In 2011, a majority of presbyteries voted to replace language in the PCUSA Constitution (G-6.0106b) that was intended to bar partnered gay and lesbian church members from serving in ordained office. The new text is permissive. No new teaching about human sexuality is included. Rather, recognizing how deeply divided the church remained on these matters, the new section of the Constitution was framed to respect the conscientious convictions of both sides and to permit a diversity of ordination practices.
A commitment to freedom of conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is deeply rooted in Presbyterian tradition. Those of us who advocated changing or interpreting the Constitution to permit ordination of partnered GLBT members and, later, same-gender marriage emphasized over and over that the proposed changes would not force any minister or council to say or do anything they deeply believed to be wrong. The fact that the ordination amendment would not force the views of one theological party on the other had a great deal to do with its passage. One pastor said to me during the debate: “I struggle with the ordination question because of my reading of Romans 1. But I have to pay attention to other scriptures too, such as Romans 14:4 where it asks ‘Who are you to judge?’ and assures me that the Lord will judge. As long as we let the Lord do the judging, I can live with this.”
When the changes came, the church’s leaders repeated the assurance of freedom of conscience: The “integrity” of all Presbyterians will be honored, wrote the Stated Clerk and other officers on the day that the ordination measure passed, even as the door is opened to ordinations that were banned before. That protection has enabled many congregations and clergy who cannot approve the ordination or marriage of those in same-gender partnerships to remain in the PCUSA. It also seemed right to many of us who wanted ordination and marriage policies to change. We knew what it was like to be prevented by church law from acting on convictions that were rooted in our understanding of scripture, and we had no desire to do that to others.
I am writing now because a measure is coming before General Assembly that breaks the promise of freedom of conscience that is an integral part of the new constitutional provisions for ordination.