Morality Play: The Church and Homosexuality

This June in Syracuse, New York, some 700 members of the Presbyterian Church from throughout the country will get together for their annual General Assembly. It is, as one Rochester minister puts it, "a gathering of the family" -- ministers and lay leaders -- to conduct the business of their denomination.That business will range from the commissioning of missionaries to a discussion of racism and how the church should react to attacks on Affirmative Action.But the media's coverage of the meeting -- and the focus of many of the delegates -- will be dominated by a controversial amendment to church law, which takes effect when the General Assembly ends on June 20.The amendment has generated intense debate among Presbyterians. And it has galvanized many lay leaders and pastors to take an extremely unusual step: to decide to commit acts of civil disobedience against the government of their denomination.The amendment, officially known as Amendment B and referred to commonly as the Fidelity and Chastity Amendment, prohibits "unrepentant sinners" from being ordained as pastors or serving in the ordained lay positions of deacons and elders.The language of the amendment covers a multitude of sins. But it is directed at one specific behavior: homosexual acts.Amendment B strengthens a church policy that has already made gays and lesbians second-class citizens in their own church, as Virginia Davidson, a member of Rochester's Downtown United Presbyterian Church -- and a longtime activist for gay rights in the church -- puts it.The amendment's significance goes beyond the high drama of Presbyterians committing acts of civil disobedience against their church. The conflict is typical of the tension and debate in many other religious denominations. Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans have been deliberating over the ordination of gays and lesbians. And Bishop Matthew Clark of the Rochester Catholic Diocese has come under intense criticism since he held a mass for gay and lesbian Catholics in March -- and refrained from saying that homosexual actions are sinful.The conflict over Amendment B reflects the discussion of morality and religion in the United States in the late 20th century. It also reflects the struggle in secular government between the religious right and more moderate forces. And it reflects Americans' difficulty in dealing with issues of sexuality -- and the resulting oppression of gays and lesbians.To an outsider, Amendment B doesn't seem extraordinary. It simply says that officers of the church "are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church."But to many Presbyterians, Amendment B is a radical document -- and not just because of its attack on homosexual behavior. The amendment changes the church constitution -- and church philosophy. A guiding principle of the church is that "God alone is Lord of the conscience." Presbyterians believe that they are to follow the word of God as it is revealed to them through the life and teachings of Jesus and through Scripture -- not dictated by the church governing body.And, says the Rev. Charles Leport, whose First Presbyterian Church in LeRoy is opposing the amendment, "Amendment B redefines sin in a very narrow, judgmental way. As reformed Protestants, we have always understood sin to be a part of the human condition. Sin has not been reduced to the commission of particular acts."The Presbyterian Church has a governing structure that resembles that of the United States. Its constitution consists of two documents: the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. The first contains rules and procedures about membership and governing.The Book of Confessions, on the other hand is a compilation of writings about Christian faith, from the 4th century to the 1980s. "It's the history of the Presbyterians and our predecessors trying to spell out the specifics of our belief," says the Rev. John Cairns of Rochester's Third Presbyterian Church. "The Confessions include what we believe about God, about Jesus. There's a wonderful sweep of history in those things."The Confessions also talk about "the Christian life" -- how a Christian should live. And they reflect the concerns of their time. As Cairns puts it: "Something that drove everybody crazy in the 1500s may not be an issue in the 1900s."Writers during the Reformation, says Cairns, "looked at the kind of abuses they saw in society and spoke out against them -- the power of the church, gluttony, usery, art. Some very nasty things were said about art.""Those things were, in fact, symbols of the decadence that was seen in the church," says Cairns. "Reform churches stripped themselves of art and stautory. One Confession goes to great length about depictions of Christ. We're pretty comfortable now about depictions of Christ. There are some clear things said about the role of women; that was a 16th-century society concern."In the 20th century, the focus has changed. A Confession from 1967 focuses on issues of "financial inequality, race, gender," says Cairns. "There's a whole different way of talking about behavior.""The Confessions don't have the weight of constitutional law," says Cairns. "They have the status of providing guidance."Until now. "The behavior standards set forth in the Confessions now become absolute," says Cairns. "Anyone who has violated any of the standards has to confess and repent to be ordained."Amendment B opponents joke that if the law is enforced, hardly any Presbyterian will be eligible for ordination. But few people expect the amendment to be applied broadly. Amendment B mentions specifically only one "standard": "the requirement to live either in fidelity within the convenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." And