The breakthrough for Presbyterian gays?

One would think, after decades of liberal Protestant battles about sexual morality, that each and every American journalist who comes near one of these stories would have the basic facts down pat.

Not so, as we see at the top of the Los Angeles Times mainbar on the latest incremental change in the teachings and polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). First, let’s look at that double-stacked super headline (assuming that it reflects the understanding among copy-desk folks and other editors):

Presbyterian Church votes to allow gay ordination

The ratified measure will allow the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders, while giving regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.

OK, veteran GetReligion readers will already have spotted the main problem, a misunderstanding that runs deep into this story. Is it really true that regional PCUSA have not been ordaining any gay, lesbian and bisexual pastors? If that is the case, then why are there so many of them? Even in leadership posts, on campuses and in denominational offices?

Well, that’s a complex question.

First of all, it has always been possible to ordain homosexuals who — for whatever reasons in their own beliefs — were willing to live within the teachings of their church and centuries of traditional Christian doctrine. In other words, those who were committed to not having sex outside of the sacrament of marriage.

Also, it’s clear that some regional bodies in the mainline church have — the term tossed around for several decades has been “local option” — simply looked the other way and have been willing to ordain whoever they wanted to ordain, using their own modernized doctrinal standards. Some have been more open about this than others. Still it has been a reality since, oh, the early 1980s.

So what precisely has the PCUSA done? Let’s keep hunting. This is the top of the story.

A debate that has raged within the Presbyterian Church for more than three decades culminated Tuesday with ratification of a measure allowing the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders, while giving regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.

With the vote of its regional organization in Minnesota, the Presbyterian Church USA became the fourth mainline Protestant church to allow gay ordination, following the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches and the United Church of Christ. The Minnesota vote was closely followed by one in Los Angeles.

Same problems, right. Let’s keep hunting. There are the usual paragraphs on the historic nature of the change, comparing this step with the ordination of women and, yes, racial integration.

Finally, more than halfway into the report, one hits some additional information.

The amendment ratified … changes language in the Presbyterian constitution regarding the “gifts and requirements” of those ordained, whether as clergy or in the lay positions of elder and deacon. Since 1997, the constitution has required those seeking ordination to be living “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” Now, it will simply require church officials to examine “each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office.”

That gives enough leeway that even the amendment’s advocates say it is likely to mean that more-conservative presbyteries will continue to deny ordination to gays and lesbians.

Bingo. So what happened? The “local option” approach has simply gone public — for gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are not willing to honor “chastity in singleness.” And “local option” will now be the practical defense of those on the doctrinal right. That’s the big change.

Yes, that also points straight to bitter battles over changing doctrines about the definition of marriage as well (Say hello, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America!) as about whether it is moral for same-sex couples to have sex BEFORE their covenant rites. How does one define terms such as “faithful” and “monogamous”?

In other words, this news story is actually about a tweak in the system and many important doctrinal edits remain to be openly made by liberal PCUSA leaders in seminaries, bureaucracies, etc. And these battles will continue at the regional levels. As one traditionalist noted:

The Rev. Mark Brewer, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian and another opponent of gay ordination, said he didn’t think the vote would cause any immediate crisis in the church. “I think this is a tectonic plate slowly separating, more than a big earthquake,” he said.

So how hard is it to get the language straight? Not very hard at all. Let’s look at the lede of this Nashville Tennessean report, featuring some familiar names for GetReligion comment-box readers:

FRANKLIN, Ky. – The Presbyterian Church USA became the latest Protestant denomination to allow non-celibate gays and lesbians to serve as pastors.

It’s about the doctrine folks. Pay attention.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • gfe

    The Associated Press managed to get the key component of the measure in its lede: “After decades of debate, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Tuesday struck down a barrier to ordaining gays, ratifying a proposal that removes the celibacy requirement for unmarried clergy …”

  • Will

    So, does this mean that the Swedenborgian Church in North America is not “mainline”, or, like the Ron Paul campaign, has simply been declared an nonentity?

    If the former, then not all members of the NCCC are “mainline”. If so, who is in this exclusive “mainline” club? …

  • tmatt


    No, American church historians have been using “mainline” as a technical term for the “seven sisters” of US faith for many, many decades.

