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Ban on gay clergy may take center stage at Presbyterian meeting

Posted: Friday, June 08, 2001

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- A disagreement simmering within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over a ban on ordination of homosexuals may boil over in the next week.

Opponents of the ban intend to seek its repeal when the nation's sixth-largest Protestant denomination holds its national assembly beginning Saturday in Louisville. This city is also the headquarters of the church, which has as many as 3.6 million members.

''We resent this categorical prohibition,'' said the Rev. Laird Stuart, a San Francisco pastor who leads a group pushing for repeal. ''We would like ordaining bodies to be given the right to ordain people as individuals, not as members of categories.''

Conservatives are prepared to defend the ban.

''There is a prohibition that is very straightforward, that we believe the Scriptures teach, and the church ought to proclaim that our officers should model in their own lives,'' said the Rev. Jerry Andrews of suburban Chicago. ''How else can the church honor the Lord of the church, if we neglect the word of the Lord?''

The Presbyterians are among several mainline Protestant denominations, notably the Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church, that have struggled with the issue of gay clergy and same-sex unions in recent years. Other Protestant groups could face debates and protests at national meetings this summer.

Stuart and Andrews each said the struggle in the Presbyterian churches could go either way. Repeal would require not only passage at the Louisville assembly but also -- and probably harder to achieve -- ratification by a majority of the church's 173 presbyteries, or regional legislatures.

The sexual-conduct standard was inserted into the church's constitution in 1997. It withstood a repeal attempt the next year.

In 1999, church policy-makers imposed a two-year moratorium that shielded the sexual-conduct law from changes. The cooling-off period was intended to let Presbyterians reflect on the emotional issue.

Under the conduct standard, ministers, deacons and elders are required to ''live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.'' The practical effect was to prohibit gays and lesbians from ascending to the pulpit or lay leadership.

As they prepare to defend the ordination standard, conservatives are regrouping from a defeat on whether Presbyterian clergy can officiate at ''commitment ceremonies'' for gay couples. The national assembly voted for a ban last year, but the presbyteries failed to ratify it. That gave clergy leeway to conduct such rites, as long as they are not confused with marriages.

Andrews said that defeat caused a frustration among conservatives that would be deepened if the ban on gay ordination was lifted.

''This is not just a matter of private sexual behavior. This is about will the Scriptures continue to have authority in the common life of the church,'' Andrews said. ''It's a foundational issue for moderates and evangelicals in the church.''

With both sides entrenched, the gay-rights feud may drive people from the denomination, though some say an outright split is unlikely.

''I think a lot of people in the middle and the left of the middle and right of the middle want to do everything possible to avoid a schism,'' Stuart said.

But some people are already drifting away, he said.

''Gay and lesbian people who do not think the church is hospitable to them are leaving,'' as are ''conservative people who are tired of the battle and don't understand why those of us who want this changed won't be quiet,'' Stuart said.

Andrews said he worked on fence-mending with moderate and evangelical congregations after conservatives lost the fight on same-sex ceremonies. ''For the moment we hold'' as a denomination, Andrews said. If the assembly votes to repeal the ordination standard, ''my phone calls may no longer hold us together,'' he said.

Several presbyteries have submitted resolutions to delete the standard. Two presbyteries propose granting waivers to congregations and presbyteries that cannot ''in good conscience'' comply with the law.

Other potentially divisive issues expected to draw discussion at the eight-day assembly include abortion and the meaning of salvation.

One resolution calls on the assembly to declare ''moral opposition'' to abortion of fetuses 20 weeks and older, except to save the mother. It would chip away at the church's position favoring abortion rights.

Another would state that salvation requires an acceptance of Jesus Christ. It was prompted by comments at a Presbyterian conference last summer by the Rev. Dirk Ficca, who suggested salvation can occur apart from faith in Jesus. Ficca, a Presbyterian, directs an interfaith organization based in Chicago, the Parliament of the World's Religions.

Yet another resolution is aimed at calming the disputes within the faith. It calls for reconciliation through a year of study and prayer among all Presbyterians.

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the denomination's chief ecclesiastical officer, said Presbyterians need to seek common ground whenever possible.

''I don't anticipate any serious threat of a schism this year, but we need to be working for greater unity within the Presbyterian family,'' Kirkpatrick said.

Election of the assembly's moderator will be one of the first orders of business. Four candidates -- two men and two women -- are vying for the largely ceremonial title. The moderator presides over the assembly and serves as the denomination's unpaid chief spokesman for the next year.

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