Deep divisions over human sexuality have resurfaced in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some conservatives accuse two top executives of undermining efforts to call a special session of the current 214th General Assembly to enforce a ban on gay clergy who are not celibate.

In 1996 the assembly amended the PCUSA constitution to require that pastors and elders live in "sexual fidelity or chastity," which local presbyteries ratified a year later. Since then, the assembly has voted down two attempts to remove the ban.

Clifton Kirkpatrick, PCUSA stated clerk, vetoed the proposal, saying not enough names were on a petition calling for a special session. Kirkpatrick said 13 petitioners withdrew their names, bringing the total to 44, six short of the required 50. Backers claim Kirkpatrick and Fahed Abu-Akel, PCUSA moderator, pressured petitioners to withdraw their names.

"That is simply not true," Kirkpatrick told Christianity Today. "The morning after we received the petition, four people, totally unsolicited, contacted me and said they did not want their names on the petitions." During signature verification, others withdrew their names.

"The time, energy, and money (as much as $500,000) that we would spend on a special assembly would be that much less that would be spent on mission," Abu-Akel wrote in a January 24 letter to commissioners of the 214th General Assembly. Some PCUSA evangelicals agreed that the approach taken by conservatives was not advisable.

Critics of that approach include Victor D. Pentz, an evangelical pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, which at 12,000 members is the largest church in the denomination. "Some of us think the effort to call a special session was a confrontational approach and, in the long run, may have backfired and had a reverse impact on what was trying to be accomplished," Pentz told CT.

When the 2.5 million-member denomination's 215th General Assembly convenes in Denver on May 24, conflicts over gay and lesbian issues are likely to re-emerge. Some conservatives are pushing for strong judicial action against church leaders who defy the ban on "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals" within the clergy.

The Redstone Presbytery in Pennsylvania sent an overture, or motion, to the 215th General Assembly. It urges local judicial commissions to have procedures to deal with congregations and presbyteries that defy the ban.

Of more than 11,000 PCUSA congregations, a few have ordained noncelibate gays and lesbians. Others have defied church rules prohibiting ceremonies for blessing same-sex unions.

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Attorney Paul Rolf Jensen has initiated formal complaints against several congregations and presbyteries, as well as a "remedial complaint" with the church's highest court, seeking to review the actions of Kirkpatrick and Abu-Akel. If the church court dismisses the complaint, Jensen said he expects that outraged evangelicals will file a suit in a civil court to compel a special session.

"The stage is set for a catastrophic confrontation between Presbyterians who want to see the constitution strictly enforced and those who do not," Jensen told CT. Of 20 pending complaints filed with local judicial commissions on "fidelity and chastity" disputes, local judicial commissions dismissed all but four. Only one has resulted in charges.

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today coverage of the PCUSA and gay ordination includes:

PCUSA Group Seeks Special Assembly | Conservatives circulate petition to discipline those defying church law on homosexual clergy. (Dec. 10, 2002)
Talk of Presbyterian Split Grows | Homosexual ordination, lordship of Christ are ongoing issues for conservatives. (Nov. 21, 2002)
Presbyterians Reaffirm Fidelity, Chastity Rule | Conservatives gain last needed vote to defeat Amendment A. (March 11, 2002)
Presbyterians Void Ban on Gay Clergy | Presbyteries will vote on national meeting's action during the next year. (July 23, 2001)
PCUSA Opens Door to Gay Ordination and Other Ways to Salvation | The real big news out of the denomination's General Assembly may not be its revoking of its ban on gay ministers. (June 18, 2001)
Presbyterians urged to allow liberals to leave over homosexual ordination | The general assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), will be asked to consider a series of resolutions declaring that "irreconcilable" differences exist over the ordination of gay clergy. (Feb. 28, 2000)
Presbyterians Endorse Fidelity, Chastity for Ordained Clergy (Apr. 28, 1997)

Other Christianity Today articles on related tensions within the Presbyterian Church (USA) include:

Presbyterians Check Divisiveness | PCUSA General Assembly endorses statement affirming the lordship of Christ. (July 17, 2002)
Presbyterians: 'Let's not Fight' | Conservative leaders say they want to "rebuild the church Jesus' way." (April 3, 2002)
Presbyterians Vote Down Ban on Same-Sex Unions | Opponents say vague wording led to defeat. (March 29, 2001)
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Editorial: Walking in the Truth | Winning arguments at church conventions is not enough without compassion for homosexuals. (Oct. 30, 2000)
Presbyterians Propose Ban on Same-Sex Ceremonies | Change to church constitution, which passes by only 17 votes, now goes to presbyteries. (July 5, 2000)
Presbyterians Support Same-Sex Unions | Northeast Synod rules 8-2 in favor of continuing church's "holy union" ceremonies (Jan. 10, 2000)
Fidelity Clause Retained | Homosexual ordination under study until 2001. (Aug. 9, 1999)
Leaders Retain 'Chastity' Vow (May 18, 1998)
Assembly Favors 'Integrity' Not 'Chastity' for Leaders (Aug. 11, 1997)

For more news, see and the PCUSA website.

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