LOUISVILLE, Ky. — People in the pews of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly disagree with a denominational policy that permits ordination of celibate homosexuals, according to a report recently issued from church headquarters here.
The report, based on a survey commissioned by the church's Theology and Worship Ministry Unit, reveals that over two-thirds of the church's members and elders--local congregational leaders--disagree with the current policy and, among those, more than half "strongly disagree" with current policy.
The study was part of the 2.9-million-member denomination's ongoing "Presbyterian Panel Report" series that takes the pulse of the church on a wide range of issues on a regular basis.
Titled "Theology and Practice of Ordination," the report demonstrates also that there is a wide split between Presbyterian clergy and laity over current policy, as 64% of the pastors and 70% of "specialized clergy"--ordained members without a full-time parish appointment, such as seminary professors--endorse ordination of celibate homosexuals.
Presbyterian policy on ordaining homosexuals is similar to that of other liberal mainline church bodies, most of which have adopted an approach that permits ordination of persons with homosexual orientations as long as they do not engage in same-sex relationships.
The subject has become perhaps the most divisive issue in mainline Protestantism in recent years, as major debates on homosexuality have embroiled not only the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) but the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Methodist Church.
The survey also asked Presbyterians if the church should liberalize its policies by allowing ordination of practicing homosexuals, and on that score there was strong rejection by clergy and laity, regardless of the quality of a same-sex relationship.
Major policies of the church are set at the annual General Assembly gatheries, composed of delegations of pastors and ruling elders from each of the church's 171 presbyteries, or regional bodies.
The report, based on responses from 2,261 Presbyterians to questionnaires distributed in April 1990, comes at a time when a special denominational panel on sexuality is giving strong consideration to a recommendation that the church allow ordination of self-acknowledged, practicing homosexuals.
The Rev. John Carey, chairperson of the church's Special Task Force on Human Sexuality, said in a Jan. 9 interview that he was not surprised at the survey results because they confirmed some of the sentiments expressed in a previous Presbyterian Panel survey conducted for his committee.
Carey, the Wallace M. Alston Professor of Bible and Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., said his panel is "mindful of" the existing widespread sentiments against ordaining homosexuals in the denomination but does not feel those sentiments should "bind or shape" the work of the panel.
The previous survey did not ask about current church policy on ordinations but did ask if it would be difficult to imagine circumstances under which a practicing homosexual should be ordained. Strong majorities of members, elders and pastors said it would be difficult, compared to 46% of specialized clergy.
In the more recent survey, 90% of the members, 95% of elders, 83% of the pastors and 68% of the specialized clergy said homosexuals who engage in sexual activities with persons of the same sex should not be ordained.
The report noted that few issues presented to Presbyterian Survey panels have united panelists to such a degree.