"Presbyterian Dissent"

by Mark Oppenheimer, editorial assistant on the staff of The New Yorker

[Moderator's Note: The following appeared in the Christian Century, May 7, 1997.]

When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced on April 1 that a majority of its 179 presbyteries [Moderator's Note: This appears to be a mistake in the article; there are 172 Presbyteries.] had approved Amendment B to its Book of Order, making heterosexual marriage a precondition for sexual activity by an elder, deacon or minister, the opposition was not caught by surprise. And gay men and lesbians - and their straight allies - are not taking the news quietly.

"They thought this would close the matter for the Presbyterian Church," says Timothy Hart-Andersen, pastor of San Francisco's Old First Presbyterian Church, the oldest Protestant congregation in California. "But with the District of Columbia Covenant of Dissent, our own Covenant of Dissent, the Rochester Declaration circulating, and the coming vote in Milwaukee [Moderator's Note: the vote on whether to become the first "More Light" Presbytery] - it's had the opposite effect." Hart-Andersen was summing up a series of actions that some Presbyterians have taken to weaken and, they hope, neuter Amendment B. The Covenants of Dissent Hart-Andersen mentions have been in the works since the church's General Assembly voted last summer to send Amendment B to the presbyteries for ratification. They are unofficial documents expressing a congregation's unwillingness to be bound by the amendment. Two have already been written, one coming out of Old First Presbyterian Church, the other written by the Stonecatchers (named to stand in contrast to stone throwers), a group of elders and pastors meeting in the National Capital Presbytery, which includes Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.

"We started the process in July, right after the General Assembly met in June and passed the egregious overture," said Madeline Jervis, pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. 'We started organizing to make statements, run ads, pressure people to vote against it. In December, when it became clear we might lose, we decided what kind of steps to take other than resign from the church, which we are not prepared to do."

Jervis's organization, which has "about eight to 15 regular members," then began to work in concert with the group at Old First Presbyterian. Hart-Andersen and friends had completed a document that they called a Covenant of Dissent. "When I faxed the San Francisco document to [the Stonecatchers]," Hart-Andersen recalls, "they liked the title, and for a day or two we thought of doing a joint statement. But to represent local manifestations of protest, we thought it would be more productive and truer to our grass-roots nature to encourage local sessions [churches] to do their own Covenants of Dissent." Jervis revises that history slightly, saying that the San Francisco document seemed too accommodationist. "We stole their title, but we didn't like the rest of it, so we wrote a different one.

While no sessions have yet voted to adopt a Covenant of Dissent, Old First Presbyterian is likely to do so; and on April 17 the Stonecatchers mailed their version to the 116 sessions of the National Capital Presbytery [Moderator's Note: as of 19 May about 44 sessions have signed Covenants of Dissent].

Will the "covenanter strategy," as Hart-Andersen calls it, catch fire? The dissenters see encouraging signs, perhaps the strongest of which is the 85 or so "More Light" churches- churches that pledge to ordain and call elders, deacons and ministers without regard to sexual orientation. There were 73 More Light churches as of the last General Assembly, and about ten more have come aboard since. On May 27 in Milwaukee, sessions of the Milwaukee Presbytery will vote on whether to become the first More Light presbytery.

The Covenants of Dissent and More Light churches are only the most visible signs of resistance to Amendment B, which will take effect on June 21 at the close of the General Assembly in Syracuse. Though a majority of presbyteries approved Amendment B, it is not at all clear that a majority of Presbyterians support the measure. Just as a victory in the Electoral College could mask a presidential candidate's loss in the popular vote, so too does the presbytery count do little to clarify the actual level of support among the rank and file.

Furthermore, the Presbyterians have a resourceful way with theology. Everyone I interviewed was keen to place the battle on the plane not of personal animosity but of scriptural disagreement. "To not follow our consciences is to be in ecclesiastical disobedience," stresses Virginia West Davidson of Rochester, New York, a former vice-moderator of the General Assembly and now co-moderator for advocacy of the More Light alliance. A common allegiance to the Reformed tradition, some dissenters hope, will enable Presbyterians to reach a peaceful consensus on the matter.

And they may have reason to be optimistic. In trying to enforce a strict moral traditionalism, Amendment B revises the historic relationship between individual congregations and the national body. Doctrine may be the responsibility of the assembled PC(USA), but the right of the individual church to call and ordain its pastor is also at the heart of the Reformed tradition. Says Hart-Andersen: "Our problem with Amendment B is partly that it takes from the session one of its historic obligations: which is to decide matters of ordination, to interpret matters of faith in ordination." Which is truer to Presbyterianism: to obey the wisdom of the church body or to reach into that body's tradition of protest? Those dissenting from Amendment B hope that even Presbyterians uncomfortable with different sexualities may be wary of ceding any portion of a session's traditional freedom.

One of the faithful has fashioned a career from that hope. "When you personalize an issue, it makes all the difference," says Jane Spahr, a "lesbian evangelist" with the mission That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS). "When they meet us - see that we value family, we value relationships - it makes all the difference." Ordained in 1974, she was "grandfathered in" by the 1978 General Assembly ruling that allowed those homosexual ministers already ordained to keep their clerical robes. But in 1991 her call to the Downtown United Church in Rochester, New York, was disallowed by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the PC(USA). Downtown United then teamed with Westminster Presbyterian Church of Tiburon, California (in Redwoods Presbytery, of which Spahr is a member in good standing), to found and fund TAMFS. Since March 1993 Spahr has toured the country, preaching, and meeting with Presbyterians.

Spahr's work is emblematic of the new dissenting movement in two ways. First, she has never considered leaving the Presbyterian Church. The predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church holds no appeal for her, nor does the Unitarian Universalist Association or the United Church of Christ, which allows ordination of gays. Jervis makes clear that the Stonecatchers "are not prepared" to leave the church; Hart-Andersen says that some of his worshipers discussed leaving but were quickly dissuaded.

Spahr is also, inevitably, working with the straight community. The movement against Amendment B is similarly inclusive and not limited to gay activists. Virginia West Davidson, a heterosexual, works closely with TAMFS and Spahr. Hart-Andersen is a married man. and Jervis says that the majority of the Stonecatchers are heterosexual. On January 12, 25 Presbyterians signed the 1997 Declaration of Reformed Faith, now known as the Rochester Declaration for the city in which it was signed. The manifesto says: 'We . . . reject the false doctrine that the gender of the partners in a sexual relationship is a sign by which its inherent worth and acceptability before God can be judged." Most of the signatories were not gay, and "The Gift of Sexuality," the rubric under which sexual orientation is discussed, is but one of ten sections; the other sections concern theological themes, such as "Grace Alone" and "Priesthood of All Believers."

Spahr is fond of quoting a rabbi's answer to the question of whether he took scripture literally. Reworking a famous remark by Reinhold Niebuhr, the rabbi said, "Madam, I do not take the Bible literally. I take it seriously." That view, the dissenters might say, captures their opposition to Amendment B.

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