Presbyterians confront exodus over sexuality
The last time Presbyterians held their national convention in Pittsburgh, in 1958, the event featured two of their largest denominations joining powers.
When they arrive this week to open their 220th General Assembly, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) — the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination with 1.95 million members — will do their best to stem an exodus over issues surrounding sexuality and the church.
Church leaders expect same-sex marriage to spark the most heated debate at the biennial conference that begins on Saturday and runs through July 7 in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Gay ordination, same-gender partner benefits, immigration and Israel-Palestine relations are among the roughly 800 items of business to address.
“The whole question of what to do with same-sex people has been a topic of discussion in the denomination for decades in one form or another,” said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which includes 145 congregations and 37,000 members in Allegheny County. “I think there is a lot of energy and tension around the issue, much like is reflected in the larger society.”
The General Assembly, the church’s governing body, will consider several proposals concerning same-sex marriage:
• Confirm the denomination’s definition of marriage as “between a woman and a man” and require a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority for amendments to the church’s constitution to take effect
• Endorse a constitutional amendment to change the marriage definition to between “two people,” which would require ratification, or
• Issue an authoritative interpretation, which does not need to be ratified, that would allow pastors to officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies in states where gay marriage is legal.
The Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Church (USA) is the latest mainline Protestant denomination to address same-gender issues, following the Episcopal and Lutheran churches.
In 2010, the Presbyterian assembly endorsed a measure to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ministers and lay leaders. A majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries, or regional bodies, last summer voted to allow congregations and presbyteries the option of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy.
“The chances that would happen here are highly unlikely,” Sorge said. The Pittsburgh Presbytery voted 2-1 to reject the change.
More than 100 congregations across the country — including several in Western Pennsylvania — have left the church in recent years during debate over same-sex issues, lowering the number of congregations nationwide to 10,466.
“These changes are traumatic for the church and some people cannot abide by them,” Sorge said.
He and other leaders vowed to do all they can to keep disgruntled congregations from leaving to join smaller, more conservative Presbyterian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in America or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Both ban gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.
“It’s always been part of our conversation, a rallying cry of sorts, to have unity in diversity,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons of Louisville, who holds one of the church’s highest elected offices as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. “We’ve always had contentious issues of one variety or another.”
Other issues that caused major divisions within the church historically include the abolition of slavery, the civil-rights movement and women’s suffrage. Congregations left. Denominations split.
“All these times we had debates about the issues and how the church should address them,” Parsons said. “They often take decades to work out.”
A leading voice calling for Presbyterians to extend marriage equality and other rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members belongs to the Rev. Janet Edwards of Squirrel Hill.
“My deepest hope is that we will open our eyes to do what God is already doing,” said Edwards, 61, a board member of the Pittsburgh Presbytery Foundation and More Light Presbyterians, a pro-gay organization within the church. “We can already see how God blesses the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.”
Definition of marriage
Edwards wants the assembly to endorse a change to the definition of marriage. She relinquished her rights as a voting assembly member to help care for her ailing husband, Alvise, and abandoned her campaign to become moderator of the General Assembly — the denomination’s highest elected position. The Pittsburgh Presbytery, for which she served as moderator in 1987, declined to endorse her candidacy.
Still, Edwards said she plans to attend sessions, particularly those related to gay and lesbian issues. The church twice put Edwards on trial for conducting the 2005 marriage of a lesbian couple. The first ended on a technicality, the second in acquittal.
She hopes congregations do not leave the church.
“For me, the way to do that is to talk to one another, and to talk about the issues we most tenderly disagree about,” said Edwards, who was ordained in 1977.
First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, played a critical role in major controversies in church history, including a schism over theology nearly 200 years ago and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of almost a century ago, said Senior Pastor Tom Hall.
This year, the church plans to stay out of the fray. It will serve meals and act as a prayer and meeting safe-haven for those attending the convention. It is the only Presbyterian church within walking distance of the convention center.
“We have a chance to be a church to the church,” Hall said. “Being one of the most historic churches in the denomination, we took that opportunity very seriously.”
In 1958, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was formed by a subsequent merger in 1983.
“Because we discern God’s will collectively, that allows controversy,” Hall said. “As Presbyterians, when we’re at our best we are about seeking truth and justice, not just winning positions.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].