Presbyterian blessing of gay union upheld

U.S. body's ban on rites is voided in regional vote

March 15, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Presbyterian ministers may continue to perform holy union ceremonies for gay couples after the defeat of a proposal to ban the rites, which was favored by conservatives pushing for a stricter interpretation of church doctrine.

The unofficial tally this week overturns the action of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the annual gathering that sets policy for the 3.6 million-member denomination, which narrowly voted last summer to end holy union ceremonies.

In order for the ban to go into effect, it had to be affirmed by a majority of the denomination's regional bodies, called presbyteries. As of yesterday, 87 of the nation's 173 presbyteries voted against the proposal, known officially as "Amendment O," thus ensuring its defeat. The Baltimore presbytery was among those that voted against the proposal.

Presbyterians voted against a similar ban in 1995.

The Presbyterian church still prohibits gay marriages, but a ruling last year by a church court affirmed an existing practice when it held that same-sex union ceremonies were not prohibited by the church constitution as long as they were not equated with marriage.

Liberal Presbyterians welcomed the news of the defeat of the proposed ban on same-sex unions, but stopped short of interpreting it as a sign that the denomination is moving toward embracing the idea of gay marriage and the full inclusion of gays and lesbians.

"The primary reason Amendment O was defeated was it was an extraordinary intrusion into the prerogatives of pastors and sessions [the governing bodies of particular congregations]. It wasn't just about holy unions," said the Rev. Laird Stuart, a San Francisco pastor and co-moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which worked for the defeat of Amendment O.

"It says no pastor or church officer shall take part in any event on church property or anywhere else that would be construed as offering a blessing to anything other than heterosexual marriage," he said.

"That is telling pastors who they could or could not be with and offer some blessing for. It's telling a session what they could and could not allow to happen on church property."

A recent survey conducted by the Presbyterian Church showed that 57 percent of its members and about half of its pastors believe that ministers should be prohibited from performing a ceremony that blesses the union of two people of the same sex.

Bill Giles, executive coordinator of the Presbyterian Coalition, a conservative group that favored banning same-sex unions, said opponents of the proposal were able to obfuscate the issue by focusing on its intrusive implications.

"The coalition believes that Amendment O is a theological statement in support of the sanctity of marriage, whereas the opposition to O sees this as strictly a political problem. Or at least they have presented it in political terms," Giles said. "I believe they twisted the intent of the amendment to be something other than what it was intended to be. They misled a lot of Presbyterians."

The defeat of Amendment O has given some liberal Presbyterians hope for passage of proposals at June's General Assembly in Louisville, Ky., to overturn a 1996 measure that requires church officers to practice "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." That "Amendment B" effectively prohibits the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.

The Rev. Donald E. Stroud, Baltimore director of That All May Freely Serve, a Presbyterian outreach for gays and lesbians, said the defeat of the ban on holy unions is an important step to overturning Amendment B.

"Going into this General Assembly in Louisville, I think this will set a tone that the church wants to be inclusive," he said.

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