By LAURIE GOODSTEIN -
After 33 years of debate, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has voted to change its constitution and allow openly gay people in same-sex relationships to be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons.
The outcome is a reversal from only two years ago, when a majority of the church’s regions, known as presbyteries, voted against ordaining openly gay candidates.
This time, 19 of the church’s 173 presbyteries switched their votes from no to yes in recent months. The Twin Cities presbytery, which covers Minneapolis and St. Paul, cast the deciding vote at its meeting on Tuesday. The vote was 205 to 56, with 3 abstentions.
Cynthia Bolbach, moderator of the church’s General Assembly, its highest legislative body, said in a phone interview from Minneapolis after the vote: “Everyone was civil. There was no applause, no cheering. It was just reflective of the fact that we are moving forward one other step.”
Although by the time the vote was taken in Minneapolis the outcome was expected, Presbyterian church officials said that even a few months ago they would not have predicted that the church was ready to change its policy.
“All of us are surprised,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the church’s stated clerk, its highest elected official. He attributed the turnabout in the votes to both the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the larger culture, and to church members simply wearying of the conflict.
“We’ve been having this conversation for 33 years, and some people are ready to get to the other side of this decision,” he said. “Some people are going to celebrate this day because they’ve worked for it for a long time, and some people will mourn this day because they think it’s a totally different understanding of Scripture than they have.”
“I hope that going forward we can stay together and be faithful witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now joins a growing bloc of historic, mainline Protestant churches that have voted to accept gay clergy members and church leaders — a bloc that includes the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church. (The largest mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is still fighting over the issue).
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has about two million members. The Presbyterian Church in America, a much smaller and more conservative denomination, prohibits the ordination of women and openly gay candidates.
Longtime advocates of gay equality in the Presbyterian Church savored the day. The Rev. Heidi Vardeman, senior minister of Macalaster Plymouth United Church in St. Paul and a spokeswoman for a pro-gay church group called More Light Presbyterians, said in an interview, “Finally, the denomination has seen the error of its ways and it will repent, which means, literally, to turn around.
“I’ve had young people who have been exemplary, obviously good candidates for the ministry,” she said, “but then you have to have this weird conversation in which you say that, umm, because they might be gay or lesbian, it’s not going to work. But now we’re free! We can endorse and propose and assist and elect those whom God has called.”
In the next few months, the denomination will gauge the reaction from its more theologically conservative members, who believe that ordaining sexually active gay people is inconsistent with the Bible. Some have already departed. The Presbyterian News Service estimates that approximately 100 congregations have left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the last five years. Several were large congregations, which could help explain why the vote in some presbyteries switched from 2009.
Paul Detterman, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, an alliance of conservative Presbyterians, said: “We see this as a bit of a crisis of conscience for us. The book that we hold up as holy is saying one thing, and now the church is behaving differently.”
However, he said groups like his were not planning to separate from the denomination, but to push to create some kind of a formal entity within the Presbyterian Church for conservatives. It could be a nongeographical presbytery or a fellowship, he said. “We need to have some kind of an identity,” he said.
He said he did not think the homosexuality issue was resolved because gay advocates are likely to try to pass an amendment at the church’s next General Assembly in 2012 calling for the church to bless same-sex marriages and unions.
The change approved on Tuesday does not mean that presbyteries must ordain gay candidates — only that they may. The wording leaves the decision open to local presbyteries, according to church officials. It says that governing bodies that consider candidates “shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
The measure changes the church’s constitution by removing a 1997 amendment that said that those ordained were required to live in “either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman” or in “chastity in singleness.”