Becky Whitlock of the Kingsport Times-News interviewed a colleague and me regarding Amendment A. She wrote a nice article about it that made Thursday's front page.
Holston Presbytery urges ‘mutual forbearance’ on gay, lesbian pastor issue
Presbyterian Church (USA) on Tuesday became the fourth mainline American denomination to approve the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian ministers.
By BECKY WHITLOCK
The Holston Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has encouraged its members to “mutual forbearance ... about issues that threaten to divide us” following the denomination’s vote to approve the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian pastors.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) on Tuesday became the fourth mainline American denomination to approve the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian ministers.
The Rev. Tom Phillips, pastor of Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, said he thinks the decision won’t immediately affect local congregations.
For the Rev. John Shuck, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton, the vote was good news.
“This is news I’ve not only been looking forward to hearing, it’s what I’ve been working for myself,” said Shuck. “I’ve been working to remove these barriers probably since I entered seminary in the ’80s. It’s a historic moment for our denomination.”
That history was made when the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area in Minnesota became the 87th presbytery to approve the measure, called Amendment 10-A, which was approved by the denomination’s 219th General Assembly last summer. Following the 2010 vote, a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries also had to approve the measure before it became official. The Holston Presbytery, which encompasses Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in upper Northeast Tennessee, voted against the measure.
The Rev. Rich Fifield, executive director of the Holston Presbytery, referred the Times-News to the presbytery’s official statement on its Web site, www.holstonpresbytery.org, which reads in part, and quotes minutes from the 2010 General Assembly meeting:
“Some observers of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be quick to characterize this change in ordination standards as merely a way of ordaining practicing homosexuals to ministry and leadership in the church. In reality, the rationale for the change is that ‘(t)he integrity of the church demands that those who serve in ordained office meet high standards — always seeking to live according to the life and teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.’ It is hoped that the new wording ‘would maintain high standards for ordination and installation by renewed focus on the (constitutional) questions candidates must answer, but without imposing a single, highly contested interpretation of Scripture on the whole church.’ While Holston Presbytery (the district of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in upper northeast Tennessee) voted to disapprove this change to the ‘Book of Order,’ we affirm the long-standing Presbyterian commitment to freedom of conscience and mutual forbearance when different convictions about issues threaten to divide us.”
Phillips said the “full intent” of the amendment was not “solely about the ability to ordain gays.”
“The amendment was really going back and picking up language that the church had used historically to describe those who would be allowed ordination,” he said. “In some ways, I understand that’s almost disingenuous because the folks who put forward this amendment had in mind that it would allow the ordination of gay individuals. But the way it works in the church, the way I’ll explain it to my congregation, we have an enormous amount of local discretion, which is to say that there is no one who is going to tell Colonial Heights Presbyterian that you have to ordain anybody.”
After completing a seminary education, a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) must pass a nationally standardized exam and then, after having a call to a local church, must be examined by the local presbytery’s committee on ministry.
“Once the presbytery is satisfied that the person has enough knowledge and maturity, then the church proceeds to ordain,” Phillips said.
The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s decision to ordain practicing homosexuals follows the United Church of Christ’s decision in 1972, the Episcopal Church’s decision in 2003, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s decision in 2009. The years following the decisions by the Episcopal Church and the ELCA have seen membership declines in and the departure of numerous congregations from both denominations.
While Phillips thinks there will be those in Holston Presbytery congregations who will not like the decision, he doesn’t believe more than one or two of those will contemplate leaving.
“Will it happen across the denomination? I fear it will,” he said. “I think we spent 20-plus years arguing about whether or not to ordain gay individuals when we should have been out there doing the mission of the church. I’d like to see us get back to the core values of who we are, reaching out in the name of the risen Christ and going about the task of ministry.”
Shuck believes that the way the decision was made — an affirmative vote by the national body followed by votes by local presbyteries — has resulted in a more stable process. However, he said, division does exist.
“We’ve been divided for 40 years. I don’t think this causes division. It recognizes that we have had division all along. ... Membership decline in mainline churches is very complex. You have to have lots of sociologists to explain what it all might mean. To blame it on being open to gays is very simplistic,” said Shuck.
And while Shuck believes some will leave, he also thinks the decision will draw others.
“I think our congregation is a testimony to that,” he said. “Since we’ve been openly affirming, we’ve gained a lot of people. ... It’s a common story: ‘I was out of the church for 40 years, but I can come back because this is an inclusive church.’ It goes both ways. I really affirm this decision. I’m excited about it, and I hope it will reach out to people who have been alienated. I hope this will be a healing moment for the church.”