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Ecumenical News International
Daily News Service
24 February 2000


US church urged to allow liberals to leave over homosexual
issue
ENI-00-0064

By Chris Herlinger
New York, 24 February (ENI)--The general assembly of one of
America's biggest churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), will
be asked to consider a series of resolutions later this year
declaring that "irreconcilable" differences exist within the
denomination over the ordination of gay clergy.

One proposed resolution would allow liberal Presbyterians who
support such ordinations to leave the denomination, taking church
property with them.

The proposals, or "overtures", announced last month by a group
of conservative Presbyterians in the US state of Pennsylvania,
have been criticised as "provocative" by some liberal church
members. "I find it offensive," said clergyman Laird Stuart of
the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group seeking to change
current church law prohibiting the ordination of openly gay
ministers.

"It's premature, it's unfaithful.

"[They] seem to overlook [the fact] that most of [those] who are
the targets of this overture don't want to leave the church, and
don't intend to leave", Stuart told ENI. "We want to stay in the
denomination, but we also want the denomination's policy [on
ordination] to change."

Supporters of the resolutions say that they represent a
realistic assessment of an irreconcilable impasse within the
denomination. Permitting liberals to leave with their church
property - something not typically allowed when individual
congregations leave a denomination - would uphold the dignity of
conscience of those who disagree with Presbyterian policy on
ordination.

"We're trying to be truthful," said clergyman Dan Reuter, who
plans to put the resolutions in June when the general assembly of
the 2.5-million-member denomination meets in Long Beach,
California.

The resolutions were drawn up by the Presbytery of
Beaver-Butler, in western Pennsylvania.

The issue of homosexuality has long divided liberals and
conservatives in several major US Protestant denominations, and
is expected to be raised again on various dates later this year
when Presbyterians, United Methodists and Episcopalians
(Anglicans) meet at their respective annual national gatherings.

Reuter told ENI he "strongly suspects" the general assembly will
not approve the resolutions this year. But he said he believed
the church needed to begin thinking about what he and others felt
were differences that no amount of compromise would ever be able
to bridge.

Reuter said he and others were not telling liberals "that they
should take a hike" - though the liberal position on gay
ordination remained a minority position. Rather, they had come to
the conclusion that, on this particular issue and foundational
issues such as the authority of the Bible, "we probably can't
stay in the same tent. Our understandings of the authority of the
Gospel are too different."

While acknowledging the gravity of arguments made by some
liberals and other critics of the proposals - such as the need
for church unity and even divine guidance in the matter - Reuter
said the critics were making the mistake of equating the
denomination with the greater body of Christian believers.

"God hasn't made a commitment to the Presbyterian Church, the
World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the
ecumenical movement, or to any institution," Reuter said. "He has
made a commitment to the church as a body of believers. These
institutions may serve God, but God would continue to exist if
the Presbyterian Church went out of business tomorrow."

Bill Jamieson, a clergyman and member of the Beaver-Butler
Presbytery, who disagrees with Reuter's assessment, told ENI he
believed ways must be found to maintain unity within the church.
"This is something I just can't endorse," he said of the
resolutions.

Jamieson said it was unlikely the resolutions would even get to
the floor of the general assembly. But he acknowledged that some
type of split might be inevitable, and would be more likely to
come from conservatives rather than from liberals within the
church.

Stuart, of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said he
believed the issue might well be decided by moderates and
conservatives who did not wish the issue of ordination to divide
the church and who, at the same time, wanted assurance that the
denomination "has not lost its soul".

He added that the biblically-based arguments often made against
ordaining openly gay ministers "are growing thin" as discussion
over the issue grew "more sophisticated". Members of the church,
he said, were also increasingly seeing the ordination issue as "a
justice issue", stemming from the Presbyterian Church's long
tradition and commitment to social justice.

Stuart said that if the Presbyterian Church ultimately decided
to take a more liberal stand on ordination, it was likely that
some conservatives would leave the church - though he believed
that under the current policy, it was gay and lesbian
Presbyterians who were leaving the church.

"If we were to reach agreement [on gay ordinations] and, say, 10
per cent leaves, it's not a schism. But if 30 to 40 per cent
leave, it is," he said of the possibility of conservatives
leaving. "I don't think there's a way to solve this and keep
everyone within the church, because some of the conservatives
have boxed themselves in on this issue."

? Sixty-seven United Methodist clergy involved in a blessing of
a 1999 same-sex union service in Sacramento, California, will not
face a church trial, United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert
has announced. The bishop was speaking on 11 February after an
investigation by the church. He said "no further steps" would be
taken in the case. Bishop Talbert said the decision "reflected
the long-standing covenant commitments for inclusiveness and
justice" of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, the United
Methodist News Service (UMNS) reported. An alliance of
conservative congregations within the conference criticised the
decision and predicted it could lead to a division or even the
break-up of the annual conference, UMNS reported.