"Open Ordination: The Path To Peace In The Presbyterian Church"

by Gene Huff

Honorably Retired Member, Presbytery of San Francisco

former Executive Presbyter, San Gabriel and Western Reserve


By far the most intractable issue at stake in the Presbyterian church continues to be how its lesbian and gay church members are to be treated in regard to ordination. It is as rough a problem as has been faced in the church in at least 70 years. It is already evident that the passage of Amendment B will not resolve the conflict in spite of the hopes of its supporters. If a way could be found around this troubling issue, it would be a major step toward healing much of the brokenness of the church. What are the prospects? They may be better than has been recognized up to now.

A solution to this impasse may well be right in front of us. While it has up to now been set aside by a majority decision, an increasing number of church leaders believe it remains the most likely prospect for eventually resolving the issue in a way that preserves the unity of the church. What is this seemingly magical solution? The adoption of an open ordination provision in the church's constitution.

Open ordination is essentially a middle ground position. It allows the ordination of lesbians and gays in certain situations without mandating it for all. It restores ordination decisions to the congregations and presbyteries and permits lesbians and gays to be ordained in settings where that can receive support. At the same time it supports those congregations and presbyteries which are not prepared to take that step.

Amending the constitution to support open ordination would be saying to the opponents of ordination for lesbians and gays, "We hear you. You do not think it is right and you are not prepared to participate and that is acceptable. While your views are sincere, the sincerity of the advocates of open ordination must also be acknowledged if peace and unity are to be restored to the church. You are asked to view your disappointment at seeing some parts of the church opt for open ordination as neither greater, nor more important to the church as a whole, than the pain of gay and lesbian members who are qualified in every way but cannot now be legally ordained."

It is true that open ordination shifts the dialogue from the General Assembly level to the congregation and presbytery levels. Yet as the More Light movement has shown, congregations are quite capable of working through the issue and arriving at decisions they can live with. The result would be some open ordination congregations in many parts of the church, which is the primary goal of an increasing number of supporters of ordination for lesbians and gays. The same for presbyteries.

The truth is that we already have wide variances among our congregations and presbyteries as to what is the acceptable norm for how we do things. Some congregations rely heavily on Presbyterian curriculum and program materials, others do not. Some channel most of their mission dollars through the general mission system, an increasing number do not. Some presbyteries are tough on allowing candidates to attend non-Presbyterian seminaries, some are not at all. Some work hard to promote Presbyterian mission causes among their congregations, some are more relaxed about that. The notion that we are now in a locked-step position on policies and practices is false and hardly a basis upon which to insist that all congregations and presbyteries follow the same ordination practices. Many congregations need open ordination simply in order to be faithful to the mission and evangelism opportunities their parishes present to them. Presbyteries already manage considerable unevenness in their membership requirements quite well and should be capable of honoring the preferences of those presbyteries not wishing to participate in open ordination.

More and more Presbyterians are concluding that it is only a matter of time - it could be two to three years, it could be a decade - until open ordination becomes the official position of the PCUSA. As the popular voting on Amendment B demonstrated, the trend is clearly toward greater acceptance of open ordination. Further legislative efforts will eventually prevail, leaving the opponents of open ordination in the same position its supporters find themselves today. Opponents will then face the question of whether to remain and continue the battle or to settle for an open and affirming peace for the church.

The early responses to the passage of Amendment B clearly show that the issue is not going to disappear. Supporters of open ordination are going to remain and to continue their efforts to achieve a fully inclusive church - as long as it takes. They believe in their cause and they believe that the theological and Biblical positions supporting it are sound, while the theological and Biblical positions of the opponents are beyond the norms of Presbyterian theology as experienced in the last seventy years.

The question for opponents then becomes: how much continued turmoil should the church be put through in attempts to stave off the trend toward open ordination? One wonders what went on in the minds of those who had opposed the ordination of women for many years, when they saw their position's dominance eroding. What moving of the Spirit finally led enough of them to subside in their opposition so that the church could move forward in that more inclusive direction?

As Dean Lewis said in a brilliant Presbynet note recently: "The consensus is slowly emerging that the exclusion of those whom God creates homosexual is itself the rebellion against God that constitutes the serious sin - and history teaches that God does not allow such open defiance to stand forever." There is never going to be a way out of this predicament short of agreement to disagree, coupled with an effort in the church at large to provide some way for both sides to achieve a result they can at least live with. Proponents of open ordination do not expect every church or every presbytery to participate in the ordination of lesbians and gays. But in the long range of concern for the church's health and unity, the only hope is for opponents finally to recognize that some congregations and presbyteries will do so.

All who love the Presbyterian Church and are committed to remain in it will eventually recognize that the best interests of Presbyterians are served by relinquishing the attempt to control the church's position on ordination at the General Assembly level. It comes down to a matter of what you can live with in the interest of unity. Of course the argument can be turned around. Cannot lesbian and gay supporters finally sit down and shut up? Yet history and our theology, as Lewis points out, are always on the side of movement toward inclusion rather than exclusion.

If we are honestly looking for a way toward peace in the Presbyterian Church, open ordination is the path to follow.

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