Conservatives with the mainline Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) are claiming victory in the passage of the "fidelity and chastity" amendment to the denomination's constitution.

The amendment calls for ordained PCUSA officers to practice "fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, and chastity in singleness." It had to pass 87 of the country's 172 presbyteries to become law for the 2.7 million- member denomination based in Louisville, Kentucky. The amendment reached the requisite number on March 18.

Last year, in a 313-to-236 vote, the general assembly approved a report calling homosexual practice a sin and proposed the amendment to keep active homosexuals from serving as ministers, elders, and deacons (CT, Aug. 12, 1996, p. 56). The Presbyterian Coalition, a network formed in 1993, has been a chief proponent of moral standards for ordination.

"Thousands of fellow Presbyterians have worked and prayed for years, at an ever-increasing tempo and intensity, longing to see the church reach this conclusion," the coalition's leaders wrote in a March 18 letter. "God has spoken through the voice of the church. It is time for us Presbyterians to move ahead, having reclaimed biblical truth as the center point of our faith and practice."

Backers included several pastors of large congregations, including Frank Harrington of Atlanta, Jack Haberer of Houston, and John A. Huffman of Newport Beach, California.

"The time has come for us to stand clearly on the issue of morality in conduct," says Harrington, pastor of the largest PCUSA congregation, Peachtree Presbyterian Church. "The church of Jesus Christ, and the Presbyterian church in particular, does not need to send a fuzzy message on fidelity and chastity."

Haberer, a coalition leader, concurred. "Scripture says intimacy belongs in the covenant between a husband and a wife."

NOW WHAT? Yet division remains. Doug Oldenburg, president of the denomination's Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, lobbied against the amendment. "To defeat this amendment does not mean we are endorsing promiscuity and sexual practice outside marriage," he says.

Marj Carpenter, PCUSA moderator in 1995-96, praised the denomination's handling of the vote on the amendment. "With one or two exceptions, it was done with great dignity across the church," says Carpenter, of Big Spring, Texas. "It pointed out our diversity. It also pointed out we can do this with decency and in order, even though we disagree."

Carpenter believes, "It is important to get this issue into the Book of Order," but she cautioned against focusing on sexual sins. "All of us are sinners, God help us all."

With the amendment as part of the constitution, "what the Presbyterian Church has to do now is figure out how we as a denomination with enormous diversity can live with this," says current moderator John M. Buchanan of Chicago. "It's my job as moderator to make sure we don't, as a denomination, come spinning apart."

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