On Saturday, January 24 2009, the Albany Presbytery voted to approve the constitutional amendment to three sections of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The primary change was to section G-6.0106b, the wording of which technically denied ordination to LGBT people seeking positions as deacons, elders or ministers. Before examining the potential effects on each ecclesiastical level of the church, you might want to check out the old and new wording. To do so, click here.
In some respects, this vote has the potential to have a major effect on the Presbyterian Church (USA), if it approved by 81 more presbyteries. It quite possibly will also be somewhat significant for the local presbytery. But, for the local church, little will change except that leaders will not be able to name a third-party as the reason it chooses not to ordain LGBT elders. The primary impact of this amendment is that it puts responsibility for determining the suitability of candidates for deacon, elder or minister squarely on the church body that approves the ordination – session for church officers and presbytery for ministers. That is really the extent of this amendment. It does not universally endorse LGBT for ordained positions, even if it passes nationally.
What this really does is make the current operating procedure of the denomination part of the Book of Order. Right now, each presbytery is basically using “local option” or scrupling, at least on the level of the presbyteries, even though it does so at the risk of attracting the ecclesiastical equivalent of a lawsuit. If the amendment is passed by the majority of presbyteries, the local option will “legally” extend to the local church as well.
After much debate in the morning portion of the meeting, as respectful and caring as it was, the afternoon got more interesting. At the time the amendment was brought to the floor, a motion was made to “postpone any action indefinitely.” The effect of this would have been to make no vote on the amendment, without changing the requirement that 87 presbyteries would be needed to pass the measure. There ensued a lively but very orderly period in which people for and against that motion took turns explaining their position. While much rhetoric was used to reframe a vote of “no action” as something other than a “no” vote, the reality was that it would truly have had the effect of a negative vote by omission. This motion was defeated by a vote of approximately 75%. What was quite clear was that most, if not all, of those speaking truly thought that their stand would have the best outcome for the interests of LGBT candidates. It appeared to be a vote about how we show love, not if we show it. I was quite taken with all the participants ethics and passions.
When the actual amendment came up for discussion, there were few comments and it went almost straight to a vote. The tally was – drumroll please – 78 in favor, 25 against and 2 abstaining. Quickly, in order to circumvent any possibilty of “excessive celebration”, which was curiously the topic of the day’s sermon, it was suggested that we meet in prayer. It was a sensitive move that may have helped minimize the “win-lose” emotions that can accompany a vote such as this.
As of today, the Albany Presbyteries joined 5 other presbyteries in affirming the amendment, while 15 have voted against it. A full tally can be viewed here, courtesy of Presbyweb.
So, what effect will this have if it passes?
As far as the vote goes today, nothing. At the time the amendment takes effect, should it be approved by enough presbyteries, there will be basically three categories of churches and presbyteries.
The first group will be those who, in spite of the present G-6.0106b have already committed to ordain LGBT deacons, elders. The only change for them will be that the session, in regard to deacons and elders, or presbytery, for ministers, will not have to look over its shoulder, since they would unquestionably be allowed to do so.
The second group will be those who, having already wrestled out the issue, have decided that actively engaging in homosexuality does not fit within their understanding of the Reformed faith and tradition. These churches and presbyteries could not be forced, in any way, to ordain LGBT. It would preclude a presbytery from riding roughshod over a church that chose a stand different than the majority, however.
The last group, and perhaps the biggest, will be those who have actually not dealt with the issue because they either have not had the need or have been able to rely on the Book of Order to table the discussion. The change for these bodies will be, when and if the issue arises, to decide for themselves whether they will or will not ordain LGBT officers and clergy. If they will not, however, the decision will be theirs to own and they will not be able to point to a higher body to justify their decision.
What about ministers, couldn’t we be forced to call a LGBT pastor?
Let’s put the question in perspective by looking at ordained black and women Presbyterian pastors. In the early 1800s the first black Presbyterian pastor was ordained, but it was around 1930 before a woman was ordained in a church that would become part of the PC(USA). Since then, many things have changed. Women are more common on seminary campuses than men. That, and both people of color and women are protected by representation legislation in the PC(USA).
That said, even today, if a church did not want to call a black or female minister, they could not be forced to do so. It has been said that you cannot legislate ethics, and this is a case in point. Because of the nature of the call system, any number of reasons for not calling a pastor can be given. Why does anyone think it will be different for LGBT ministers ordained in one presbytery and moving to another. All ministers transferring from another presbytery have to be approved by the receiving body. Period. End of story.
Most importantly, what effect would this have for LGBT folk?
This question needs to be dealt with on the local and the national level.
Locally, it is clear from repeated votes on similar issues that Albany Presbytery is inclined towards ordaining LGBT. Individual churches within the presbytery may or may not, but it would be quite easy to find (and I hope a listing would be provided) a church that would welcome LGBT not just in the pews, but also in ordained leadership positions. This vote will just make those inclined towards inclusivity more confident in their stand.
Nationally, it would make the PC(USA) one of the mainline churches in which a significant portion is inclusive of LGBT. Apart from that, not really that much.
Ultimately, what all this means for LGBT folk is that there will be affirming and embracing churches that can do so openly and confidently, with no likelihood of disciplinary action. In spite of that threat, there are already a significant number of Presbyterian churches who are. If you need help finding one, by all means leave a comment and we’ll make contact.
Blessings to you on this exceptional day.
Authored by the courageous members of the Albany Presbytery and Rev Andy Little. Written by Andy.