even that standard will likely be applied narrowly: to gays and lesbians.Technically, each Presbyterian church will be responsible for insuring that it doesn't ordain lay leaders -- deacons and elders -- who violate Amendment B. And each presbytery -- regional groupings of lay leaders and ministers -- is to insure that it doesn't approve the calling of a pastor who is in violation. But opponents of Amendment B are certain that its supporters will look for violations and will bring charges against errant churches or presbyteries in the church judicial system.The Presbyterian Church has been discussing the role and the concerns of its gay and lesbian members for years. And it continues to be conflicted. It has spoken out strongly against discrimination by the outside world. In 1970, for instance, the General Assembly passed a resolution urging governments to decriminalize private, same-sex acts between consenting adults. And the Assembly urged an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing.But the church has had a different standard for itself: It actively, and deliberately, discriminates against gays and lesbians.Under the Book of Order, all members of Presbyterian Churches are eligible to hold office, and membership is open to gays and lesbians. In addition, the church has passed resolutions affirming its commitment to diversity and inclusiveness within the church.Twice since 1976, however, the church's General Assembly has appointed committees to study the issue of ordaining gays and lesbians. Both times, the committees recommended that gays and lesbians be eligible for ordination. Both times, the General Assembly rejected the recommendation.Last summer, the General Assembly passed Amendment B and sent it to its 172 presbyteries for ratification. In March, the amendment received the majority needed to pass. But the margin was by no means overwhelming: By early this month, 90 presbyteries had voted in favor, 69 against, with a few votes still out. And the vote within the presbyteries was closer still: about 51 percent favoring the amendment, 49 percent opposed, says John Cairns.Over the years, as the discussion about the rights of gay and lesbian Presbyterians has heated up, so has the work of gay-rights supporters. Soon after the General Assembly's passage of the 1978 anti-gay resolution, a national movement known as More Light began. Churches throughout the country -- including four in the Rochester area -- have passed More Light resolutions declaring that they welcome gays and lesbians, not only as members but as officers. Some have ordained gays and lesbians as deacons and elders. The national More Light network has pushed resolutions to change the national church's stand.And some churches that are not part of the More Light movement have nonetheless defied the General Assembly ruling and ordained gays and lesbians as deacons and elders. ("We have just gone ahead and done what was right," the pastor of one such church told me recently.)The situation has been different for gays and lesbians seeking to be ordained as pastors. Even before their ordination became an issue in the 1970s, most were relucant to divulge their sexual orientation. Some pastors have declared themselves gay or lesbian since then; the church has permitted them to retain their ordination, but it has made life difficult for them. They can not move from one church to another, for example.When Rochester's Downtown United Presbyterian Church voted to call Californian Jane Spahr to be one of its pastors, some other local Presbyterians objected and took the case to the Presbyterian judiciary. The court ruled against the Downtown Church -- and while Spahr keeps her ordination, she can not join a church staff. Supported by DUPC and others, she travels the country working on behalf of gay rights in her denomination.Amendment B has intensified the conflict. Earlier this week, the Genesee Valley Presbytery was to vote on a resolution calling for the presbytery to refuse to comply with the amendment, and to ask General Assembly to rescind it. It was thought likely that the presbytery would approve the resolution: The presbytery, which encompasses churches in Monroe, Genesee, Livingston, Orleans, and Wyoming Counties, is considered a liberal one. Its vote on Amendment B was 122 against, 34 in favor.Significantly, the Genesee Valley resolution of non-compliance came not from one of the two large, urban More Light churches, Downtown and Third -- or from any More Light church at all. It came from small, rural churches: United Presbyterian in Corfu, in Genesee County, and First Presbyterian in LeRoy. That is an indication of the breadth of concern about the amendment -- and the growing enlightment around sexuality issues.What will happen now? In a Presbyterian church, the sessions -- an organization of ordained elders, elected by the congregation -- sets policy. Sessions also question candidates for elder and deacon, insuring that they meet required criteria. The sessions of Corfu and LeRoy -- and those at Downtown United and Third in Rochester -- have already voted not to comply with Amendment B. They will, in other words, approve candidates for office who violate the amendment's restrictions. That action will be repeated in churches throughout the country. And somewhere, probably within the year, someone will file charges against one of those churches.The charges could be brought against sessions, or they could be brought against individual members of a session or individual pastors. And then the cases will start working their way up through the Presbyterian judicial system.Non-complying churches will have a strong constitutional argument, says Rochester attorney Peter Oddleifson, just as civil rights lawyers