The Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly voted July 2 to maintain its sexuality standards for church officers, a significant defeat for gays and lesbians who want to serve as pastors and elders.

Delegates to the church's General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, decided by just four votes — 259-255 — to keep intact a 1978 policy that prohibits "unrepentant homosexual practice" among church officers in the 2.5 million-member church.

The language, which was later upheld as "authoritative" by the church's 1993 assembly, also says it is unconstitutional to ordain "self-affirming, practicing and unrepentant homosexuals."

Rescinding the so-called "authoritative interpretation" from 1978 was a necessary first step for groups wanting to dismantle a constitutional provision adopted in 1997 that mandates "fidelity within the covenant of marriage … or chastity in singleness" for clergy.

The "fidelity and chastity" language has already survived two attempts to overturn it. The church's highest court has said both provisions would need to be removed in order to clear the way for gay Presbyterians to be ordained.

Supporters of the current law said removing it would make it impossible for the church to overcome its deep divisions on human sexuality.

"It will be seen by many in our church as a battle half-lost and a battle half-won," said former Moderator David Dobler. "And the swords will be unsheathed again, and the opportunity to find that more excellent way will be lost."

Friday's voting keeps all current standards intact and essentially maintains the status quo until the church meets again in 2006 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Delegates said removing the law would complicate the work of a 20-member blue ribbon task force that is examining disunity in the church. The task force is scheduled to make its final report in Birmingham.

The delegates voted 297-218 to call upon the "church to pray for the task force and to engage faithfully in the processes of discernment as led by the task force."

"An authoritative interpretation tossed aside as unnecessary will become fuel for the fire of rhetoric and will consume our new levels of trust in the flames of suspicion," said Kyle Otterbein, a delegate from eastern Iowa.

The church's new moderator, Rick Ufford-Chase, acknowledged that the vote produced both winners and losers. "This is not a time for celebration, but rather a time to support one another," said Ufford-Chase, a supporter of gay ordination.

Despite the vote to maintain the status quo, delegates took significant strides to expand the church's support of gay rights. In a series of related votes, delegates decided to:

  • Oppose a controversial law in the assembly's host state of Virginia that prohibits contractual "partnerships" between same-sex couples. Delegates voted 350-132 to voice displeasure with the law.
  • Support efforts to extend "all the benefits, privileges and responsibilities of civil union" in state and federal laws to gay couples. That measure, which also affirms the church's definition of civil marriage between one man and one woman, passed 386-122.
  • Direct the church's Washington office not to "advocate for or against" a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The Washington office has already voiced its opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment pending before Congress.
  • Decline to endorse a "Christian Declaration of Marriage" that was signed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Southern Baptists and the National Association of Evangelicals in 2000. The National Council of Churches — of which the Presbyterians are a major member — initially signed the statement but later withdrew its support.

Delegates also directed the church's pensions agency to explore whether the denomination should offer domestic partnership benefits to gay employees. A recommendation is expected at the next assembly in 2006.

In other business, delegates re-elected their highest officer, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, to a third four-year term. Kirkpatrick easily fended off a challenge from three evangelical opponents who accused him of allowing liberals to flout church law.

"Dissent is to be honored, but disobedience is not," Kirkpatrick said in answering questions from delegates.

Related Elsewhere:

See also today's opinion piece on another resolution passed at the General Assembly:

Christianity Today earlier previewed the General Assembly.

For more on the PCUSA General Assembly, see the official Presbyterian News Service, the conservative The Layman, Presbyterians for Renewal (along with the Berkley Blog, from PFR Issues Ministries Director Jim Berkley), and The Presbyterian Outlook,