Church’s regional body reverses stance and votes to lift ban, but decision unlikely to change national outcome
The North Texas regional body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted last weekend in favor of lifting a ban on openly gay clergy, capping a roller-coaster week for members of the denomination who support full LGBT inclusion.
Commissioners from Grace Presbytery, which covers 177 congregations across the state, voted 203-182 on Saturday, March 28 to ratify an amendment to the church’s constitution that was approved by the national General Assembly last year.
The amendment, which must be ratified by a majority of the church’s 173 regional presbyteries, would replace language in the constitution that requires clergy to maintain "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
"I’m very pleased," said Betsy Winters, an elder at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas and a Grace Presbytery commissioner who voted in favor of ratifying the amendment.
"I don’t know that it’s going to make a difference nationally, but it’s a big change for Grace Presbytery," said Winters, who also serves as regional coordinator for That All May Freely Serve, a pro-LGBT group within the denomination. "Presbyterians have never shied away from justice issues. We just sort of stumble every now and then."
The vote by Grace Presbytery came just three days after a California woman suffered a setback in her bid to become the church’s first openly gay minister. On March 25, a church commission rejected the process used by the Presbytery of San Francisco to certify 45-year-old Lisa Larges’ candidacy for ordination.
Larges said in a statement that the commission’s ruling makes it clear that the church will have to amend its constitution before openly gay people are ordained.
"The amendment now being voted on across the country properly aligns our understanding of ministry with the mandates of first following Jesus," Larges said. "Candidates, presbyteries and committees who have sought to act faithfully under the current constitution have only been rewarded with challenges and allegations. … Right now, our presbyteries have the best opportunity yet to vote for fairness, inclusion and welcome."
Grace Presbytery is among 26 regional bodies that have switched their positions in support of gay clergy since the last round of voting on the issue in 2001-02, according to www.covenantnetwork.org, a Web site that’s tracking the votes.
However, the denomination’s ban on gay clergy appears unlikely to be lifted. As of March 28, 81 presbyteries had voted against the amendment, while 62 had voted in favor of it, according to the Web site. The remaining presbyteries are expected to vote by May 19.
The Rev. Ron Scates, pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, said he believes the amendment is a "moot point" this year because there are enough "slam dunk" presbyteries that will vote against it. But Scates, who opposes the amendment, said he’s resigned to the fact that the denomination will eventually allow openly gay clergy.
"It’s going to shatter what’s left of the Presbyterian Church," Scates said of the issue. "There would be no more national standards for ordination. It’s going to be a complete balkanization."
Scates added that he wasn’t surprised by Grace Presbytery’s decision. "I’m not surprised; I’m disappointed with the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is sliding into irrelevance and oblivion because it’s lost its biblical moorings. It’s captive of the culture rather than of Christ."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 3, 2009.