The future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was scheduled to be decided at the 1996 General Assembly, held from June 30 to July 6 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. No assembly in recent decades had been able to settle the issue of homosexuality”the issue which, more than any other, threatened schism. Many feared that approval of the ordination of homosexuals by the General Assembly (the denomination’s highest governing body) would lead orthodox Presbyterians to flee in unprecedented numbers, leaving little more than an empty shell for the pro-homosexual forces to claim.
The final vote, however, provides a hopeful sign the oldline denomination may be inching toward new life, as the commissioners voted to exclude practicing homosexuals from ordination. In a victory for local churches over their national leadership, the General Assembly required of its ordained leaders fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness, and excluded the unrepentant from ordained office. If a majority of the denomination’s presbyteries approve the amendment within the next year, the explicit requirement will be added to the church constitution.
Presbyterians on both sides had been organizing for months, even years, for the vote. The main pro-ordination group, Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (PLGC), has existed since the seventies. They were joined this year by a small but insistently public More Light Church Network. This group, which represents fewer than one hundred of the more than eleven thousand PC (USA) congregations, formalized its presence at the Assembly with an exhibit booth adjoining PLGC’s. On the other side, the Presbyterian Coalition pulled together the forces working for the preservation of orthodoxy. Their efforts were bolstered by a group of presbytery executives called The Genevans. In the word of one observer, both sides elected their warriors to serve as commissioners this year.
Presbyterians came to the Assembly in record numbers-three times the usual number registered as observers-so that they could watch the proceedings first hand. In a firm but calm manner, Dr. Roberta Hestenes, President of Eastern College in Philadelphia, moderated the Committee on Ordination and Human Sexuality, which met in the convention center’s ballroom in order to accommodate press and the huge number of observers.
The church’s position on homosexual practice has been a sharp point of division between denominational leaders and the body of church members. Insisting that the Bible forbids the practice, the orthodox forces have repeatedly made their convictions known by various means, including formal polls. Using church members’ tithes and offerings, the denominational offices have written and produced an enormous volume of materials in support of homosexuality, while several of its programs-the College Women’s Network, a creation of the Women’s Ministries office, for example-actually promote homosexual behavior. Even before debate opened in Albuquerque, the divisions were clear. The pro-gay sympathizers donned pink triangles, while the orthodox wore red hearts carrying First Peter’s message of purity, truth, and love.
The debate over the ordination of homosexuals is a clear window into the deep theological and ethical division between the national leadership and the people who occupy the pews. Since its beginning in 1983, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has suffered continuous demographic, financial, theological, and spiritual decline, as its radical leaders increasingly alienated its congregations. Many members”indeed, whole congregations”responded to the national leaders’ leftist stances by leaving the denomination. In the past two years alone, the church lost 77,000 members; since 1983, fully half a million of the original three million members have gone. Inevitably, income into the national office’s coffers has declined. Even remaining congregations have deliberately withheld or redirected their giving away from the higher governing bodies out of distrust and disapproval of the programs their contributions support.
Nevertheless, the leadership had its way with little effective resistance from the people in the pews until the RE-Imagining conference in November 1993. At that conference, planned and financed by mainline denominations, leaders advocated neopagan doctrines and led worship honoring the goddess Sophia. Orthodox groups and the independent newspaper The Presbyterian Layman alerted Presbyterians to the scandal of the RE-Imagining conference. The local churches sent overtures to the General Assembly, publicly denounced the conference, demanded the resignations of the staff responsible, and withheld their donations to the national offices. Denominational officials defended the conference and accused the independent press of false reporting, but the jig was up. In the end, Mary Ann Lundy, a church official who played a prominent role in organizing and obtaining church funds for the RE-Imagining conference, lost her job. This, and the 1994 General Assembly’s promise that Theology matters, seemed to restore the aggrieved congregations’ trust in the leadership. But even while many churches were deciding to reinstate their donations, radical feminists within the denomination established the unofficial group, Voices of Sophia, to salvage what they could of the RE-Imagining debacle. And the ousted Ms. Lundy became deputy secretary general of the World Council of Churches.