    See the following:

    Some writers now call them the “oldline” churches because they are in decline and aging, while other bodies are closer to the population center of American Protestantism — such as the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptists.

  • Will

    Is that “technical” or “arbitrary”?

    I went to the Wikipedia article at the top of the search, and found that “the Association of Religious Data Archives” “considers” the UFMCC to be “mainline”. But not us. Clear as Gowanus Canal.

  • tmatt

    No, those were the major churches on which American Protestantism was built — period. That’s an accepted historic fact.

    For example, the Puritans/Congregationalists have now become the UCC — but they are still in the Seven Sisters.

    The Presbyterians have mixed and matched, but their main body remains a Seven Sister, so to speak. You’re fighting several centuries of writing here.

    Let’s move on. The issue now is whether to leave out the larger churches that are the new mainline.

    The other question is whether the old mainline is now the SIDELINE, in light of decline and the reality that is the post-denominational age.

  • Matt

    Tmatt, you seem to be saying that this isn’t such a big deal as the MSM is making it out to be. But it seems to me that it is quite a big deal. Sure, some presbyteries have been ordaining gays against policy, and maybe your point is mainly that that should have been mentioned, but now it is policy. That’s a major watershed change.

  • tmatt

    It’s a pretty big story — an open step toward changing THE DOCTRINE of the church.

    But it has to been seen in context. It essentially legalized the status quo.

    Would it have passed WITHOUT the local option for the traditional regions of the church? That’s a question I have not seen asked yet.

    My main point, however, is that much of the coverage IS INACCURATE, for the reasons cited.

    Compare the LA and Tennessean ledes. See a factual difference?

  • Jerry

    The LA Times story got it wrong on many levels, as you point out. But in addition to pointing it out, you editorialized on your own: “Yes, that also points straight to bitter battles over changing doctrines about the definition of marriage as well (Say hello, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America!) as about whether it is moral for same-sex couples to have sex BEFORE their covenant rites. How does one define terms such as “faithful” and “monogamous”?”

    The terms faithful and monogamous apply to heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships. Questions about whether same-sex couples have sex before their convenant rites should have no more relevance than whether opposite-sex couples have sex BEFORE marriage: I can’t recall much discussion of the latter.

    The story might have pointed out that one consequence of this change might be that homosexuals might come back to the Presbyterian church. The reporter might have interviewed some homosexuals about this.

  • Xander

    As a PC(USA) Presbyterian (and while the Nashville Tennessean got the substance right, it got the name of the denomination wrong), I think there’s a lot more nuance to this story than anyone in the press is picking up on, or perhaps should be expected to pick up on.

    Part of the backstory is that for most of American Presbyterian history, it has been understood that sessions have the prime responsibility of deciding who should and should not be ordained elders and deacons, and presbyteries have had a similar responsibility with regard to ministers. Denomination-wide standards have been limited to things like adherence to the Reformed confessions or, for ministers, educational requirements. I know of many ministers and elders who are not necessarily proponants of the ordination of non-celibate gays, but who opposed the “fidelty and chastity” provision because they saw it as upsetting the historical balance of where decisions are made and/or because they saw it as inappropiately singling out only one specific form of sin as a bar to ordination.

    So I think the repeal of the fidelity-chastity provision is best seen as resulting from three sometimes separate, sometimes overlapping camps — those who support the ordination of non-celibate gays, those who believe the fidelity-chastity amendment (only adopted in 1997) was fundamentally inconsistent with historic understandings of Presbyterian polity, and those who believe the fidelity-chastity provision emobodied hypocrisy by singling-out one or two sins as bars to ordination.

  • Matt

    Yes, both the Tennessean and the LATimes missed the parentheses in “Presbyterian Church (USA)”, but at least the Tennessean led with the church’s proper name. The LATimes gave the proper name only on the second mention, and otherwise used the more general and inaccurate “Presbyterian Church”.

    As a PCA Presbyterian, I think it would have been a useful piece of background to mention that the PC(USA) represents 7 of 10 Presbyterians nationwide, but someone more impartial should probably judge that.

