From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Homosexuality Issue Returns to Dominate General Assembly Agenda

Date 22 May 1996 15:18:34

14 May 1996 
96166        Homosexuality Issue Returns to Dominate  
                     General Assembly Agenda 
                      by Jerry L. Van Marter 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--The role of gay and lesbian persons in the Presbyterian 
Church (U.S.A.), an issue that has been off the business agenda while 
church members engaged in a three-year period of study and discussion, 
returns to the 208th General Assembly this June in Albuquerque.   
     And as in years past, that issue is sure to dominate the June 29-July 
6 annual meeting of the 2.7-million member denomination. 
     But the 568 elected commissioners to the 1996 General Assembly face an 
unusually crowded agenda with a large number of critically important and 
potentially controversial items, such as filling key leadership positions, 
deciding the extent of the denomination's involvement in the Consultation 
on Church Union (COCU), dealing with the ongoing financial squeeze in the 
church, defining the role of lay pastors in the denomination, and 
considering a major policy paper on "sustainable development." 
              A defining moment for gay ordination? 
      Since 1978, General Assembly policy has been that "self-affirming, 
practicing homosexuals" are ineligible for ordination to the offices of 
minister, elder and deacon.  When the 1993 Assembly called for the 
three-year study and dialogue on the issue, it also reaffirmed the 
prohibitive policy. 
     However, the ban on gay ordination has never been inserted into the 
church's "Book of Order," or constitution.  The "Book of Order" continues 
to give to congregations the responsibility to ordain elders and deacons as 
they so choose and to presbyteries the authority to ordain ministers.  Some 
75 congregations have declared that they are willing to ordain gay and 
lesbian persons.  Every challenge to such ordinations has been turned down 
by church courts on the grounds that the "Book of Order" is permissive. 
     Forty-five overtures on the matter have been submitted by presbyteries 
to this year's General Assembly.  Of those, 24 propose amendments to the 
"Book of Order" that would make the ban on gay and lesbian ordination 
constitutionally explicit and 20 favor letting congregations and 
presbyteries continue to make their own decisions about whom to ordain. 
One overture asks that the study period be extended with no action taken. 
                    New leadership at the top 
     Three candidates have been endorsed to succeed Marj Carpenter of Big 
Spring, Texas, as moderator of the General Assembly.  They are the Rev. 
John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago; the Rev. 
Norm Pott, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael, Calif.; and 
the Rev. John C. Poling, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Las Cruces, 
     In addition to electing a moderator, commissioners will elect a new 
stated clerk -- the top ecclesiastical official in the church.  The 
incumbent clerk, the Rev. James E. Andrews, has announced his retirement 
after holding the office since 1984. 
     A search committee that has been working for a year has nominated the 
Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, currently director of the Worldwide Ministries 
Division of the General Assembly Council (GAC), for a four-year term. 
Nominations from the floor are permitted and expected. 
     Commissioners will also be asked to confirm the reelection of the Rev. 
James D. Brown to a second four-year term as executive director of the GAC, 
the top programmatic office in the denomination.  Brown was reelected by 
the Council in February by a vote of 46-16 and some debate over his 
confirmation is expected. 
                       Budget woes continue 
     A 1997 General Assembly mission budget totaling $113.8 million is up 
for approval by this Assembly.  Balancing the budget required the GAC to 
cut $1.2 million from the denomination's three ministry divisions 
(Congregational Ministries, National Ministries, and Worldwide Ministries) 
and its Corporate and Administrative Services office, as well as its own 
Office of Communication. 
     The cuts were necessitated by a continuing drop in unrestricted giving 
by congregations to the mission budget.  While designated giving to 
specific programs continues to rise, unrestricted giving has declined by an 
average of about 5 percent a year for a number of years. 
     The slide is projected to continue in 1998.  The Assembly will be 
asked to approve a planning budget for that year of $112.3 million. 
