From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Homosexuality Issue Returns to Dominate General Assembly Agenda
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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 PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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