    Xander makes a good point about presbyteries being widely considered the proper place for ordination decisions to be made, though the 1997 amendment could be justified as clarifying the historical standards rather than adding to them. Tmatt, coming from a hierarchical polity, talks of the “local option” as if it were an aberration of some kind, but it is actually the bedrock of Presbyterian tradition.

  • melxiopp

    …committed to not having sex outside of the sacrament of marriage.

    All married Protestants, regardless of sexual orientation are religiously “committed to not having sex outside of the sacrament of marriage” – with the exception of some Anglo-Catholics. That is, marriage is not held to be a “sacrament” in many, most or all Protestant denominations.

  • melxiopp

    Duh, correction.

    All married Protestants, regardless of sexual orientation, are religiously “committed to having sex outside of the sacrament of marriage”.

    The “not” should have been removed.

  • Matt

    melxiopp, while you are technically correct (most Protestants affirm that only Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacraments), the distinction is not useful. Remove the word “sacrament”, and Tmatt’s statement is perfectly valid.

  • tmatt


    Actually, “local option” to the degree of violating CHURCH LAW has not been normative. UMC is still wrestling with that, of course, with more Anglican DNA in the church history.

    In the 1980s, at the time of the merger (I was in Charlotte NC covering that, which was ground zero), it was the Northern church that really pushed for more of this national policy, hierarchical standard — sort of. An irony. But religion news is full of irony.

  • Matt

    Of course presbyteries have never been considered free to violate church law, but Xander’s point is that some may have objected to the national-level law precisely because it violated the tradition of local control of this issue. You, on the other hand, point out a very relevant irony in that argument.

  • Xander

    Matt, I totally agree that stories like these need to distinguish between the PC(USA), PCA and other Presbyterian bodies. And I also agree that the fideliy-chastity provision could be seen as clarifying what had always been the unwritten standard — that’s certainly how its proponents viewed it. My point was just that the debate has been about more than yes or no on gay ordination; it’s also been about how we understand our polity. And in that regard, I think that tmatt is right that part of what we’re seeing is differing understandings inherited from the pre-reunion Southern and Northern streams being played out.

  • melxiopp

    Matt, this is a site all about the use of accurate language in religion coverage. The use of the term “sacrament of marriage” regarding Christians who do not view marriage to be a sacrament is simply an example of truly how difficult religion coverage can be – even when the thrust and intent of the statement is otherwise perfectly valid, and even by a master of religious journalism (and its critique).

  • Randy

    So it seems this isn’t about gays at all. Dropping the requirement for “chastity in singleness” means heterosexual men and women can be ordained and while involved in sexual relationships. Even the line about being faithfully married is gone. So someone who has been married and is now with someone they are not married to would be eligible as well. They don’t even need to be divorced. Everything goes.

    Of course on a practical level not everything goes. Local sessions will insist on some standards. The real news here is the church no longer feels able to articulate anything concrete about what those standards should be. That is unremarkable in today’s relativist mindset but not to long ago that would have been unthinkable.

  • Ann Rodgers

    This may not be an earthquake in San Francisco or New York, but for many presbyteries (such as Pittsburgh) that are predominantly conservative but with a liberal minority, it will make a very real difference.
    Partnered gay elders and deacons in those more liberal congregations will no longer have to be closeted in wider church circles. That makes a huge personal difference. I suspect that there are many more congregations that may have wished to ordain partnered gay deacons and elders but have refrained out of genuine respect for church law. They are now free to go ahead.
    I’d be surprised if Pittsburgh Presbytery (which is very conservative) will vote to ordain or install an openly gay minister any time soon. But I suspect some congregations will move to test that. It could make for far more fractious presbytery meetings than when this was treated as an issue, rather than as a person. From where I sit, this is a game changer.

  • Harold

    Before we adopt the politically-loaded “old line” descriptor, journalists will need a clearer sense of what that means. In addition to the Mainline churches, does it also include aging, declining denominations and churches that are more conservative like the LCMS and the largest branches of U.S. Orthodoxy?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Randy makes a good point. On some other sites I go to the big talk is about the words the Presbyterians used to make the Gay change. Many believe that Church is creating a virtual doctrine of “Everything goes.”
    But I saw little of that aspect of it in the media.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Harold: Not really sure what your issue is with the term “mainline” Protestant (or oldline; it means pretty much the same thing. It is a pretty well accepted concept in American religious sociology, and even the greenest reporters can find its meaning without difficulty. had the following to say:

    This term refers to a group of moderate-to-liberal Protestant denominations: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). [...] The term “mainline” harks back to a time when this mostly white group was tied to the political and cultural establishment. Since the 1960s, membership in most mainline denominations has fallen precipitously, as has their influence.

