Vote will bring gay and lesbian candidates to Presbyterian ministry
By James Fuller
Gay Presbyterians throughout the suburbs now have the opportunity to rise from the pews and into the ranks of the ordained.
A recent vote by the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), paves the way for gay and lesbian candidates to enter the ministry for the first time. But the fallout among more conservative Presbyterian congregations still is unfolding in the Chicago area.
There are 173 presbyteries, the church’s governing bodies, in the United States. Each votes internally on church policy, then casts a national vote via the church’s biennial general assembly.
After decades of debate, Blackhawk Presbytery — which oversees many of the congregations in the Fox Valley and northwestern Illinois — recently became one of 21 presbyteries so far to reverse course on gay ordination.
But even with a movement toward acceptance of homosexuality in popular culture, the Rev. John Rickard of Blackhawk Presbytery said he was surprised, but not necessarily dismayed, by the outcome of the vote among his congregations.
“For those that really had this as an item of concern, the vote brings a sense of justice to them,” Rickard said. “There was a class of people who are part of our congregations who are being intentionally excluded. For those who saw this as exclusion and being not what the church should be practicing, this is a good change. But there is a set of people who say it’s quite clear that scripture says (homosexuality) is not an acceptable behavior.”
Congregations maintain the right to choose their own church leaders under the changes to the ordination standards, which take effect July 10. That means each congregation can either choose to have ordained homosexuals in their faith circle, or continue to reject those candidates. Likewise, congregations opposed to gay clergy always have the right to break away and into a different denomination.
“I think a number of my congregations are still trying to figure out what they’ll do,” Rickard said. “It’s hard to say what will happen now. As it became obvious this change was going to pass, there was a lot of emotional expression of what’s going to happen. Our message to those concerned is the change has passed, but we’re still the same people that worshipped next to you a couple days ago.”
The Rev. Robert Reynolds of Chicago Presbytery said in an email interview that the Presbyterian Church has long welcomed homosexuals. He indicated the controversy isn’t about including homosexuals in faith circles, but rather including them in church leadership. The definition of marriage in the Presbyterian Church as being a covenant between a man and woman and requiring chastity in singleness has barred that inclusion until now.
“Rather than focusing on specific behaviors, the standards now have a broader framework emphasizing that those who are ordained are to be ‘persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.’ Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.”
What a “demonstration of the Christian gospel” means in practice will play out differently in each congregation, Reynolds said.
“For most if not all congregations, I trust the full and faithful exercise of this freedom will be preferable to separating from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” he said.
The word “all” in Reynolds’ hope for the future is unlikely to become reality.
In the past couple of years, two congregations already have quit Blackhawk Presbytery to join other Presbyterian denominations, including the First Presbyterian Church of Aurora. Church leadership there did not respond to an interview request.
The Rev. Chuck Legvold, senior pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Aurora, counts members of First Presbyterian as his friends, even though they no longer share his denomination. He’s also among the Presbyterian leaders who believe the change to allow the ordination of homosexuals marks the end of the church as he knows it.
“What this has all boiled down to is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a redefinition of sin according to majority vote,” Legvold said. “The Bible is very clear about homosexual practice. It doesn’t square with scriptural teaching. I don’t think there’s any way around it.”
Those who disagree with Legvold tend to say the sections of the Bible that seem to condemn homosexual acts must be taken in the context of society at the time the words were written. That society and its flawed understanding of homosexuality no longer exists, the argument goes. Indeed, from those days until relatively recently, just being a woman prevented you from being ordained.
Legvold is well aware of that comparison, but believes what the Bible has to say about the role of women in the church is far less clear than what it says about homosexuality. And because of that, this change in ordination standards will be “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“There will be a mass exodus of people and money from our congregations,” Legvold said.
Legvold won’t be part of that exodus. He has already decided he’ll fight to reverse the change rather than leave his denomination.
“This all won’t play out over the next two months or even the next two years,” Legvold said. “This is a crisis moment.”
But what if the vote is never reversed?
“I really do believe in miracles,” Legvold said. “But I also believe that sometimes God intentionally lets things die in order that something new might be born.”
Rickard said he’s glad Presbyterians aren’t lining up en masse to leave the denomination. He looks to the Episcopalian and Evangelical Lutheran churches, which have had ordained homosexuals for some time now, as brothers in an evolving faith. It wasn’t easy for those churches, either, Rickard said.
“Do I think it’s going to destroy our denomination? No. We’ll muddle through this. This is all part of the huge shift of what’s happening in terms of what it means to be Christian in America in the 20th century. We’re just part of the wave.”