From the Worldwide Faith News archives

"O" likely to pass or fail by the skin of its teeth

Date 09 Feb 2001 10:32:30

Note #6378 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


"O" likely to pass or fail by the skin of its teeth

Foes, proponents of same-sex union measure expecting a cliffhanger 

by Alexa Smith

LOUISVILLE -- Although some unpredictable patterns are emerging as the
denomination's 173 presbyteries begin voting on a constitutional amendment
that would ban Presbyterian ministers from performing same-sex union
ceremonies, no one is yet crowing about -- or deeply bemoaning -- the vote

As of Feb. 8, 48 presbyteries had voted no, and 20 had voted yes.

Given that 105 presbyteries still haven't voted, the 28-vote margin hardly
seems like a big deal. But it is a heads-up for the folks involved in the

Some conservatives are fretting a bit about losing several presbyteries that
in 1997 backed a constitutional amendment to forbid the ordination of
sexually active gays and lesbians. That political and theological battle was
won by the votes of 23 presbyteries (97 to 74), but any card-carrying
Presbyterian liberal will protest that the votes in many of those
presbyteries were very close.

So far, eight presbyteries have switched: that is, voted for the 1997
ordination amendment, but voted no on the current proposal.

In liberal circles, this has produced a cautious optimism.

They're aware that it works both ways -- presbyteries that opposed the 1997
amendment could well support this one. One presbytery, Plains and Peaks in
Colorado, has done just that.

However, if five more presbyteries that voted for what was called "Amendment
B" vote against what is known now as "Amendment O," the measure is defeated.
This raises the stakes for the conservatives.

"I'd like to paint a rosier picture ... but our baseline has been what
people did on 'B,'" said the Rev. Jerry Andrews of Chicago, the chair of the
Presbyterian Coalition, an evangelical caucus organized to oppose the
ordination of practicing homosexuals within the Presbyterian Church (USA),
but has broadened its agenda since then. "Of the 25-vote margin of those who
voted for 'B,' we can't afford to lose more than 12. So thereís a lot of
work to be done."

Andrews is keeping himself busy these days calling pastors and telling them
to get their elders to the presbytery meeting and to prepare themselves to
speak for "O."

Interestingly, both camps agree on that point: There is much work to be done
to turn out the voters at presbytery meetings.

"I suspect that this is going to be close, whichever way it comes out --
very close," said Pam Byers of the Covenant Network, one of the more visible
liberal opponents of "O."

This is no time for jumping to conclusions.

As a longtime Presbyterian Pro-Life strategist working to overturn the
denomination's pro-choice stance, Terry Schlossberg has been analyzing
PC(USA) politics for a long time.  She says "O" is following the trajectory
that "B" took, with more liberal presbyteries voting first, conservative
ones voting later. "The early votes on 'B' looked like the outcome would be
against 'B,'" she says, "but we saw a major shift occur just during this
period ...

"We're beginning to see votes from the South beginning to pick up now.  I
have high hopes for that."

"B" -- officially, constitutional provision G.60106.b -- did pick up
momentum over time, drawing strong support in the Southeast, the Southwest,
parts of Texas, all of Southern California and huge chunks of the northern
Plains states.

But opponents of "O," while not exactly cocky about their lead, aren't
willing to concede that time is on the conservatives' side. They say the
problem is the amendment itself.

It reads:  "Scripture and our Confessions teach that Godís intention for all
people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between
a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness. Church property shall not be
used for, and church officers shall not take part in conducting, any
ceremony or event that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the church
or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is inconsistent
with Godís intention as expressed in the preceding sentence."

"The amendment never mentions same-sex unions, but casts a very broad swath
over 'ceremonies or events that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the
church or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is
inconsistent with Godís intention,'" said Byers, noting that many ministers
say they are uneasy about what those words actually mean. "Pastors feel
constrained. They deal with difficult and troubling personal situations all
the time, even those who would never perform a same-sex union.

"Does this mean you cannot baptize a child of a gay couple or an unmarried
couple?" Byers asked, arguing that there are complicated pastoral problems
that the writers of the amendment have overlooked.

That's what Richmond, Va., pastor Ben Sparks argued in an opinion piece in
The Presbyterian Outlook, an independent weekly news magazine for
Presbyterians.  Sparks told the Presbyterian New Service that he thinks "O"
is very different from "B." Where "B" merely created guidelines for
governing bodies, "O," he says, is "meddling."

