The highest court in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), ruling on cases it heard last week in Baltimore, has upheld the right of ministers to perform blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, as long as it is clear the ritual is not sanctioning marriage.
In the decision announced yesterday, the court, known as the Permanent Judicial Commission, said that holy union ceremonies are permitted under the Presbyterians' constitution, called the Book of Order. But it added that "ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of such [same sex] services with services of Christian marriage."
In a second ruling also announced yesterday, the court said that a presbytery in New Jersey was correct in accepting a noncelibate gay man as a candidate for ministerial ordination, even though church law prohibits his ordination.
In a third case heard Friday in Baltimore, involving a Vermont congregation that is defying a policy prohibiting the ordination of noncelibate gays and single people to church office, the court deferred a decision until July. The policy, commonly referred to as Amendment B, established a standard of "fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness" for church officers, including ministers, deacons and elders.
The cases have been closely watched by conservatives and liberals in the church, who will press their positions at next month's General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif.
"We're all very pleased with both decisions," said Scott Anderson, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a nationwide network of congregations (including five Baltimore-area churches) that welcome gays and lesbians as members. "I don't think we're too surprised, because in both cases the [court] affirmed what is denominational policy and what is historic Presbyterian practice, that these decisions are best left to persons who have relationships at the local level and not to a national body."
Presbyterian conservatives expressed disappointment at the decisions.
"I think they punted," William Giles, executive coordinator of the Presbyterian Coalition, a conservative group that opposes gay marriage and ordination. "They had an opportunity to uphold the positions our church has taken for some years now. If not by the letter of the law, they did not uphold the spirit of the law or the positions we have historically taken. I think in both cases they found a legal loophole they could walk through in order to avoid making a hard decision."