Renewal Groups Strategize after the PC(USA) Drops Celibacy Clause for Gay Clergy
For Ronald W. Scates, senior pastor of the 4,800-member Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, the future of his denomination looks chaotic.
A majority of the 173 presbyteries, or regional bodies, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have voted to remove from the 2-million-member denomination's constitution an ordination requirement of "fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
The change was decided May 10 when the Twin Cities presbytery, which covers Minneapolis and St. Paul, became the 87th region to approve it.
The move is widely seen as giving presbyteries the option of allowing openly gay people in same-sex relationships to be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons.
"It is shattering what little unity was left in the PC(USA)," said Scates, pastor of one of the denomination's largest churches. "You will probably see a lot of silent hemorrhaging of people out of our churches."
Those upset with the vote see it as part of a larger liberal shift by the PC(USA).
"The issues have been diverse and many," Victor Pentz, senior pastor of the 9,000-member Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, wrote in a May 10 letter to his congregation. "Central among them are the authority and reliability of the Bible, the essential need of Christ for salvation, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, along with a range of ethical issues."
Pentz is one of seven pastors organizing the Presbyterian Fellowship, envisioned as a subset of PC(USA) churches with a common theological statement and ordination standards.
"We are viewing the experience of the Episcopal Church over recent years—lawsuits, ruptures in the global communion and public conflict—as a cautionary tale we hope to avoid as much as we can," he said.
Still, the chaos that Scates anticipates could take a variety of forms.
"I foresee that congregations within the PC(USA) who describe themselves variously as evangelical, conservative, orthodox or traditional in their beliefs and practices will choose one of four paths forward," said Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee.
Roughly described, those paths include:
- Stay in the denomination and avoid conflict by becoming more congregationally focused.
- Leave to join other Presbyterian denominations, in some cases facing legal battles over property and assets.
- Create "shadow presbyteries" to serve those who lack the majority votes to leave or the legal authority to assert control over property.
- Stay and fight.
"There are those uniquely called to remain within the PC(USA) as a witness to the truth, no matter what," LaBerge said. "They will not be silenced. … They have a Jeremiah-like calling and spirit."
Already, more than 100 congregations have left the PC(USA) via a bridge built by the New Wineskins Association of Churches to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Other churches have departed for other denominations.
Such defections may have played a role in the change on ordination standards. Just two years ago, most presbyteries rejected a similar proposal.
"Many of the presbytery votes were lost by extremely small margins—at least 10 presbyteries lost the vote by five or fewer votes," said Terry Schlossberg, a leader with the Presbyterian Coalition. "Churches that transferred or didn't show up to vote without a doubt contributed to the outcome."
But LaBerge disagrees: "In a denomination that claims to have more than 10,000 congregations, it is silly to say that the departure of just over 100 could swing the vote so far so fast."