argued that it was unconstitutional to bar blacks from sitting in the front of a bus.Oddleifson, one of the attorneys who represented Downtown Church in the Jane Spahr case, predicts that non-complying churches will argue that they, not the amendment's supporters, are being "eclesiastically obedient.""When you have constitutional mandates for inclusiveness that are strong and historical and set forth in the Book of Order in many different ways," says Oddleifson, "you don't just trash that out of hand, without giving serious consideration to your ordination vows to uphold the constitionality of the church.""And that," says Oddleifson, "is in addition to being true to your conscience."No one's sure what will happen if defiant sessions or pastors are challenged successfully. They could be ordered to rescind the ordination of gay and lesbian officers. Or, in an extreme action, the session could be removed, or pastors could lose their ordination.While some opponents of Amendment B don't think the extreme is out of the question, others are more optimistic. "Historically," says Virginia Davidson, a judiciary commission or presbytery "has never come in and removed a session." And, she thinks, the church's governing and judicial bodies won't want to be put in the position of removing pastors or sessions.Nonetheless, dissidents are not acting frivolously. In their letter to the Genesee Valley Presbytery, the Corfu and LeRoy churches state that their actions "represent a deep expression of faith in Jesus Christ, and an equally deep concern for the life of the church in light of the passing of Amendment B."The sessions of both churches, says the letter, "have seriously considered the possible consequences of our actions and have firmly concluded that a failure to take this action would constitute, for us, a betrayal of the best that our church has presented to the world in Jesus' name."As Amendment B was voted on around the country, the LeRoy church held congregational discussions about the measure. And it was obvious, says Charles Leport, that many members of the congregation were "deeply hurt" as the amendment neared passage."To sit idly by would be like abandoning them," says Leport. "Among the people is a woman who has an uncle who is gay and has been in a monogamous relationship for 30 years. Another has two brothers who have died, both of whom were gay."But it was far more than that. There are people who have been divorced, people with friends and neighbors who are divorced or gay. If you read the Confessions, and understand the kinds of judgments that are being made on all kinds of things.... What they responded most negatively to was the idea that sin can be summed up in a particular list of acts."For the session at LeRoy, says Leport, "it was far more the tenor of the amendment than it was the issue of sexual orientation."In a sermon about Amendment B to his Third Presbyterian congregation, John Cairns noted that the amendment reflects "the belief that the role of the church in society is to shape people's behavior.""At some point," he said, "we're going to have to shift from behavior to belief. If we can't do that, we're going to fall apart."The church's focus on behavior has been a narrow one: sexual behavior. I asked Cairns last week why the church has such trouble dealing with issues of sexuality."As a society," said Cairns, "we have a single-standard definition of what constitutes a good and moral life. We haven't been able to broaden or diversify that -- even though we live in a diverse culture -- because we think that by broadening it, we weaken it. In order to be morally strong, we stay morally narrow. That's a struggle for us as a society.""Second," said Cairns, "we're dealing with an educational evolution, and we've got a subject [the ordination of gays and lesbians] that by all standards has newly burst upon the scene -- basically over the past 15 to 20 years. So we've got huge differentiations in the learning curve. There are some people who are well acquainted with the arguments about whether homosexuality is genetic or acquired, and others who are even having difficulty saying words like this aloud."Amendment B, adds the Rev. Gordon Webster of Ogden Presbyterian Church, is "an authoritarian response to losing consensus. And the church is losing consensus because it's a changing world.""A lot of us are in a quandry," says Webster, "because the church, by a majority vote of its presbyteries, has approved Aendment B. Some people are saying, I can not with integrity live with this policy."If Presbyterians' conflict over homosexuality reflects the same conflict in the larger society, so, too, perhaps, does the trend in the church's action on the issue. In 1978, when a task force urged ordination for gays and lesbians, General Assembly rejected the call by a 90 to 10 margin. That the vote on Amendment B is about 51 to 49 percent "shows how much we've changed and grown," says Rochester's Virginia Davidson, who chaired that 1978 task force.And while Davidson notes that many gay and lesbian Christians have left the church, many others have stayed on, and continue the fight. ("If we walk out, they win," wrote one gay Presbyterian in the May More Light Update, the newsletter of the More Light network.)Encouraging, too, are the actions by the rural Upstate New York churches. Pastors and elders throughout the country are frustrated with the amount of time and energy they've spent on the issue. "There seem to be so many things that are so much more important," says LeRoy's Charles Leport. "We resent having to spend time on this.""At the same time," however, says Leport, "there's a strong feeling that this is not something we can just walk away from."


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.