- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A Presbyterian Church (USA) national assembly voted yesterday to let local bodies that wish to have homosexuals serve as clergy and lay officers do so, despite a denominational ban on homosexual ministers.

A measure approved 298-221 by a Presbyterian national assembly keeps in place a 1997 church law that says clergy and lay elders and deacons must limit sexual relations to marriage.

But the new legislation says local congregations and regional presbyteries can exercise some flexibility when choosing clergy and lay officers of local congregations if sexual orientation or other issues arise.

The decision concluded a hard-fought struggle lasting years between liberals and conservatives in the 2.3-million-member denomination. Ten conservative caucuses allied to fight any change but lost two last-ditch efforts to kill or delay the measure.

Thirteen evangelical caucuses issued a joint statement that the assembly’s actions “throw our denomination into crisis.” They said this “marks a profound deviation from biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support, or tolerate it. We will take the steps necessary to be faithful to God,” the groups said.

The Presbyterian establishment, including all seminary presidents and many officials, promoted the local autonomy plan, which was devised by a special task force. The idea is to grant modest change to liberals but mollify conservatives by keeping the sexual law on the books.

It’s not clear whether that will work.

“We have been painfully aware that in some ways our greatest challenge was not preparing for this assembly but preparing for what happens after this assembly,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters, told delegates after the votes.

The Rev. Blair Monie of Dallas, who chaired the committee dealing with the issue, said, “This is not an ‘anything goes’ proposal. In fact, it will make the examination of officers more rigorous.”

But a series of conservative delegates disputed that.

“When the constitution is set aside and something mandatory is reduced to something optional, it destroys the constitution,” said Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of a book opposing homosexual relationships.

Mr. Gagnon said the denomination had reached “a transition point” that broke from Jesus’ teaching on man-woman monogamy.

Pro-homosexual youth delegate Jamie Moon of Oregon said she found the assembly debate disheartening. She said she became Presbyterian because “Jesus Christ was love. Jesus Christ was acceptance. He said come to me and be my disciple.

“He wants us to love everybody. Raise your hand if you’re not a sinner,” she told the assembly.

In 1997, the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a measure that said ministers must practice fidelity if married and chastity if single, which was supposed to exclude active homosexuals from the ministry. But the measure divided the church and several congregations have defied it, usually resulting in formal complaints to regional bodies that sometimes lead to discipline.

For example, Raymond Bagnuolo was ordained in November at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and is serving as pastor of the Palisades Presbyterian Church. But when Mr. Bagnuolo, an open homosexual, was asked during his ordination ceremony whether he would abide by church laws, he said yes, except for the fidelity and chastity measure.

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