"It moves into a whole other arena, when pastors and sessions are bound by
how to practice ministry in the local church. ... As a pastor, I have to
make judgment calls every day of my life, and I don't want anything in (the
constitution) to prohibit me as a pastor from using my own judgment (in
matters like) what I may pray about," he said.

That argument annoys Schlossberg -- and she has put a point-by-point
rebuttal on the Presbyterians Pro-Life Web page.  For openers, she argues
that "local freedoms," both pastoral and governance-related, have always
been restricted by the constitution; the Book of Order contains criteria
that govern baptism, requirements of specific language for communion and
other ceremonies."

In other matters, according to Schlossberg, sessions have always been
restricted under the constitution in property matters, including needing
presbytery approval to secure a mortgage -- and many would like fewer
constraints. But "O," she says, is different; it is not just another
restriction. "It sets a standard for the moral life of our congregations,"
she says.

The Rev. Parker Williamson, executive director of The Presbyterian Layman,
feels just as strongly about the matter; he says arguments that the
amendment ought to be defeated because of "restrictions" are just "scare

"Ministers are not free to say or do anything they want in worship. ... The
Book of Order is filled with regulations," he said.

It was the broad language of the amendment, which never actually mentions
same-sex unions, that sank "O" in Dakota Presbytery, a 23-congregation
Native American presbytery in Minnesota -- one of the presbyteries that
backed "B" in 1997.

Presbytery Executive Elona Street-Stewart said the 2-10 vote was apolitical,
and the voters werenít drawing parallels between how they voted four years
ago and how they were voting in 2001.

"They just didn't want to do anything that might create a (pastoral)
barrier," Street-Stewart said, emphasizing that common-law marriages and
baptisms of single-parent babies are not unusual in Native American
congregations. Church officers found the amendment's wording too
non-specific to feel good about it -- although there was little support
among the voters there for same-sex unions.

On the other hand, Tom Phillips, the executive in Plains and Peaks
Presbytery, which switched the opposite way, said "O" got support because
the voters understood it to outright prohibit same-sex unions, and do not
believe same-sex unions are Biblical.

The key issue for "O" supporters, and opponents, is getting voters to
presbytery meetings. They point out that, in Plains and Peaks, the amendment
passed by three votes.

In fact, the nip-and-tuck nature of the debate is evidenced by the fact that
the General Assembly vote that sent it to the presbyteries in the first
place was decided by just 17 votes.

Andrews says turnout is critical, and he thinks it may be down in some
presbyteries where evangelicals in particular are weary of voting and
re-voting on the same issues and frustrated when outcomes of votes seem to
be disregarded.

"Turnout for these kinds of things is usually clergy," he said, noting that
elders often are the swing-votes, and many of them are "defecting in place"
by failing to turn out or speak up.

What's different about this vote -- according to Andrews, who has weathered
both the vote on "B" and the more decisive (59-114) vote the following year
on "A" (an attempt to strike "B" from the constitution) -- is a reduction in

Andrews said he's been more pro-active, calling up ministers and elders and
urging them to organize within presbyteries. He says turnout is critical
because votes on "O" are being decided by very few votes.

Williamson agreed that there is a lack of passion this time around. He said
he isn't sure whether Presbyterians are just tired, or don't appreciate the
significance of an amendment that he believes is about the sanctity of
marriage itself.

Eugene TeSelle, an outspoken liberal who belongs to the Witherspoon Society
and is a General Assembly veteran, agreed that turnout is the key. "Both
sides are saying that this depends on getting out the vote, not what is said
in the floor debate," he said. "And both sides are eloquent."

TeSelle believes the "wave of the future" is moving against hard-line
conservatives, and the current vote on "O" is beginning to reflect that
shift. Byers noted that the Covenant Network believes at least 38 overtures
aiming to change or delete G.60106.b from the constitution will go to this
yearís GA.

But Williamson -- also a veteran of many such battles -- says talk of a
trend is premature.

"It is a very close contest," he said. "And we may experience what we
experienced with the presidential election:  We may all be sitting in
Florida, waiting on the last presbytery to vote.
"At this point, based on the 35 percent who've voted, we can't tell much."

Andrews' analysis goes like this: Evangelicals and conservatives need to
redouble their efforts and make what he calls "a faithful witness."

"I'd like to win by a larger majority than we did on 'B,'" he said, "but it
looks like a smaller majority."

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