The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is putting the issue of human sexuality to rest -- at least for another year.
More than 90 percent of the nearly 600 commissioners to the church's 203rd General Assembly voted here yesterday to kill a controversial report that endorsed sex between unmarried people and homosexuals.
Instead, they passed the issue to the church's more traditional Theology and Worship Ministry Unit, which will bring the matter of sex before next year's assembly.
After a week of unaccustomed national publicity brought on by the sex issue, the commissioners eventually accepted the recommendation of the church's human sexuality committee.
The committee recommended earlier in the day that neither the majority or minority reports of a 17-member special task force on sexuality be adopted.
The majority report became a cause celebre for advocating greater sexual freedom for unmarried people, including teen-agers and homosexuals. The minority report took a much more conservative approach to sexuality.
The vote, 534-31 with one abstention, followed 5 1/2 hours of parliamentary proceedings that left more than a few attendees with glazed eyes in the packed Convention Center hall.
The leadership originally allotted 100 minutes for debate, with voting scheduled before noon. Instead, dinner time was fast approaching when the final vote came. It was met by a standing ovation from many of the commissioners.
The action essentially shelved the sex issue for a year. A key provision of the sexuality committee's proposal calls for the church's Theology and Worship Ministry Unit to prepare a plan that will explore "the significant biblical, theological and ethical issues raised in the church around human sexuality in the past year."
The plan is to be presented to the 204th General Assembly next year in Milwaukee.
The assembly sent a clear message by turning the matter over to the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit -- namely, that the church's definitive sex statement be based on traditional church teachings, rather than on the special task force's liberal interpretation of the gospel.
The Rev. Gordon Stewart of Cincinnati, the moderator of the human sexuality committee, said the group "tried to find as much common ground without blowing apart the family of the church. Our request to the Theology and Ministry Unit is a way to work out these problems pastorally and humanistically, not legalistically and according to what the General Assembly tells people todo."
Stewart referred to what some church members perceived as an arrogant and dismissive tone in the majority report on sexuality.
The approved proposal also included several policy statements on sexual issues. They sought to define some positions, even while the church refers the general matter to the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit.
These statements embraced the idea of including "a variety of interpretive perspectives," a concession to the liberal wing, yet also affirmed "the Scriptures to be the unique and authoritative word of God, superior to all other authorities," a statement
The proposal states that the church will continue to abide by the 1978 and 1979 General Assembly positions on homosexuality, which holds that gays and lesbians are welcomed as church members but are ineligible to become deacons, elders or clergy.
Harlan Penn, the president of Presbyterian Lesbian and Gay Concerns, told the assembly that the 1978 and 1979 positions rendered homosexuals "second-class citizens of the church."
Another key element of the proposal is a pastoral letter from the commissioners to Presbyterian congregations. The letter explains the approved statement and will be read this month at churches throughout the United States.
During the proceedings, the Rev. Neil Smith of Pennsylvania made a motion that would have replaced the committee's proposal with a more conservative one. Smith's proposal, for example, urged the church to "affirm that sexual intercourse outside of heterosexual marriage is not in conformity to our Creator's intent or revealed will."
Smith told the assembly that the committee's proposal "falls far short" of a strong position that would discourage teens from premarital sex. His proposal was voted down by an 88 percent margin.
The commissioners also defeated a hotly contested motion that could have prevented the task force reports on sexuality from being entered into the assembly's minutes. Because more than 45,000 copies of the reports have been sold, efforts to keep them out of the minutes may have been moot anyway.
The gathering of elected representatives of the 2.9 million-member church opened last week and concludes tomorrow. Topics still to be discussed include interfaith relations, church government, international relations, justice issues, mission and evangelism, and budgetary concerns.