Racked for years by internal debate over its policy against ordaining practicing homosexuals, the Presbyterian Church (USA) said yesterday that a majority of its regional bodies had voted to make that policy law, amending the church's constitution to bar anyone who is sexually active outside marriage from becoming a clergy member, elder or deacon.
But before the 2.7-million-member denomination announced the official tally of voting by its regional bodies, or presbyteries, some of the measure's opponents promised a campaign to repeal the law, raising the prospect of further unrest.
The voting, which took place over several weeks, revealed evidence of a North-South division among Presbyterians on the issue. Presbyteries in New York, New Jersey, New England and Northern California voted overwhelmingly against the measure, Amendment B, while those in the Southeast, Texas, Southern California and Pennsylvania strongly backed it. The results from presbyteries in the Midwest and West did not break down on geographic lines.
The denomination was created in 1983 out of the merger of two Presbyterian bodies, one largely northern and based in New York, the other largely southern and based in Atlanta. Until 1861, those churches had formed a single denomination, which split over the issue of slavery.
Over the last decade, the question of whether to ordain noncelibate homosexuals has deeply troubled many Protestant churches, whose members must weigh traditional teaching that rejects homosexual acts against a growing cultural acceptance of gay men and lesbians. The Presbyterian amendment codifies a 1978 statement of "definitive guidance" from the General Assembly, the church's policy-making body, barring ordination of gay men and lesbians who are not celibate. Responding to pressure from within the church to change its stand, the assembly in 1993 instead declared the statement to be an "authoritative interpretation" of Scripture.
The 90-word Amendment B to the church's Book of Order states that people ordained to church office should lead a life "in obedience to Scripture" and church standards, which include "the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or in chastity in singleness."
The Rev. Jack Haberer of Houston, coordinator of the Presbyterian Coalition, which backed the amendment, predicted that "only a small minority" would fight it.
A spokesman at the church's Louisville, Ky., headquarters said officials had reports yesterday from 87 presbyteries backing the amendment, a majority of the 172 regional bodies, enough to change the church constitution.
Haberer said supporters did not expect "a complete and permanent enforcement." But, he added, "if there are defiant, bold, blunt ordinations of avowed, practicing homosexuals, then some kind of charges will be filed to address that."
Acknowledging that the amendment did not apply only to homosexuals, Haberer added that "virtually every case" in which a Presbyterian court had defrocked a clergy member on sexual charges "has been for heterosexual misconduct."
The Rev. Jan Orr-Harter, senior minister of Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York, who opposed the amendment, attributed its victory to "far right" church members who drew support from "moderate Presbyterians" worried about such social problems as spouse abuse, teen-age pregnancy and divorce.
Pub Date: 4/02/97