The Presbytery Meeting

The presenting question is whether or not the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should ordain homosexuals. This means not only pastors, but also elders and deacons. As you can probably guess, the national church is very divided on the issue; my hunch is that our Session and congregation are as well. Two years ago, at the national level, Presbyterians adopted a compromise position. The national ordination standard is that candidates be either married (defined as a man and a woman) or celibate. However, local ordaining bodies (presbyteries in the case of pastors, congregations in the case of elders and deacons) can decide that this standard is not an essential one and thus ordain the candidate. This has been the practice for some years on other issues, such as passing Greek/Hebrew exams, though not one that has such emotional resonance.

In short, the compromise is a “local option” approach for presbyteries and congregations.

A recent church court decision ruled that the ordination standard regarding marriage/celibacy is an essential one, and therefore cannot be bypassed. An overture came from the John Knox Presbytery in Wisconsin in reaction to that decision. The desire is to overrule that decision and keep the 2006 compromise in effect.

The overture originates with the John Knox Presbytery in Wisconsin. They are seeking other presbyteries to sign on in support. Several Atlanta-area congregations have done so (Central, Trinity, Druid Hills, and Ormewood Park are the ones I know about), and brought this to our May Presbytery meeting for consideration.

Whatever happens in Atlanta, the overture is already going to be presented at the 2008 General Assembly national meeting. The question is whether the Atlanta Presbytery will add its name in support.

I spoke in favor of the motion. Here were my initial reasons, which I shared with our Session:

1)       The national task force that worked on it represented the broadest possible cross-section of people in our denomination, including very outspoken people on both sides of the issue. After four years of work, prayer, study, and research, they ended up with a unanimous recommendation to support this compromise. I cannot think of a unanimous recommendation dealing with such an emotional issue ever, and that kind of support and deliberation means a great deal to me.

2)       Once the national decision was passed, each Presbytery needed to decide how to apply it. The committee that worked on that in the Atlanta Presbytery also represented a similar cross-section. They, too, presented a unanimous recommendation to our Presbytery. That also says a lot to me.

3)       Our denomination, like our nation, is divided on this issue. General Assembly votes have been 51%-49%, and tension has grown nationally around this issue. I think the compromise is a brilliant way to hold together a very broad range of perspectives and to do so in faithful tension. I deeply love the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and I think its diversity is part of its core strength.

The more I thought about it, though, I realized that I needed to be more honest with myself as well as with the Presbytery. Here, in essence, is what I said:

I polled our Session, and we were divided. So I write this not on their behalf, but only on my own. But as they spoke honestly with me about it, many of them were torn even as they held strong opinions. I began to see that reflected in my own opinion. I am, to be honest, torn on issues of human sexuality. If forced to a place of an either/or vote, I'll almost always go with a theology that reinforces the open, inclusive embrace of Christ. But the torn-ness in my Session, and the torn-ness in my denomination, I feel very heavily within me.

And so, the compromise that was reached holds this conversation in tension for a while. And for me, that is a freeing moment, because it gives me the space to live within this tension as I continue to wonder about what it means to me.

The rest of the debate at Presbytery was interesting. Those opposed were so largely for constitutional reasons; those in favor were so largely for reasons of compromise. And when the vote took place, it was the first time I can remember that we voted on something related to sexuality that didn't require counting those votes. The motion passed by a clear majority. The message to me is that it's time to move forward with more pressing issues in the church, both local and national.