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Church body approves ordaining gays, lesbians

Regional group votes at meeting in B.G.

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    Darlene Bevelhymer of Bowling Green reads the Bible in a balcony pew before a meeting with the members of the regional body of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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    John Pike, center, of Maumee speaks with other members of the Maumee Valley Presbytery before a formal discussion on permitting gays and lesbians to be ordained.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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Church-body-approves-ordaining-gays-lesbians

Darlene Bevelhymer of Bowling Green reads the Bible in a balcony pew before a meeting with the members of the regional body of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
Enlarge | Buy This Image

BOWLING GREEN -- The regional body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 67-39 Tuesday in favor of ordaining openly gay or lesbian pastors, but the proposed amendment must be approved by a majority of the nation's 173 presbyteries to take effect.

"I was surprised by the margin of victory," said the Rev. Lewis VanderNaald, pastor of Bluffton Presbyterian Church and a member of the Maumee Valley Presbytery's dialogue committee. "Two years ago, we voted on another [similar] amendment and the margin of support was only seven votes."

That 2009 vote marked the first time the local presbytery, which has about 75 churches and 12,000 members in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, approved an amendment to church law that would permit the ordination of gay ministers. That amendment was defeated nationally with 95 presbyteries voting against it and 78 in favor.

Pam Byers, executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, said Tuesday that, of the 67 presbyteries that have voted on the amendment thus far, 37 have approved it and 30 have voted it down. Six of those presbyteries shifted from "no" votes in 2009 to "yes" votes this time, while one went from a "yes" vote in 2009 to a "no" this year.

"We're ecstatic, but there's still 100-some presbyteries to vote," said Ms. Byers, whose San Francisco-based group is promoting the measure, known as Amendment 10-A, on a national level.

Tuesday's vote culminated a daylong meeting of the Maumee Valley Presbytery in the sanctuary of the historic First Presbyterian Church on Church Street, following a worship service with hymns, communion, a luncheon, and several hours of civil discussion on a bevy of proposed church laws and issues.

Discussion on the issues was brief and controlled: Each speaker was limited to 90 seconds at the microphone.

While Amendment 10-A does not specifically mention sexual orientation, it would replace one in the Book of Order -- the denomination's constitution-- that does.

The proposed language states that the church's governing body "shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates."

Mr. VanderNaald said after the vote that no congregation would be forced to choose a gay or lesbian pastor, but they would have the freedom to do so if they wanted.

"No longer can the local presbytery look at the Book of Order and say, 'You're violating our rules,' because hopefully that rule will be extinguished," he said. "This will allow us to live together with our differences."

The Rev. Clint Tolbert of First Presbyterian of Maumee was one of a handful of speakers opposing the amendment.

"My concern is not primarily what this amendment may say or may not say about issues of sexuality. My concern foremost is about what this amendment may or may not say about our relationship, both personally and the church, to Scripture," Mr. Tolbert said.

Church-body-approves-ordaining-gays-lesbians-2

John Pike, center, of Maumee speaks with other members of the Maumee Valley Presbytery before a formal discussion on permitting gays and lesbians to be ordained.

The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
Enlarge | Buy This Image

The Rev. Kathleen Splitt, co-pastor of First Presbyterian in Adrian, spoke in favor of the amendment, saying, "There are biblical scholars on both sides of the issues. … There is no agreement on what the Bible says. … So I think this amendment allows us to differ on what the Bible says and stay in unity in Christ, which is more important than anything else."

The Rev. Gary Saunders of First Presbyterian, Bowling Green, said, "This isn't just a theoretical issue; this is about real people sitting in the pews."

Marcy St. John, an elder at First Presbyterian of Bowling Green, compared the ordination of gays and lesbians to the church's reversal on the ordination of women.

"Our denomination is theologically split on the subject of sexual orientation," she said, "but the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not split on the call to love our neighbors. Let us err on the side of love."

The 173 presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest of Presbyterian denominations and which has almost 2.8 million members nationally, will finish voting on Amendment 10-A by July, although the fate of the proposed amendment could be determined as early as May.

Presbyteries are also voting on whether to adopt the Belhar Confession, a 1986 statement of faith that arose out of South Africa as a response to apartheid, which calls for Christians to make a commitment to justice.

The Maumee Valley Presbytery approved the adoption of the Belhar Confession by a 79-26 vote.

To be added to the denomination's Book of Confessions, it must be approved by two-thirds of the presbyteries, and the General Assembly also must vote to accept it at its 2012 meeting in Pittsburgh.

The issue of ordaining gays and blessing same-sex unions has been hotly debated in most mainline Protestant denominations in recent years, and in some cases has caused church splits.

The issue came to the forefront in 2003 when the Episcopal Church installed an openly gay cleric, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

Locally, St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Maumee quit the ELCA last year after the national body approved ordaining gays and blessing same-gender unions.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.

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