Presbyterians Sort Themselves over Gay Clergy

Written by Father Bill 2 Comments

Members of Fremont Presbyterian Church – the largest Presbyterian Church in the Sacramento CA region voted this past Sunday by a margin of 427 to 164 to depart from the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Thus, the Sacramento congregation joins approximately 100 other PCUSA congregations to depart the mainline liberal denomination for more other bodies with more conservative convictions about homosexuality.

The Fremont Church’s decision was prompted by turmoil in the PCUSA over the ordination of sexually active homosexuals and also by the recent ordination of the 56-year-old Scott Anderson, himself a former PCUSA clergyman from Sacramento, who surrendered his clergy credentials when a couple threatened to reveal his sexual liason with another man in 1990. At the time, the PCUSA barred homosexuals from ordination. That bar was lifted at the PCUSA’s convention last year, clearing the way for Anderson’s re-ordination. It also has provoked the departure of scores of PCUSA congregations from the denomination to affiliate with other Presbyterian bodies which still bar homosexuals from serving as clergy.

Fremont’s departure is just one more example of the sorting that is going on in both mainline Protestant bodies as well as broadly evangelical American Protestant congregations. The place of gays in Christian ministry seems to be the narrow point of controversy. But, it is only in recent years that “gays in ordained ministry” has replaced “women in ordained ministry” as the flash-point of controversy among evangelicals. Prior to that, it was “the divorced in ordained ministry” which could generate the same kinds of controversies among Christian groups who made a claim to allegiance to the Bible for its standards of sexual morality.

Will Protestant groups who bar homosexuals be able to “hold the line” in the future? My guess is no. More likely they will all replicate the current developments within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which was originally formed in 1973 by dissidents in the PCUSA when the latter body began to ordain women as teaching and ruling elders. Over the past 35 years, however, the PCA has not been able to resist the rise of leadership in its constituent churches or in its seminary for the ordination of women into offices of the church. Currently, it is the office of deacon that is in controversy, with both congregations and presbyteries advocating (and authorizing) the ordination of women as deacons when the PCA’s Book of Order expressly forbids this. Additionally, voices such as Carolyn Custis James agitates among evangelical and PCA venues for the elevation of women to the presyterate, a development that is at least conceivable within the PCA today. If women may be ordianed as deacons with no disciplinary consequence, why not ordination as elders as well?

To sum up: the PCA is a poster-child for other evangelical bodies who can’t bring themselves to mainline homosexuality among its clergy. But, in times past these same bodies also couldn’t bring themselves to mainline the ordination of women as elders and pastors of congregations. Time has eroded this reluctance, and so all mainline Protestant groups and large swaths of evangelicalism now quite comfortably ordain women as pastors and elders. It will only take the additional passage of time (a decade or so to judge by the history of women’s ordination in those bodies) for the remaining aversion (for that is what it seems to be – an aversion rather than a conviction) to dissipate.



  1. Henry   |  Monday, 17 October 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I think the death of the old guard will be required first in the PCA.

    Here is another example of a first (very small) step being taken in another denomination, the Canadian Reformed Church:

  2. Fr. Bill   |  Monday, 17 October 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Welcome, Henry.

    My wife’s grandfather, when expressing his frustration with the glacial pace of civic “improvement” in the small town where we live, used to say “What this town needs is about 400 funerals!”

    And, certainly, a number of funerals will clear the decks for the brave new egalitarian world within the PCA, since there seems to be a dearth of young bucks who share their fathers’ convictions in the area of sex. Understand, I’m not a PCA Presbyterian. My best friends in that communion might allow that I am “barely Reformed.” But, I do watch their denominational life through a couple of pastors’ blog in the rump traditionalist camp of that denomination. Most of the time, by their reports, it’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

    But, denominations, as you’ve noted, have their old guard. A good portion of broadly evangelical American Protestantism does not, being formed of much more loosely affiliated groups or independent congregations, some of which have turned on a dime in this area. I used to think evangelicals generally would not abandon their beliefs about homosexuality in my lifetime. Now, I’m not so sure. I’m only 65, and a LOT can happen these days within a decade, none of them requiring many funerals.

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