In preparation for a vote on the ordination of sexually active gay people, members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) testified for hours Monday about their experience with and beliefs about homosexuality and its relationship to the Christian faith.
Although they were not all able to speak Monday, 229 people signed up to address a legislative committee at the church's annual General Assembly.Some gay people told of being rejected by the church they loved for being what God made them. Others spoke of their gratitude that God had transformed them from homosexuality to either heterosexuality or celibacy, often with what they said was little help or support from the church.
Speakers went back and forth about whether biblical condemnations of same-sex intercourse were meant to apply to loving, monogamous relationships between two adults and about whether homosexuality is inborn or acquired. Some emphasized that the church must accept all people, others that church members are required to struggle against their sinful tendencies.
Christine Shaw, a member of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, spoke against changing the church's ban on gay ordination. Shaw said she had been devastated by the loss of a two-year relationship with a man who left her because he was bisexual. Afterward, she joined a group for "sexually broken" people to repent and "through (God's) grace re-establish my chastity as a single Christian woman."
Through that group she has met homosexual clergy who are desperate for help to break out of that lifestyle, she said. Approving the ordination of sexually active gay people "does not serve either the clergy or our members as they wrestle with sexual brokenness or provide the opportunity to know the forgiveness, freedom and fullness found only in Christ," she said.
A gay man who has the AIDS virus, which killed his partner of 12 years, asked committee members to consider whether the church's rejection of homosexuality was responsible for fostering an ultimately deadly promiscuity in the gay community.
"We were given no moral role models ... We searched, we experimented and now we die," said Tom Ziegert of California.
The Presbyterian church forbids the ordination of "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals" as ministers, deacons or elders, although celibate gay people can be ordained. The issue has been fought repeatedly at General Assemblies over the past 20 years.
Three years ago, the General Assembly voted to take a three-year break from debating the issue while a churchwide, grass-roots study was conducted. That temporary vow of verbal celibacy ended this week. The General Assembly received 45 proposals related to gay ordination, 20 of which ask that each presbytery and congregation be allowed to decide for itself whether it will ordain gay people. One asked that the moratorium on debating the issue be extended until 2000.
A recent poll by the church showed that 65 percent of pastors, 67 percent of members and 74 percent of elders - members who govern each congregation - opposed gay ordination. Among clergy who work outside a congregation, 53 percent opposed it. However, opposition to gay ordination had fallen 10 percent to 15 percent in each category since 1990.
In an attempt to summarize the avalanche of proposals on the matter and to ensure a decision in harmony with broader church law, the denomination's Advisory Committee on the Constitution outlined three options for this General Assembly.
One would insert in the church's Book of Order a stipulation that standards for ordained ministry require "fidelity in the covenant of marriage between one man and one women, or chastity in singleness."
The second option would amend the Book of Order to leave the choice of whether to ordain homosexuals up to each presbytery and congregation.
The third option would be to send both of those proposals to all 171 presbyteries and allow them to vote. Whichever was approved by a majority of presbyteries would become the law of the church.