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Religion

Presbyterians Vote to Retain Ban on Gay Ministers

Clergy: Effort to revise rules, eliminating any reference to sexual behavior, is defeated.

March 21, 1998|NONA YATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Members of the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination have voted to keep a church law adopted just last year that effectively bans the ordination of gays and lesbians as church ministers, elders or deacons, officials report.

The church rule, Amendment B, adopted in June at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), stated that church leaders must live "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."

Shortly after passage, delegates voted 328 to 217 to send a substitute proposal to the nation's 173 presbyteries, or regions, that would have overturned the controversial amendment.

The now-defeated Amendment A stated that church leaders must "demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life," thus eliminating any specific reference to sexual behavior.

Reports from regions throughout the country showed that the voters--ministers and elders of the 3.6-million-member denomination--were defeating the amendment by a 2-1 ratio.

"The amendment has lost, but the issues it was addressing are still here," said Pamela Byers, executive director of the San Francisco-based Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group of mainline ministers, elders and members formed in the fall of 1997 to support passage of Amendment A and the general mission of the Presbyterian Church.

"There are many churches who support our vision of the church that are in a dilemma because of [Amendment B]. We believe it is theologically unsound," she said.

Although the controversy has largely focused on the ordination of gays and lesbians, the wording of Amendment B also bars sexually active single heterosexuals from holding church office.

Proponents of Amendment A view the church's law as it now stands as a narrow view that may force people out of the denomination. Decisions about whom to ordain are best left with those who know the candidates, they argue.

In Florida, a Presbyterian congregant has taken his church's leadership to church court for ordaining an openly gay man as an elder in their Fort Lauderdale church.

Others in the church are satisfied with the defeat of the proposal and see current church law as an affirmation of traditional biblical Scripture.

"I think the defeat of Amendment A means that the church is speaking out even more strongly in favor of biblical standards of sexual morality," said the Rev. William Craig, pastor of the 400-member Burbank First Presbyterian Church.

"[Amendment B] affirms God's intent for sex within marriage. It is what the church has always maintained. Amendment A . . . is an attempt to soften traditional standards," he said.

Despite the defeat, Amendment A proponents say they will continue to resist what they see as a "rightward drift" in the Presbyterian Church and have outlined plans for theological conferences at next year's General Assembly.

"We are waiting to see what happens in this coming year," Covenant Network's Byers said.

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