In Historic Vote, Presbyterians to Allow LGBT Clergy

The Presbyterian Church (USA) will begin ordaining gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy this summer after a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries voted to approve Amendment 10-A.

The amendment removes language from the Presbyterian Book of Order – inserted in the late 1990s to prevent LGBT people from serving – that those called to be ministers, deacons, or elders are required to “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

The new language gives congregations the leeway they need to “examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office” and makes no mention of celibacy or relationship status. It does not mean that LGBT people must be ordained, but gives each presbytery the choice to do so if it wishes.

“What this does for LGBT people in the church is it creates an open way. People cannot be discriminated against in a categorical way because of their sexual orientation or marital status. This is an amazing moment in the life of the PC(USA),” Michael Adee, the director of More Light Presbyterians, told RD.

More Light has been working since 1974 for full equality for LGBT people in the denomination.

The Associated Press reports it was “the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, based in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., [that] cast the deciding 87th vote Tuesday night. Sixty-two presbyteries have voted against the measure and balloting will continue, but the majority needed for ratification was secured in Minnesota.”

Not everyone within that presbytery was happy with the vote according to The Minneapolis Star Tribune: “It’s very unfortunate we have to have this discussion today,” said Peter Hwang, a member of the Korean Presbyterian Church. “I think we should be ashamed of ourselves. This homosexual issue is breaking our church. We need to abide by Scripture.”

Despite the opposition, that final vote, according to Adee, means that the new amendment will go into effect on July 10.

After the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) lifted its celibacy requirements in 2009, allowing LGBT people to be ordained as ministers, many churches pulled out of the denomination in protest. Fox News reports that “about 100 of the 11,000 [Presbyterian] congregations had already broken away ahead of the vote.”

Adee doesn’t expect there to be a large exodus from the denomination after this ratification, mainly because of polity differences between the Presbyterians and the Lutherans. The ELCA made the change at a national meeting – but the Presbyterians were forced to have meetings and conversations about the issue and ratify the amendment presbytery by presbytery.

“Thousands of people had faithful conversations about ‘what does it mean to be the church?’ and ‘what does the Bible really say about this?’, so I think the cultural change will be further along for the Presbyterian church because of this long process,” Adee said.

Paul Detterman, who leads the conservative alliance called Presbyterians for Renewal agreed, telling the New York Times that his group does not plan to leave PC(USA) but that they are perplexed by the vote. “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.”

Adee says there is more work ahead for More Light. They will now begin to work on policies and procedures needed to implement the new amendment.

“More Light churches are more likely to call out LGBT ministers, but others may be reluctant and need encouragement, so we’re creating affirming guidelines to assist churches in this process because changing the law itself won’t have meaning if we don’t get actual LGBT people serving in churches,” Adee said.

Many of those potential ministers have already left the PC(USA) and have been ordained by other affirming denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, the ELCA and the Episcopal Church. It remains to be seen if some of those ministers may return to the Presbyterian Church – though most of those denominations already have ministerial cooperation agreements, recognizing the ordinations of ministers within the other denominations.

“It’s almost like dominoes,” Adee said, “It used to be the exception, but it’s becoming the rule. The pressure is now on the United Methodists.”

Currently, the United Methodist Church allows gay and lesbian ministers, but only if they are celibate and not open about their sexual orientation.

“This is an ethical challenge and an invitation,” Adee said.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)