Presbyterians and Ordination

Reader be warned – the road ahead contains lots of Presby-speak (lingo only a Presbyterian could love). Proceed at your own risk…of utter boredom.

The Presbyterians are in the national and local headlines this morning. I want to share this space to say why I am happy about the recent decisions of the church and believe it heralds a new day of peace, unity, and purity.

Presbyterians, from the beginning, have been and are a contentious lot. Much of the contention swirls around the issue of ordination.

For those who may not know, Presbyterians ordain three different officers as leaders in the denomination – Ministers of Word and Sacrament, Elders, and Deacons. Congregations call, train, and ordain elders and deacons to be spiritual leaders, and presbyteries (regional governing bodies) ordain Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

In the earliest days of Presbyterianism, both in its Continental (England, Scotland, and Geneva) and American versions, huge fights broke out about who may or may not be ordained. At various points in our history you would not be allowed to be ordained if you were a woman, a freed slave, divorced, a dancer, or a drinker of spirits (Holy or otherwise). Churches split, new denominations formed, and families divided over these questions. At times, it seemed the Presbyterian Church would not survive its increasing diversity in this diverse land.

Beginning in the late 1970’s, the fight moved to the question of homosexuality; namely, should homosexual persons who were in committed, monogamous relationships be ordained if a local congregation or presbytery chose to do so. The fighting over the question was intense. The church remained divided right down the middle. Affinity groups were formed on both sides of the issue, and they lobbied the General Assembly (the national governing body) and the presbyteries relentlessly.

In 1996, the General Assembly voted to add a provision to the Book of Order, called “Amendment B”, which reads:

“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

The effect of this amendment was to lift one element of a person’s life above all others in considering whether to ordain him or her. It in essence told all presbyteries and congregations that if they had a candidate for ordination who was a deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ, a strong member of the church, and faithful in his or her relationship with a partner, they could not ordain such a person simply because of her or his sexuality.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lived with this amendment for the last fifteen years, and the results have been dismal. Because the amendment was placed upon a church that was split down the middle on the question, the church has fought bitterly about the question every time it gathered. At times it has felt like Presbyterians could talk about nothing else. The amendment has damaged the life of the church, and it has not brought about peace, unity, or purity.

At the General Assembly meeting in 2010, a new amendment was approved and sent out to the 173 presbyteries for ratification. It is called “Amendment 10-A” and it reads:

“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

What this new amendment does is reassert the old Presbyterian tradition of honoring the conscience, making room for the Spirit, and allowing local governing bodies the leeway to examine candidates for ordination on a case by case basis. It does not say that sessions and presbyteries MUST ordain gay ministers, elders, and deacons; it says they MAY ordain gay ministers, elders, and deacons.

In other words, if a session is examining a candidate for elder, they may consider all aspects of her or his life and faith, including his or her sexual life, and after taking all things into consideration make a judgment about whether or not that person is “submitting joyfully to Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.” It is not a lessening of standards, but a toughening and broadening of them.

Most importantly, it recognizes that the group most in a position to examine a person’s life and faith and judge his or her suitability for ordination is the body that is examining him or her, the body that knows him or her.

It seems that this amendment has captured the imagination of the entire church and is being widely embraced as a way forward. To date, nineteen presbyteries that previously voted no on this question have changed their votes to yes, among them South Alabama, North Alabama, Arkansas, and Middle Tennessee. As of last night, 88 of the 173 presbyteries have voted yes, which is enough to ratify the amendment. That’s why you are seeing the newspaper headlines today. The voting will conclude on July 10, at which time the new amendment will take effect.

One of the reasons I am a Presbyterian, and one of the main reasons I pastor the particular church I do, is because I think the mark of a healthy church is the willingness to talk about important issues in a spirit of unity. Anyone who knows me or First Presbyterian, Franklin, will know that whenever we get ten people in a room, there are at least twelve different opinions. But these opinions are always thoughtful, engaging, and, best of all, shared in a spirit of love and unity. The give and take we share, for example, at Wednesday Night Live, is evidence of what the church can look like when it is debating tough questions in a healthy way.

I know that there will be many in this congregation who will disagree with me about the value of this amendment. I will look forward to the conversations I will have with them (as well as with those who agree) in days to come. But I have no doubt that our congregation will continue to embody the best of the Reformed Tradition – honest engagement, thoughtful reflection, and a commitment to unity in the bond of faith.

I am also filled with joy that there will never again be a person, here or elsewhere in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who will automatically have the door to leadership closed because of their sexuality. Instead they will be given the chance to share their faith in Jesus Christ and the fullness of their lives, and be judged on the whole, and not the part.

The distinctive Presbyterian dance throughout our history has been the dance of trying to preserve peace, unity, and purity in the way we follow Jesus Christ. It is a tricky dance, and it is never perfect. However, this morning I am filled with joy and hope that we have taken an important step.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are God’s judgments
and how inscrutable God’s ways!
For from God
and through God
and to God are all things.
To God be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus
to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.