ceremonies. The Book of Order makes no specific reference to same-sex unions, though it defines marriage as between a man and a woman
One overture wants the church to acknowledge that the divide simply cannot be resolved. The overtures are presented by the presbyteries, and this one from the Beaver-Butler Presbytery in Pennsylvania declares that there is an “Irreconcilable Impasse Regarding Biblical Authority, Biblical Interpretation, Jesus Christ, Salvation, Ethics, Leadership, Sanctification, and the Church.”
The presbytery’s rationale is that the “loss of any common ground on core theological issues creates division in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), removing the sense of a shared basis for discussion or action.”
Most Presbyterian leaders, who have been formally grappling with the issue since 1978, believe talk of schism is premature, but they will be challenged by an ecumenical gay rights group whose message is “We are not going to debate any longer.” Soulforce, which is based near the convention site, plans a “peaceful act of civil disobedience” when members of the assembly gather Sunday morning. The action will be similar to a protest at the United Methodist Church convention in Cleveland last month in which some 200 people were arrested. The group plans a similar protest on July 4 in Denver, Colorado at the convention of the Episcopal Church U.S.A.
“Your current official policy of exclusion has the effect of condemning all sexual minorities as unloved by God and unwelcome in the Presbyterian Church,” Soulforce said in a statement. “It leads to discrimination, suffering, and even death for Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians alike.”
“Everyone is fatigued by this 20 years of debate,” acknowledges Bill Giles, executive coordinator of the Presbyterian Coalition, which he describes as a “moderate voice.” But Giles says the majority of the church is not about to give up civil discourse. “The ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative members of the church appear to be talking more about the division than the vast middle of the church, which is trying to find its way through this maze and come up with a response,” Giles said.
Two gay advocacy groups in the church, More Light Presbyterians and That All May Freely Serve, issued a statement welcoming Soulforce, but acknowledging that some of their Presbyterian sympathizers may choose not to engage in Soulforce’s activities. “Soulforce doesn’t speak for the Presbyterian Church,” said Mitzi Henderson, co-coordinator of More Light Presbyterians. “Our group has members who feel this kind of impatience, and it’s well founded. On the other hand, we are in and of the church, and part of that means we need to work with the family — because we believe our cause is just, and because we ultimately believe the church will recognize that.”
The Presbyterian Forum’s Davis calls Soulforce a “red herring.” He believes that leaders who oppose his views, such as Jane Spahr of That All May Freely Serve, will continue the dialogue despite their cooperation with Soulforce. “It seems to me she has been invested in working through this process for a long time,” Davis said. “I don’t hear her saying, ‘Lets take it by storm.’ ”
Giles believes that Soulforce is more of a problem for the gay advocacy groups than for defenders of church tradition, who both are trying to appeal to the moderate majority of the church. “For folks in the middle this is a real turn off,” he says of Soulforce’s confrontational approach. “They are saying it doesn’t matter what you think, you are going to do this. If (the delegates) are giving up their vacation to come to the assembly, they want to know that what they do matters.”
In a recent editorial in the independent magazine The Presbyterian Outlook, editor Robert H. Bullock Jr. said that overtures declaring the church at an irreconcilable impasse may be premature “because the PC(USA) is not as far along as the Methodists in the process of deciding on same-sex unions.” On the other hand, he said, “the Assembly is very late in recognizing the depth and breadth of the division â€¦ over sexuality and other issues.”
Davis believes that unless the church confronts its “denial of conflict and division” it will continue to lose members. Last year some 30,000 left the church, and in the past 10 years about half a million have given up their memberships.
At the same time, non-denominational Protestant churches have enjoyed explosive growth. Davis believes the problem with mainline churches is rooted in their “institutional” character, which tends to foster theological differences between the hierarchy and the members at the grass roots level. “Institutional leaders have understood (the institution’s) role as a prophetic voice of the church, rather than as a servant of the church, which is a rather strange role for a bureaucracy,” Davis said.
Though many Presbyterians will point to the mandate of Christ to maintain unity, there are other notable motives for the denomination to stay together. The church has $1.8 billion in its foundation, according to Davis. “That is joint money,” he points out, “and people feel like there is a stewardship to proclaim the gospel with that money.”
Henderson believes the church has come to a greater “awareness and understanding” of gays and lesbians in its two decades of studies on the issue. “But that doesn’t mean I see a change,” she said. “It has taken much too long â€¦ too many good Christian folks have dropped out because they feel hurt.” Nevertheless, she remains optimistic, partly based on her own experience. “This is a difficult issue, and as a parent who struggled to coming to terms with own child’s sexuality, I realize it is a process,” said Henderson, who formerly served as president of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Henderson says about 100 churches in the denomination have declared publicly they will push for allowance of same-sex unions. Decisions by the church likely will not change their practices. “They are performing (same-sex) commitment ceremonies and ordaining (gays and lesbians), just going ahead and doing it,” she said.
In his editorial, Bullock said that “if another Book of Order amendment goes to the presbyteries on the issue of sexuality, involving churchwide debate and voting, the divisions will surely deepen.” But he offers the hope that “with God’s help we just might get to a place of resolution without schism, a place we could not get to on our own.”
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Used with permission.