The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), at its annual general assembly in June, agreed to a cease-fire of sorts in the debate over homosexual ordination. Still, some outspoken Presbyterians see the effort as doomed because the stalemate is likely to create more ill will and further marginalize Presbyterian homosexuals.

After a week of debate, the denomination rejected, 412 to 92, a proposal that would have reopened the question of whether the church should ordain practicing homosexuals. This leaves standing the denomination's Book of Order, which requires pastors, elders, and deacons to practice chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and woman, a 1996 rule aimed in part at keeping active homosexuals from leadership posts.

Earlier this year, the PCUSA announced that regional bodies had rejected by a 2-to-1 margin an effort to loosen official standards on who may be ordained (CT, May 18, 1998, p. 14). Thus, the "fidelity and chastity" amendment passed at last year's general assembly (CT, Aug. 11, 1997, p. 56) remains unchanged.

HALTING LOSSES: The battle over sexuality has occurred against the backdrop of further membership decline, including a drop of 22,000 last year. For some, the divisive sexuality debates have distracted church leaders from focusing on the familiar work of evangelistic outreach and mission projects.

"It really is time to step back," said Richard Hutchison, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "I don't mean sweep it under the rug. What we need to be talking about now is how we can live together with our differences … as opposed to how we resolve our differences."

Hutchison and the other two candidates for moderator supported the respite, including winner Douglas Oldenburg, president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

Oldenburg, 63, will lead the denomination for the next year, spending much of his time trying to fire up a 2.6 million-member denomination that has lost 1.5 million members since the Northern and Southern wings of the church merged in 1983.

DUCKING THE ISSUE? While 15,000 Presbyterian leaders opened the convention with worship in North Carolina's Charlotte Coliseum, a group of 50 who favor ordination of homosexuals gathered for prayer outside.

Homer Spencer, 76, a retired pastor and missionary from Lakeland, Florida, said the sabbatical is only allowing the denomination to duck the issue. A supporter of ordaining homosexuals, Spencer has a homosexual son who left the denomination.

Despite the vote to table the homosexual debate, Presbyterians took several steps to facilitate discussion and to discourage sanctions against members who are homosexual. In a resolution, they asked individual presbyteries not to exclude anyone from church membership on the basis of age, race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. "We trust our presbyteries and congregations to determine the fitness of individuals based upon their behavior," said Carol McDonald, chair of the committee that brought the issue to the general assembly floor.

Delegates also agreed to hold a national conference of Presbyterians within the next six months to explore the theological and ethical issues of homosexuality.

LUTHERAN AGREEMENT: With far less division, Presbyterians resolved several other issues. The PCUSA marked the formal beginning of "full communion" with the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

After three decades of study, and ratification by presbyteries after last year's general assembly, the agreement recognized in Charlotte forges deeper ties between the two denominations, as well as with the United Church of Christ and Reformed Church in America.

Presbyterians and Lutherans will now be able to take Communion at each others' churches. Presbyterian congregations may hire Lutherans to be their pastors, and Lutherans may hire Presbyterians. Members may start joint churches. The agreement will be sealed at an October 4 worship service at the University of Chicago.

In the heart of tobacco country, Presbyterians voted to approve a resolution urging Congress to set a tax of at least $1.10 per pack on cigarettes. In addition, the resolution also urged the elimination of cigarette vending machines.

Presbyterians also passed a resolution calling on members to remove handguns and assault weapons from their homes. While supporting gun control before, the resolution is the first to urge members actually to remove their weapons.

Philadelphia minister Bernice Warren said, "I have been to too many funerals of young people, particularly young black men, who have been killed by handguns."

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