The voting will run nearly till Easter, but any day now conservatives will win a big victory in a fight over actively homosexual clergy that has bitterly divided the 3.6-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Both sides acknowledge this, though they agree on little else.
The balloting concerns a second attempt by liberals to repeal the tightly worded section G-6.0106b of the church constitution. Added in 1997, it effectively bans gays from holding any positions of authority in the church.
It says the clergy, and lay officeholders, too, must ''live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.''
A person cannot hold church office, it goes on to say, if he or she refuses ''to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin.''
Since October, the church's regional legislatures, known as presbyteries, have been voting on whether to repeal or keep the ban, with a decision requiring agreement by 87 of the 173 presbyteries. This week, the tally on the independent www.presbyweb.com site showed 78 presbyteries voting against repeal, 35 in favor.
Even those who wanted to overturn the gay clergy ban are acknowledging the cause is lost -- this time.
Pamela Byers of San Francisco, executive director of the pro-repeal Covenant Network, estimates 43 percent of presbytery delegates voted her way. With more education, repeal will occur within 10 years, she thinks.
''We're not going anyplace,'' she said.
Liberals also take solace in the idea that future clergy could be influenced by Bible professors at Presbyterian seminaries, a majority of whom have endorsed repealing the ban.
In addition, the church judiciary has allowed congregations to conduct blessings for same-sex couples, so long as they aren't called marriages. Last year, 58 percent of presbyteries voted to uphold that loose interpretation of church practice.
But conservatives see reasons not only to celebrate now, but keep hope for the future.
The original gay ban was ratified by only 57 percent of presbyteries, while 67 percent rejected the first repeal attempt and even more will do so this time.
''Folks say, 'We want to kill this thing and we want to kill it dead,''' said Parker Williamson of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee in Lenoir, N.C. ''We don't want it coming back.''
The Rev. Jerry Andrews of Glen Ellyn, Ill., a leader in the anti-repeal Presbyterian Coalition, notes the denomination's recent random survey showing the clergy are evenly split on the ban while 63 percent of lay elders support it.
''It's not a close call among elders,'' he said, and they cast as many votes as the clergy in presbytery meetings.
At the heart of the dispute is a basic disagreement over how to interpret the Bible. To cope with that, last year's national assembly established a task force to seek unity.
Oddly, it's unclear whether this panel will address sexual morals, but until it reports in 2005, the focus will shift from legislation to the church judiciary.
The next test case involves presbytery clergy ordinations and the Rev. Kathleen Morrison, the first openly homosexual Presbyterian to be ordained since the so-called ''fidelity and chastity'' law went into effect.
Redwoods presbytery, which covers the California coast from Marin County north to Oregon, ordained Morrison last Oct. 21 to be a field organizer for More Light Presbyterians, a caucus working for ''full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.''
Conservatives in Redwoods presbytery, and the neighboring presbytery based in Visalia, Calif., filed complaints seeking to overturn Morrison's ordination. Eventually the matter will reach the church's supreme court.
Morrison, who has moved to Cambridge, Mass., and lives with a partner, said she's never hidden her sexuality.
''I have been absolutely candid in the entire process,'' she said. ''I have been from day one.''
She says she told Redwoods presbytery she complied with G-6.0106b, explaining that for her chastity means ''seeking to live in right relationship, whether in matrimony or other relationships.''
A 1998 policy directive from Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, the chief legal official at denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky., said terms like chaste ''are not defined. Examining bodies will need to consider reasonable definitions and decide which to apply.''
Andrews, the ban supporter, countered that ''these are English words with meaning in the dictionary and confessional documents. You can't make it up.''
Williamson also protested: ''If the stated clerk refuses to enforce the constitution then we don't have a constitution, and these hundreds of thousands that went out to vote will discover it doesn't matter.''
Kirkpatrick did not respond to an interview request.
For Morrison, it's perplexing that ''we are able to cling so tenaciously, like barnacles, to those passages of Scripture that seem to prop up our cultural prejudices.'' She believes ''the issue doesn't go away because it is a reality in families and churches across the country.''
But Andrews summarizes the Presbyterian plight this way: ''Half the church sees this as a justice issue, and the other half as a truth issue -- what do the Scriptures say?''
The 48-year-old minister is convinced his denomination's ''reading of Scripture will remain the same in my lifetime.''
On the Net:
Presbyweb (vote tally, background): http://www.presbyweb.com
Covenant Network: http://www.covenantnetwork.org
Presbyterian Coalition: http://www.presbycoalition.org
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