                     Presbyterian "bishops"? 
     A set of amendments designed to facilitate the Presbyterian Church's 
participation in the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) will return to the 
Assembly this year after having been deferred by last year's Assembly.   
     Though reaffirming the church's commitment to COCU, that Assembly 
asked for further study of the amendments after some misgivings were 
expressed over the creation of the offices of "representative bishop" and 
"representative elder" to enable Presbyterian cooperation with other COCU 
churches that have bishops and do not have ordained elders. 
     The 1993 General Assembly approved "Churches in Covenant Communion," a 
COCU proposal that calls for the integration of COCU member churches' 
ministries, but without structural merger. Opposition to the "covenanting" 
proposal has centered around the creation of the office of "bishop" -- with 
its authoritarian implications --  in the Presbyterian Church and a fear 
that the importance of the ordained office of elder will be sacrificed.  No 
other COCU church ordains laypersons to the office of ruling elder. 
             Growing responsibilities of lay pastors 
     Last year's General Assembly approved and a majority of presbyteries 
have since ratified an amendment to the "Book of Order" that changes the 
term "commissioned lay preacher" to "commissioned lay pastor."  The change 
signifies the growing importance of lay ministers -- who have formal 
training but not a seminary degree -- in the denomination.  Commissioned 
lay pastors are critically important in providing leadership to small, 
rural and racial-ethnic congregations. 
     This year a group of church leadership specialists that has been 
working on the lay pastor issue, is presenting for Assembly approval a set 
of amendments to the "Book of Order" designed to expand and enhance the 
functions of commissioned lay pastors.  The amendments would allow 
presbyteries to authorize lay pastors to perform baptisms and marriages 
(they already may conduct the sacrament of the Lord's Supper), moderate 
session meetings, and speak and vote at presbytery meetings. 
       A major policy statement on sustainable development 
     "Hope for a Global Future: Toward Just and Sustainable Human 
Development," developed over the last four years by the church's Advisory 
Committee on Social Witness Policy, is a comprehensive (100 pages) 
examination of U.S. international economic policies.  The paper focuses on 
the impact of those policies on the world's poorest people and nations and 
proposes steps toward reform that can be taken by the church, business 
leaders, organized labor and governments. 
     It looks at such problems as overconsumption, overpopulation, poverty, 
pollution, and inequitable distribution and use of resources, and explores 
how development policies can meet current needs without jeopardizing the 
ability of the planet's resources to sustain future generations. 
                          There's more! 
     Other possibly contentious items on the agenda include 
          a proposal to change two of the denomination's four special 
offerings -- the key 
          recommendation is that the Christmas Joy Offering be divided 
among racial-ethnic 
          schools (50 percent), the Board of Pensions (30 percent) to fund 
          programs for retired church workers, and programs for "children 
at risk" (20 percent).  
          Currently the offering is equally divided between the 
racial-ethnic schools and the Board 
          of Pensions. 
          a number of overtures seeking to overturn a decision by last 
year's Assembly to cut in 
          half the number of youth advisory delegates (YADs) to the General 
Assembly.  Because 
          of that decision, only half of the presbyteries are sending YADs 
to this year's Assembly, 
          with the other half scheduled to send YADs next year.  The 12 
overtures seek to return 
          to the practice of each presbytery sending a YAD to each 
          a report on the activities of the Presbyterian Health, Education 
and Welfare Association 
          (PHEWA), an alliance of 11 social welfare organizations that seek 
to implement 
          Assembly policies in the social welfare arena.  Critics have 
alleged that PHEWA keeps 
          inadequate financial records, advocates positions that are 
contrary to General Assembly 
          policy and receives assistance, such as office space and staff 
services, that are not 
          available to other social welfare organizations. 
          a report from a committee that has conducted a quadrennial review 
of the structure and 
          operations of the General Assembly.  The committee is proposing 
33 measures to 
          improve the work of the General Assembly. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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