Presbyterians, Change Hearts & Minds, Begin Ordaining Gays

It’s official. As of July 10, after a 15-year struggle, qualified gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can be ordained as clergy and officers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). After 24 presbyteries flipped from previous “no” votes, a total of 97 approved amendment 10A; well over the 87 required for the change.

This victory finally removed exclusionary language from the Book of Order, which required “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” The old language also required prospective ministers and officers to repent of “any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin”—a list that includes transgressions as varied as usury, “undue delay of marriage,” and “immoderate use of meat.” (What now for patrons of Brazilian steakhouses?)  

Of course, the struggle for full acceptance of LGBT people began way before efforts to repeal the so-called “fidelity and chastity” rule. Many folks mark the 1974 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church as the beginning of the movement for LGBT equality in the denomination, when David Bailey Sindt held up a sign asking, “Is anyone else out there gay?”  

Part of the reason for 10A’s success this year is the answer to that question: Yes, there are gay people out there. As Rev. Tricia Dykers-Koenig, national organizer for Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said, “People are changing their minds about the morality of same-sex relationships. It comes from knowing more LGBT people.” 

Others point to shifts in the broader culture. “The conversation over LGBT equality in the church was not an isolated question,” says Michael Adee, executive director and field organizer for More Light Presbyterians. “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the military, marriage equality [legislation and litigation] and the epidemic of anti-gay bullying all had an impact upon the consideration of 10A across the country.” 

But what made this the year? Some speculate that enough conservative congregations have left the denomination to help swing the vote. But advocates downplay the impact of their departure, since most reports estimate that only 100 of the denomination’s 11,000 congregations have been lost. “I don’t buy it,” says Dykers-Koenig. “Maybe in a couple of presbyteries [it made a difference].” Rev. Teri Peterson, a pastor who helped organize the pro-10A response in north-central Illinois’ Blackhawk Presbytery, acknowledged that while a handful of pastors have left her presbytery, this year’s first-ever “yes” vote resulted from the swing of more than 36 votes. 

In an interview with The Presbyterian Outlook, Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the PC(USA) (the chief ecclesial officer), speculated that many moderates have grown weary of the debate and were ready to move on. Parsons also said that “people seem to be more accepting of this particular wording” than previous failed amendments. 

Not everyone sees amendment 10A as palatable, of course. A statement from the conservative Presbyterians for Renewal declared: “A line has been crossed… We who are committed to holding fast the clear teaching of scripture must pray and work all the more to discern how to move forward with biblical faithfulness in and for a denomination that has lost its way.”

Regardless of those reservations, 10A is now the law of Presbyterian land. What lessons can be drawn from this success?  

Learning from Failure 

Amendment 10A is the culmination of years of tweaking and learning from past failures. After a 1997 attempt to replace “fidelity” and “chastity” with language about living with “integrity,” advocates spent a few years pursuing a strategy of deleting the exclusive language altogether, without replacing it. Ultimately, however, “it seemed more faithful to stand for something,” says the Rev. Michael Kirby, a pastor in Chicago, so organizers returned to an approach of offering replacement wording instead of simple deletion. The language considered by the presbyteries two years ago came closest to passing, but after many opponents felt it was not rigorous enough it fell short by just nine presbyteries. 

The new language, sent to the presbyteries for ratification by the General Assembly in 2009 says, “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.” The amendment goes on to emphasize the importance of thorough examinations of candidates, based on Scripture and the historic confessions of the church. “Submitting to Christ is the highest standard you can imagine,” says Dykers-Koenig. “This is not pushover language. If people take 10A seriously, the exams will be even better than before.” 

We Take Our Position Not in Spite of Scripture, but Because of It

Advocates of 10A point to a multi-pronged approach to religious issues at the heart of the debate. First and foremost, the pro-inclusion argument is grounded in scripture. In a statement to commissioners of the Donegal Presbytery in Pennsylvania during their vote on 10A, Dykers-Koenig said: “I, along with many others who love Scripture, believe that the same-sex behaviors that are condemned in Scripture were abusive, exploitative, or part of idol worship—not the committed, loving relationships that we’re talking about today… [We] take our position not in spite of Scripture, but because of it.”