With the battle over pagan worship still a fresh memory to both sides, the stage was set for the Albuquerque showdown over gay ordination. Most mainstream Presbyterians have little knowledge of the church’s constitution or policy procedures. The typical church member views the church as a spiritual, not a political, body and rarely thinks of political action as a tool for church renewal. Many pastors believe that the pastoral needs of their flocks supersede concerns about the demise of the denomination and stopped attending denominational meetings long ago. Lay people elected to serve as commissioners at a General Assembly rarely do the duty more than once, while denominational staff members and elected officials attend the General Assembly in huge numbers every year. Uncertain first-time commissioners look to these Assembly veterans for professional advice. The staff’s Advice and Counsel memoranda on important issues of the Assembly flow freely, and staff members serve as appointed resource people to Assembly committees. In committees dealing with controversial material, these resource people sometimes have complete freedom of the floor while other Presbyterians-who truly may be experts on a subject, but hold an alternative point of view-are restricted to the sidelines except for the two minutes they are allowed to speak in public hearings. When combined with control of the process in the committee and plenary sessions, these factors are usually enough to ensure that the national office achieves its goals at General Assemblies.
Take, for example, the Assembly’s approval of the Platform for Action of the UN Conference on Women held last year in Beijing. The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns wanted the Assembly to approve the Platform, sight unseen. When it was discovered that none of the committee members or resource people had actually read the document, a minority report from committee members who disapproved of adoption of the unread Beijing Platform became the motion on the floor of the General Assembly. Working quickly and well, however, the Assembly moderator headed off a motion for a vote, and called a recess. By the next day, someone who had read the document had been found, Assembly members had been lobbied, and the Platform was adopted after a brief debate.
But manipulation didn’t work on every issue at the 1996 Assembly. All that commissioners seemed to need in order to vote on sexual standards for ordination was a clearly worded motion and a process reasonably free of confusion. Committee moderator Hestenes delivered both. In plenary as in committee sessions, commissioners debated the majority and minority reports in a media spotlight and before a convention hall packed with visitors”mostly pastors and church members from around the country. Following the vote, Hestenes told reporters that she believed members of the church will be encouraged by the vote, and that she expected no large-scale defections.
Another occasion when commissioners asserted their own will at the General Assembly was in their refusal to confirm the reelection of James Brown, the Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, which directs the denomination’s activities between Assemblies. Brown was at the center of many of the church’s recent controversies including the RE-Imagining conference. Efforts to manipulate the confirmation process failed not just once, but twice. Committee members openly expressed feelings of being pressured into confirming Brown. After the first plenary vote failed to confirm his reelection, an attempt at reconsideration failed by a larger margin, and the man who occupied one of the most powerful positions in the denomination was out of a job.
Who can tell which of the General Assembly’s actions indicate the direction the denomination is taking? In times of transition there are signs pointing in more than a single direction. There are those who believe that the resistance to Christian orthodoxy and commitment to a radical leftist agenda is so entrenched that the downward spiral of the Presbyterian Church cannot be reversed, and any appearance of change is only an illusion.
Others see the cause of orthodoxy steadily advancing and the recent Assembly’s action on homosexual ordination a hopeful sign that the denomination, like a ship that has drifted drastically off course, is not just making a small deviation, but is actually turning. William Wilberforce, leader in the renewal of English society in the early nineteenth century, complained throughout his life of the deteriorating conditions of English society. Only from the vantage point of our own time can we see how much conditions were improving in England during Wilberforce’s lifetime, due in no small measure to his own perseverance and leadership.
We too may have difficulty seeing improvements in the midst of what are very serious theological problems. It can take a long time to bring about a significant change of direction in a ship that has wandered so far off course. Doomsayers in our churches today have a tendency to give up and leave. Wilberforce did not fully understand the improvements that were taking place in his own time, but he never behaved as if the situation was deteriorating. He never lost hope and never gave up pressing for renewal. It is the presence or absence of those traits of character that is likely to tell the tale finally in the mainline Protestant church of our own day.
Terry Schlossberg is Executive Director of Presbyterian Pro-Life.