In July, the general assembly of the 2.7 million-member denomination, its highest governing body, approved by a 313-to-236 vote a report that calls homosexual practice a sin and begins amending the denomination's constitution to clarify its position that active homosexuals should not serve as ministers, elders, or deacons.

To become law, the amendment must be approved within a year by a majority of the country's 172 presbyteries. Since 1978, the denomination has officially prohibited the ordination of "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals," although that ban has not been included in the Book of Order, the church's constitution.

The general assembly vote at its annual eight-day meeting in Albuquerque culminated a three-year moratorium on legislative action so that the denomination could study issues involving homosexuality--an emotionally charged subject that has caused turmoil within the PCUSA and other mainline groups for two decades.

"In some way, we've got to settle this controversy once and for all," says Elizabeth Achtemeier, adjunct professor of Bible and homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. "By sending this to the presbyteries to get it into the constitution of the Presbyterian church--if the presbyteries pass it, and I think they will--that will settle the issue. There will be no confusion."

CAREFULLY WORDED AMENDMENT: The proposed amendment does not specifically exclude homosexuals from the church's ordained offices, but it states that officers must practice either "fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

Craig Barnes, senior pastor of National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., praised the wording of the amendment. "It was the wisdom of Solomon that came up with the approach of addressing this in the larger context of sexuality rather than isolating homosexuality," he says. "I don't think the church is confused only about homosexuality. Look at all the questions we've had about clergy sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the church."

Harrisonburg, Virginia, pastor John F. Sloop first proposed a similar amendment three years ago. "This will be a major step in clarifying where the Presbyterian Church is, where our boundaries are," Sloop says. He says he hopes that people who disagree with the position will quietly leave the PCUSA and join denominations that ordain homosexuals.

Chris Glaser of Atlanta, a homosexual leader of the activist caucus Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns, says he believes that may happen if the amendment becomes church law. "There's no opportunity for us to serve unless we are celibate," he says. He described the vote as "spiritual abuse."

Article continues below

The report accompanying the amendment makes it clear that the church does not regard homosexual orientation alone as "a sin" or as "a barrier to ordination," but rather believes Scripture forbids homosexual practice.

"We would have loved to have dodged this issue," says Roberta Hestenes, president of Eastern College in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania, and chair of the legislative committee that brought the report. "But sometimes there is no room between answering a question yes and no. Biological identity is not behavioral destiny."

After the vote, several hundred homosexual Presbyterians and their supporters circled the hall, singing, carrying a wooden cross, and wearing clerical stoles representing homosexuals who have left the church or who are holding office within the church without acknowledging their sexual practice.

CIVIL RIGHTS DEFENDED: Despite its stance on homosexuality and church office, the assembly voted 281 to 244 to support civil rights for same-sex couples through legislation and friend-of-the-court briefs.

Barnes says he sees no conflict between the church's position on ordination and its defense of civil rights for practicing homosexuals.

"We certainly don't want them discriminated against, but the church has the right to say that some things are morally wrong," he says. "Leadership in the church is a privilege for those who come under the authority of the church's teachings. And the church has affirmed that God created men and women in his image, and that their sexual practice gives glory to God when it is done in the confines of marriage."

NO ABORTION VOTE: While observers and participants saw the decision on homosexuality as a move to the right for the PCUSA, conservatives in the church came away less pleased on the other hot-button issue of abortion.

The assembly refused to take a stand on partial-birth abortions (CT, Dec. 11, 1995, p. 69). Commissioners also rejected plans for a separate medical plan for churches that do not want to finance abortions.

Under the present system, the denomination offers a "relief of conscience" program with a separate account for such churches, but money is sometimes shifted to the Board of Pensions' general medical fund. The assembly asked the board to continue to work toward a satisfactory system.

In a speech to the church's antiabortion lay and clergy group, Presbyterians Pro-life, Prison Fellowship president Charles Colson urged abortion foes to keep the faith. "Let me remind you that, even in the darkest moments, it's just one little candle of light that makes all the difference," he said.

Article continues below

The assembly also unseated James D. Brown, executive director of the General Assembly Council. Brown lost his second bid for a four-year term to the denomination's top bureaucratic post by a 258-to-222 vote--even though he was unopposed. He had become a lightning rod for people who said the church's bureaucracy is out of touch with the people in the pulpits and pews. He had come under severe criticism for his handling of the controversial 1993 feminist Re-Imagining conference.

The PCUSA approved proceeding toward affiliation with the Consultation on Church Union, an effort among nine Protestant denominations to recognize each other's communions, baptisms, and ordinations while maintaining separate identities. The general assembly removed language referring to bishops and substituted commissioners to preserve Presbyterian polity that considers lay elders on the same level with clergy.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.