  • C. Wingate

    Peter Ould caught something that all these news stories missed: they actually did away with any reference to marriage or sexual relations in the passage in question. The questions referred to in the newer version likewise lack any such language. Therefore presumably you could live in a plural marriage or pretty much any other relationship that the presbytery doesn’t condemn. My guess was that this was intended to cover couples who live in states that don’t do any kind of same-sex unions, but others have told me that, no, the intent on the part of some was to eliminate any characterization of what a proper relationship is. At any rate the constant reference to this as specifically authorizing gay/lesbian pastors shows that the reporters either didn’t read the changes, or that the extremity of the change didn’t register on them.

  • tmatt

    Don’t forget that in the mid-1980s, the PCUSA briefly floated a sexuality document that went so far as to hint at theological justifications for adultery being acceptable if led by the Holy Spirit, or words to that effect.

    Yes, it was shot down. I wish that doc was online.

  • Will

    How can I be “fighting several centuries of writing” if “the term was apparently coined by William Hutchison” in a 1989 work, according to the reference you directed me to? Not to mention that two of the Gang of Seven have not existed for HALF a century, and two more only slightly longer?

    Statisticians (like Bradley Wright in CHRISTIANS ARE HATE-FILLED HYPOCRITES… and Other Lies” which I am now reading) keep breaking down into “Mainline Protestants” and “Evangelical Protestants”. If this follows the definition by enumeration, all “Protestants” outside the Gang of Seven are “evangelical”, including PCA, continuing Congregationalists, the Reformed Churches, and Quakers. As the saying goes, I find that hard to believe.
    (And, of course, the Eastern churches are unpersons, as usual.)

  • Harold

    Jon, I have no beef with the term “mainline.” The term “oldline” is more troubling because (a) it’s clearly prejorative and political and (b) it’s unclear. If the definition is denominations with aging and declining membership, does the phrase include the LCMS? The Greek Orthodox? The Russian Orthodox? The Church of Christ?

  • C. Wingate

    maybe it is, Jerry, and maybe it isn’t. The point is that if you look at the text of the change, they didn’t just strike out the reference to a man and a woman; they struck out every last bit of language having to do with marriage or celibacy. So it does what you say it does, but it does a great deal more, if you take the language that’s in the Book. I guessed a practical political reason for that, but if I were a reporter, and I looked at the actual change, I would have asked someone about that.

  • Jon in the Nati


    Oldline and mainline are virtually equal and co-extensive terms. Oldline is not necessarily pejorative or political; it doesn’t refer only to the aging of the adherents, but also to the fact that these churches (or their predecessors) have deep roots in American history. They are the so-called ‘heritage denominations’, formed through movements in other countries and brought here through immigration.

    The term is exclusively Protestant; it does not include Orthodox churches, or any of the more conservative Protestant denominations.

  • Jerry

    C. Wingate, you are right: the reporter should have asked about the effects of the change. However, I know Presbyterians and the More Light campaign to change the language of the “fidelity/chastity” provision, and I am certain that the effect of this change will not be that the Presbyterian Church (USA)will suddenly begin ordaining adulterers and fornicators and polygamists. What is being offered here is the old “slippery slope” argument: once you remove racial or sexual or orientation barriers, then you’ll wind up permitting people to marry their cats or their mothers.

  • Xander

    C. Wingate, the PC(USA) Directory for Worship — also part of the Book of Order — still (for now, some might say) defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. So nothing about this vote changes that,

    What was changed was language having to do with requirements for ordination. Until 1997, that requirement had never, so far as I know, made any mention of marriage or chastity or fidelity. Fidelty in marriage was included in the 1997 amendment specifically so that the amendment wouldn’t be addressing gays only. What this vote has done is make the language of the Book of Order more like it was before 1997. Of course, the context has changed.