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Clergy Celibacy Ruling Seen as Anti-Gay

March 22, 1997|JOHN DART

PANORAMA CITY — All eight Southern California regions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), including the San Fernando Valley, voted in favor of the measure that passed this week to require unmarried clergy to be sexually celibate--a move designed to bar gays and lesbians from the ministry.

The "Fidelity and Chastity Amendment" to the mainline denomination's constitution also reasserted traditional church teachings about fidelity in marriage, said two Southern California pastors who helped frame the measure.

In a running tally of the church's 171 U.S. regional bodies, the decisive 87th presbytery approved the measure early this week. By midweek, the margin had increased to 91-66. It will become church law this summer.

The amendment's wording has worried some clergy and church members who said that it is sufficiently broad that elders, deacons and pastors seeking new positions could now face stiffer scrutiny over a variety of sins, including gluttony and gambling.

Although the originators of the amendment say that it was aimed at barring ordination of gays and lesbians, its text does not mention homosexuality. It says:

"Those called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the Confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."

Behavior identified as sins in confessional statements adopted by Presbyterians through the centuries includes such things as gluttony, said the Rev. Robert Fernandez, the executive presbyter of the San Fernando Presbytery, based in Panorama City.

"What kind of checklist of 101 sins are [ministerial] candidates going to face?" asked Fernandez, whose presbytery approved the amendment 79-63 at a meeting of its 31 churches in late February.

"Christians are also encouraged [in confessional statements] to hasten toward marriage," Fernandez said. The amendment is "almost going to be unenforceable unless we do a very thorough scrutiny of everyone," he contended.

"These issues are being raised by opponents who sought to defeat the amendment," countered the Rev. Roberta Hestenes, pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in San Diego County, who headed the convention committee that drafted the amendment.

"This is not about witch hunts, legalism or going after people," Hestenes said Friday. "This amendment says the church does not wish to change its understanding of Scripture and its requirements for ordination" despite pressure within the denomination for change, said Hestenes, who last year left the presidency of Eastern College near Philadelphia.

The vote was close--97 to 95 with one abstention--in the theologically and culturally divided Pacific Presbytery, which stretches from San Pedro to the Bel Air Presbyterian Church overlooking Encino.

But the Anaheim-based Los Ranchos Presbytery, which reaches as far north as East Los Angeles, gave resounding approval, 131 to 66.

It was one of Los Ranchos' own churches, St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, that first suggested the amendment and much of its wording to the national Presbyterian convention last year, said the Rev. John Huffman, St. Andrew's pastor, who helped write it.

Passage generally pleased such pastors as the Rev. William Craig of Burbank, who said the constitutional addition reflects "the biblical view" disapproving of homosexual activity.

"I was disappointed that it has not been passing by a greater margin, which indicates this is still a very controversial issue in the denomination," said Craig, pastor of the 400-member Burbank First Presbyterian Church for 19 years.

"We have lost the conviction that God has the power to heal sexual brokenness, whether we are talking about heterosexual or homosexual sex," Craig said. He said that he believes counseling and pastoral care not only can help heterosexuals curb adulterous or compulsive sexual activity but also rid gays and lesbians of their sexual orientation.

"Is it curable? Yes," said Craig, citing church-related ministries that make such claims.


Other church ministries disagree, citing research pointing to genetic factors. For example, the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church for decades has had a sympathetic ministry to the gay and lesbian community.

The West Hollywood mission won't change because of the new amendment, said the Rev. R. Stephen Jenks, interim executive for the denomination's Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, which is based in Los Angeles.

"There will continue to be a dialogue on how to do ministry with gays and lesbians," Jenks added.

The Rev. Gary Hindman, an Upland pastor who administers the Riverside Presbytery that favored the amendment by an 8-5 margin, conceded that the amendment "could sound like something out of the Inquisition" to those unaware of the intent of the Presbyterians' General Assembly, or annual convention.

"Presbyterians want people to really examine themselves--to set an ideal--rather than have the church peer over their shoulders," Hindman said.

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