First it was Reform rabbis, then United Methodists and Southern Baptists. Now, Presbyterians are scheduled to take up an issue that has dogged religious denominations throughout the spring--homosexuality.
The 212th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) convenes today in Long Beach amid controversy over whether its ministers should be allowed to bless same-sex unions.
Just a month ago, the church's highest court, known as the Permanent Judicial Commission, ruled that the church's constitution, the Book of Order, does not prohibit the blessing of such unions, provided the blessings are not confused with traditional marriage ceremonies between a man and a woman.
Now traditionalists within the 2.6-million-member denomination are intent on explicitly prohibiting same-sex unions through votes during the General Assembly, a once-a-year national legislative conference.
Earlier this week, amid groves of pine and eucalyptus trees at the hilltop Franciscan Serra Retreat Center overlooking the Malibu coastline, 40 stated clerks--the chief ecclesiastical officers of district presbyteries--gathered in advance of the Long Beach meeting to pray and talk about the issues confronting their church.
"How in the world do we work through this time when we have such deep, fundamental divisions?" asked the General Assembly's stated clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick.
The embroiling of so many denominations in debate over whether to ordain non-celibate gay men and lesbians, or to bless same-sex unions, reflects changes in the larger culture, Kirkpatrick said.
"There is both a broader awareness and, to some degree, acceptance of either homosexuality or relations among people of the same gender in society," Kirkpatrick said. That makes it a pressing issue for pastors, who are called upon to take a stand, either by blessing a union as a matter of pastoral care and local outreach, or by drawing a line in the sand.
"It has pushed all of us back to the Bible to try to discover God's word, to take a fresh look at what we're called to do," said Kirkpatrick, who said he personally would not officiate at such a service.
Kirkpatrick himself has lately come under criticism from conservatives who say he has failed to defend the Book of Order. He is opposed for reelection by the Rev. Winfield Jones, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Pearland, Tex. Kirkpatrick said his job is not to interpret the Book of Order. That role belongs to the court, which has now spoken.
The debate over homosexuality began 20 years ago in churches and has served both to define denominations ideologically in the wider culture and to divide them internally.
The blessing of same-sex unions was one of the issues that prompted supporters to disrupt the United Methodist Church's General Conference last month in Cleveland, where police arrested nonviolent pro-gay demonstrators, including two Methodist bishops. Many of those same activists, rallying under the pro-gay Soulforce movement, plan to demonstrate in Long Beach. Methodists voted 2 to 1 against blessing same-sex unions. Also last month, the Southern Baptist Convention--the nation's largest Protestant denomination--reaffirmed its stand against homosexual acts.
So far this year, only the Central Conference of American Rabbis--the rabbinical arm of Judaism's Reform Movement--has approved same-sex unions. It declared last March that a relationship between two Jewish men or two Jewish women is "worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual."
In each case, denominational leaders said, the outcome was predictable. But few are willing to predict what will happen at the Presbyterians' eight-day General Assembly, which will meet in the Long Beach Convention Center.
In 1994, the church's General Assembly approved a proposal to flatly bar same-sex unions. However, the proposal failed to win the necessary majority of the denomination's 171 presbyteries, or district governing bodies, which was needed for ratification.
Last month's ruling by the Permanent Judicial Commission that ministers are free to officiate at same-sex unions was hailed by gay activists and their supporters and condemned by traditionalists. The General Assembly is scheduled to take up three legislative proposals, known as overtures, to ban same-sex unions.
To avoid an immediate decision, the General Assembly could simply put off the issue for a year on grounds that last year's General Assembly called for a two-year moratorium on debate over ordaining homosexuals, a related issue.
But there are those among both conservatives and liberals who want to see the issue settled.
Traditionalists say that what is at stake is the veracity of Scripture. "Is it really a revelation of God, which has been our historical position, or is it just culturally influenced ideas of human beings that can change with whims and different feelings?" asked the Rev. Clark Cowden, executive presbyter of the San Joaquin Presbytery in the Central Vvalley.