Dykers-Koenig elaborated in an interview: “That process [of rethinking the boundaries] is in the Bible itself, right from the get-go, starting with Jesus shaking up assumptions about who is loved by God. Christians have been working on getting that right from the beginning.” 

The Lordship of Jesus Christ has been the basic confessional statement of the church for centuries, and the authors of 10A incorporated this language as a way of affirming what unites Presbyterians, regardless of their positions on ordination. The amendment also protects individual conscience: ordination of LGBT persons isn’t prescribed, it’s simply allowed. Individual congregations and presbyteries have the discretion to call those whom they deem fit. Amendment 10A is an attempt to provide a “middle way” between two opposing viewpoints—a very Presbyterian impulse, according to Kirby, as the denomination has often sought to find ways to keep people together in the midst of disagreements. 

In terms of policy, Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes, pastor of Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond, described an argument she heard during debate in the Presbytery of the James:

This amendment is not about sexuality, it’s about methodology. [Fidelity and chastity] was put into the Book of Order to answer a question posed by the larger church—to settle things. But it hasn’t settled things at all. The new language is about trusting governing bodies to interpret the scriptures and the confessions.

And finally, there were personal and pastoral arguments. “Time after time, when issues stop being philosophical and start being personal, for a lot of people that makes the difference,” says Kirby. “Gay people aren’t scary, because [commissioners] know gay people, so they’re not going to be caught up in mysterious ‘what-ifs.’ Amendment 10A is about that person I know. How can we be a church who doesn’t understand that this person is gifted and called?”

Organizing Strategies 

Organizers are a bit unsure, and in some cases mystified, as to exactly what made the difference this year. In many ways, the campaign for 10A mirrored secular campaigns that advocate for political causes or candidates, although the “Holy Spirit factor” acknowledges a layer of mystery.

More Light Presbyterians’ Adee sums up the ground game as follows: “We followed the example of the Obama campaign and ran a 50-state, all-173-presbytery campaign.” This included church-based phone banks; ads in national Presbyterian magazines; and letter-writing and story-telling campaigns using traditional mail as well as social media [YouTube, Facebook, Twitter].

“We [also] found church leaders who had changed their mind about homosexuality—what they had been taught about the Bible—and shared their stories in these national ads and through social media,” Adee adds.

Other organizers emphasize the “old school” nature of their work: the campaign’s success relied on person-to-person contact. Peterson says the Covenant Network group in Blackhawk Presbytery set a goal of calling every single commissioner, urging them to come to the meeting and in many cases, offering to meet to talk further. Some presbyteries employed scripts and talking points; others were more informal. “There were a lot of cups of coffee shared,” says Peterson. She noted that whereas floor debates over this issue have sometimes been rancorous—what she calls the “Nazis and child molesters” arguments over gay people—the one-on-one conversations in her presbytery were much more gracious. Perhaps there is something about the intimacy of a personal encounter that makes over-the-top rhetoric more difficult to get away with.

Kirby argues that new media tools did not by themselves make the difference between “yea” and “nay,” but, he says, they did raise awareness and excitement throughout the church. Commissioners frequently tweeted their presbyteries’ debates and votes allowing interested folks to eavesdrop on discussions and balloting.

Ultimately, Kirby says, organizing comes down to three basic things: “Get Out The Vote, Get Out The Vote, Get Out The Vote.” And every vote counts. As Pratt Keyes noted in an internal memo for Covenant Network: “Last time the vote was 192-125 in our presbytery, and this time it was 152-152 [which counts as a “no” vote]. A huge and surprising difference… I don’t know about you, but if I’d thought we could get that close, I’d have beaten the bushes harder.”