The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted today in favor of changing ordination standards to remove language requiring ministers "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
The question will now be sent to local presbyteries for further consideration. A majority of the 173 presbyteries must approve the constitutional amendment by July 10, 2011, in order for the new ordination standards to stick. (Corrected)
Efforts to remove chastity requirements from gay PCUSA clergy had met defeat last year during an eventful summer which saw the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America vote in August to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, following the Episcopal Church's reaffirmation in July of its openness to noncelibate gay priests. Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church voted against structural changes that would have opened church membership to homosexuals.
Update (7:35 p.m.): An initial reaction from James Berkley, designated pastor at Seattle's Bethel Presbyterian Church, writing from the General Assembly in Minneapolis:
Today a slight majority of a skewed sample of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted by a narrow margin to overturn the enduring moral guidance Presbyterians have always upheld. Other than gaining attention, however, the vote changes nothing. A majority of 173 regional presbyteries must also approve the church constitutional amendment before it takes effect, and their votes will occur throughout the next twelve months.
The vote today was a disgrace, in that it drags Presbyterians away from the will of God for our sexual expression. We are to obey Scripture, not re-imagine God-defiling teachings.
The vote today was tragic, in that it offers cold comfort for those caught in sin. We are to proclaim Scripture's message of hope, not bend its message to prevailing error.
The vote today was divisive, in that once again, congregations and presbyteries, friendships and families will be strained by the process of defeating yet another General Assembly-produced error in doctrine and practice.
We profess in the Westminster Confession of Faith that "all synods or councils ... may err; and many have erred." The General Assembly erred today, but that will not be the final word. Faithful Presbyterians will not let this stand.
Update (8.54 a.m. Friday) The Presbyterian Coalition, a conservative organization within the PCUSA, released a statement in response to the decision.
We grieve the decision today by our General Assembly to recommend removing the moral standard for our ministers and officers that rightly requires fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. The action was adopted by a narrow margin. Nevertheless, it marks a separation from the teaching of the universal Church on holiness of life.
The decision is the first step toward removing this standard for ordination from our church's constitution. The action must be approved by a majority of our presbyteries to be enacted.
Our 173 presbyteries have voted four times in 15 years on this same section of our constitution. Presbyterians in our churches and presbyteries have repeatedly stood with the Church Universal in refusing to make any change in this moral standard that is rooted in the will of God expressed in Scripture.
The Church knows its mind on this matter. This General Assembly's action continues to roil the Presbyterian Church (USA). The effect of the Assembly's actions to require presbyteries to vote again and again on the same matter is to tire and frustrate Presbyterians.
We commend those commissioners who by their witness and by their votes upheld the Church's biblical and historical standard. We pray to God for mercy as we call on our churches and presbyteries to respond with renewed determination, to see this action as another opportunity to bring a witness to God's truth by your perseverance. Let us follow the Savior's call not to be weary in well doing.
Update (9:12 a.m. Friday): Carmen Fowler, the president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, spoke with CT this morning: "In my view, the strike-and-replace that's being proposed would eliminate, basically, the sexual standards that the church has expected of her leadership throughout all generations."
Fowler says that with a simple 53% majority, "it's not as if that's going to go to the church as a mandate from the General Assembly."
"The closer you get to the pews, the more conservative people get," Fowler said.