Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) who expected a special report on human sexuality to be controversial were not disappointed when it was released last February. Jerry Van Marter of the denomination’s news service says he has not seen such furor among Presbyterians since a church agency contributed to the Angela Davis Defense Fund in the 1960s.

In the first month following the report’s release, various Presbyterian bodies drafted no fewer than 16 overtures (petitions), according to Van Marter, all requesting in one form or another that commissioners (delegates) to this year’s general assembly dispense with the report, the sooner the better. (Unless an assembly committee recommends that the report be ignored, it will most likely come up for a vote when the church’s general assembly meets June 12–14 in Baltimore.)

Most notably, the report advocates full acceptance, including ordination, of practicing homosexuals. But critics say this is but a symptom of the report’s most fundamental flaw. David Searfoss, leader of six dissenting committee members who drafted a minority report, says the majority document represents a “disastrous departure from the Reformed position on the authority of Scripture.” He adds, “If we cease to listen to the Word of God, then as far as I’m concerned, we cease to be a church.”

Other Presbyterian leaders echo Searfoss’s views. Says Betty Moore, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR), “The report equates the authority of Scripture with the authority of human experience.”

Former PCUSA moderator Ken Hall has led a group of six former church moderators in producing an open letter calling for the report’s rejection. The letter calls attention to a statement made in a letter by John Carey, chair of the special committee on human sexuality. Carey is quoted as stating, “Biblical ethics and Christian ethics for the church today are not the same thing.”

New Moral Criteria

The controversial report quite intentionally proposes new moral standards for sexual behavior. Committee chair Carey told CHRISTIANITY TODAY, “We don’t feel that marriage, by itself as a legal entity, ought to be the sole norm for legitimizing sexuality.”

Elaborating, Carey spoke of morally proper standards of sexual activity in terms of “mutuality, honesty, consent, and fidelity,” defining fidelity as “concern for the total well-being of the spouse’s partner.” Asked if such standards would prohibit group marital and sexual arrangements, Carey responded, “That is worth additional study and reflection,” adding that there were “patterns in human sexuality” his committee did not address.

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The 196-page report, entitled Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice, contains 48 recommendations, most of which are considered noncontroversial. But among the remaining measures are those that recommend pension benefits for same-sex couples and formal church recognition of same-sex relationships.

Carey lamented that the controversy over homosexuality has overshadowed the report’s main purpose, which he said was “to say some kind of constructive or helpful word to single people” who struggle with their sexuality without guidance from the church. “The Presbyterian church,” he said, “has never said a caring, thoughtful word to single people.”

PFR’s Moore agreed the church “needs to be more vitally and actively and compassionately involved” in addressing issues of sexuality. “But we can’t do it on the basis of this report,” she added, “because it begins from the wrong starting point.”

Opponents of the report are confident it will be rejected at this year’s general assembly. Yet there are some who believe damage to the church has already been done. “We’re hearing every day from people who didn’t think it was even possible for such a report to be produced by Presbyterians,” Moore says. She predicted the mere existence of the report might cause some to leave the PCUSA, but that most will hold steady until they see how the document is handled at the general assembly.

For his part, Carey is not ready to concede defeat. He says calls have been pouring into his office from Presbyterians expressing their appreciation for the report and its conclusions. Ultimately, he says, the report’s fate rests with the commissioners in Baltimore.

This year’s PCUSA General Assembly will also be closely watched by many in the United Methodist Church. A United Methodist committee studying homosexuality is due to report next year to the denomination’s quadrennial general conference. Earlier this year, members of that committee voted 17 to 4 to recommend removing from the church’s statement on social principles the phrase that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

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Irreconcilable Differences?

Excerpts from the majority report of the PCUSA’s Special Committee on Human Sexuality:

• Coming of age about sexuality requires affirming a diversity of responsible sexualities in the church, including the lives of gay men and lesbians, as well as new patterns among non-traditional families.
• Solidarity [with those who have been marginalized] is the prime Christian virtue of our day.
• The more inclusive we are of persons, perspectives, and life experiences, the better chance we have of rendering a truthful account of our lives together.
• If we profess to believe in God’s continuing revelation to us, perhaps we should consider that this includes a reevaluation of our definition of “sin” in terms of the changing mores of our society.
• The fundamental moral problem is not gay men and lesbians, but rather heterosexism, the oppression of this sexual minority by the privileged majority.
• Although heterosexual marriage is rightly valued by many people as a place to secure loving and justice-bearing intimacy relations, it is not the exclusive locus for responsible sexuality. The church must teach how to identify, honor, and celebrate all sexual relations grounded in mutual respect, genuine care, and justice-love.

From the minority report:

• Given the single voice with which Scriptures and the church have spoken on these matters, we would need overwhelming reasons to depart from the historic stand of the church on the matter of homosexual behavior.
• Insistence on the precedence of Scripture over all other claims about God’s will [means that] any testimony of the “oppressed” … must be measured against the teaching of Scripture.
• What the church says must never be determined by the “market” for its teaching or by opinion polls.
• The decline in biblical literacy is one reason why the current generation of Presbyterians has lost its bearings in the maze of changes in ethics, including sexual perception and behavior.
• In the New Testament several writers refer to same-sex practices as reprehensible and contrary to God’s intention for humankind.… Attempts have been made to avoid the plain meaning of these biblical passages.
• In our Christian and Reformed tradition, we are united in affirming that the Scriptures are our rule of faith and conduct.
• The marital fidelity of a woman and man who are disciples of Jesus Christ becomes a witness to, and instance of, the central Gospel truth of Cross and Resurrection.

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