Twin Cities Presbyterians could clear the way for gay clergy

Presbyterian Church meeting
Observers Tricia Dykers Koenig, left, and Michelle Ready, right, smile as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meeting Thursday, July 8, 2010 in Minneapolis votes to approve lifting the churches ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians as clergy.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Presbyterian leaders in the Twin Cities face a historic vote Tuesday.

They'll decide whether to remove a requirement that ministers and lay leaders be faithfully married heterosexuals or celibate singles. The move could open the ministry and leadership positions to gays and lesbians.

If Twin Cities church leaders vote in favor of the change, it would be the final vote needed to ratify the change nationally.

Last July, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA met in Minneapolis and voted for the third time to remove a requirement that ministers, deacons and elders practice "fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."

The language was only added to the Presbyterian constitution in 1996. It effectively prevented gays and lesbians from openly serving the church. Three times, the General Assembly voted to scrap it. It failed on ratification in 2002 and 2009, meaning a majority of presbyteries, the district governing bodies, didn't support to the change.

This time, advocates for gays and lesbians hope things will be different. So far, 86 presbyteries across the country have endorsed the change, with 62 opposed. Proponents only need one more to reach a majority which means the change that began in Minneapolis last July, could very well end here Tuesday.

The Rev. Michael Adee -- the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a group that's been working since 1974 to make the church more inclusive -- said dropping the fidelity in marriage, chastity in singleness requirement would return to the church's original criteria for selecting its leaders: their faith and character.

"This helps the Presbyterian Church be a grown-up church," Adee said. "That we trust people to work out their faith, their salvation and their intimate lives. And in a sense, the Presbyterian Church has the opportunity to trust God to be at work in calling people to ministry and for us to trust each other. And several pastors have said to me, we don't like being the bedroom police."

Adee said the Twin Cities presbytery voted to support the change twice before, the last time by 70 percent, so he expects tonight's vote will provide the final vote needed for ratification.

Churches in northern Minnesota are part of a presbytery that voted in favor in February. The presbytery in southern and western Minnesota voted against it in April.

"There is more and more ambiguity within the culture and within the church on topics like human sexuality," said the Rev. Paul Detterman, the executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, a group that opposes the change in ordination standards. "It does nothing to clarify questions that people are asking. What it basically also does is it removes a national standard for ordination, and it makes this much more of a territorial issue."

Detterman conceded the measure is likely to pass. His group of opponents will meet in Minneapolis in late August to consider next steps. He said if the vote is about inclusivity, he hopes that will also will extend to accepting Presbyterians who disagree on the matter, and he says leaving the church would be a last resort.

Presbyterian congregations would remain free not to choose a gay or lesbian minister or lay leader. However, if they wish to break with the Presbyterian Church USA, they face a higher bar than Lutheran congregations, some of which have voted to leave after their national body took a similar vote. Presbyterian church buildings are held in trust, meaning a congregation would have to buy its church in order to break away.

The Twin Cities presbytery is made up of 69 churches, representing 25,000 Minnesotans. If their leaders vote to remove the barrier to ordaining non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, they would become the fourth major Protestant denomination to do so, after the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians and the Lutherans.

The Presbyterian Church does not currently support same-sex marriages, so a gay or lesbian minister would still have to be married somewhere else and in a state where it's legally recognized.

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