"More Light Churches Network Supports Local Dissent Instead of a National Strategy on Gay and Lesbian Ordination"

by Alexa Smith

PCUSA News, June 5, 1997


PORTLAND, Ore.--Leaders of the Presbyterian Church's gay-and-lesbian-affirming More Light Churches Network (MLCN) are not pursuing a national strategy for resisting Amendment B, the commonly called "fidelity and chastity" amendment, MLCN leaders told approximately 250 representatives to the network's annual conference here, May 23-25.

Instead the 80-member-congregation MLCN will focus its efforts on supporting congregations and presbyteries that are dissenting from the constitutional amendment passed this spring by a majority vote of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s 172 presbyteries. The amendment excludes gays and lesbians and sexually active but unmarried heterosexuals from church office.

"That [dissenting actions] is all happening from the bottom up. It's not being directed by national gay/lesbian organizations. It's spontaneous local organizing," Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (PLGC) co-moderator Scott Anderson told the Presbyterian News Service.

So national organizations like PLGC and the MLCN will be looking for ways to back local initiatives -- such as increasing support for inclusive churches in presbyteries where the Amendment B vote was close and creating a legal fund to defray costs and to help locate attorneys for those who many face judicial action.

"General Assembly work over the next three to five years will be minimal. We're not going to see any progress [in reversing the Amendment B vote]; we don't have the votes," said Anderson, acknowledging that he believes building support for votes "further down the road" is what is needed now.

Though most MLCN and PLGC spokespersons don't soft-pedal the fact that Amendment B would probably have passed by a wider margin if it had addressed the question of gay/lesbian ordination only, they point quickly to what MLCN co-moderator the Rev. Richard Lundy calls "ferment" that is emerging after the Amendment B vote.

 

"We don't have a long-term strategy -- our leadership is trying to catch up with the Spirit," he said, alluding to at least two covenants of dissent that are circulating throughout the PC(USA). According to one version of the covenant, dissenting sessions and indviduals "cannot agree to abide by the recently passed amendment." Twenty-eight sessions had filed dissents, which were written in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) at press time -- an action that the OGA is warning may subject ordaining bodies to legal action in church courts. MLCN spokespersons are estimating roughly 40 signatories and expect that number to grow.

Milwaukee Presbytery is the only middle governing body to approve a covenant of dissent, voting to do so by a 2-1 margin May 27. New York City Presbytery passed a resolution pledging to support and work with sessions who must "in good conscience" dissent from Amendment B, and a similar resolution was strongly passed by Genesee Valley Presbytery.

At press time, other on-record protests of the Amendment B passage included an ecumenical statement by Christians attending the fourth Fosdick Convocation on Preaching and Worship at The Riverside Church in New York City and a remedial case reportedly filed by National Capital Presbytery seeking a stay of enforcement of the amendment until the Assembly's Permanent Judicial Commission rules on its constitutionality.

What isn't clear is what consequences dissenters may face once Amendment B has become a part of the denomination's constitution on June 21 at the close of the Syracuse General Assembly. Some expect that previously tolerant presbyteries may be pushed to discipline dissenting churches. Others speculate the real pressure will be applied to candidates for ministry and to already ordained gay clergy when they pursue subsequent calls.

The Rev. Jack Haberer of the Amendment B-supporting Presbyterian Coalition told the Presbyterian News Service that "words of dissent and protest are appropriate," particularly for those who are grieving because of the amendment's passage. However, he continued, "determined disobedience to the constitution is problematic" because "defiance of governing bodies dismantles church government and church unity." He said he is urging dissenters to "at least live within the constitution while trying to change it" and urging supporters to demonstrate forbearance.

"More Light churches have always known there's some cost for what we believe is faithfulness," said Lundy, adding that at least 10 churches have joined the network since all the hubbub surrounding the amendment's passage. Network leaders are concluding, according to Lundy, that "being quietly inclusive" is not the way to proceed. "That cost might be higher now. ... What are the chances of us being found irregular, inappropriate? What are the chances of charges being brought?

"I don't know," he added, "but we have the structures in place to provide legal support and counsel."

Though formal dissents have actually been filed by a minuscule percentage of the denomination's churches to date, those going public vary from the 141-member Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York City, which reaffirmed the ordination of its openly gay and lesbian elders in a service that was open to media coverage, according to Cliff Frasier, the church's soon-to-be-ordained associate, to the traditional 290-member Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California's oldest Protestant church. Its minister, the Rev. Timothy Hart-Anderson, said the Old First session just finds this particular amendment, as the covenant says, "inconsistent with Reformed faith and polity."

Elder Barry Smith of Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago said the session's decision to dissent was a "pastoral act as much as a political one," hoping to persuade gay members wondering whether to leave to remain in the church.

For Hart-Anderson, who is the principal author of the San Francisco-generated covenant of dissent the strategy to not strategize nationally makes good sense. "The only place Amendment B is going to have any impact is locally. The General Assembly does not enforce ordination standards. Congregations and presbyteries do," he said, pointing out that some congregations will choose to dissent and others may just quietly decide to not raise questions about the sexual lives of potential church officers.

In brief remarks to the predominantly white MLCN gathering, PC(USA) stated clerk the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick said, "I'm not quite sure how this will work out. But I'm grateful you are part of this church." He acknowledged that he "never dreamed" the amendment would pass, but that he intends to be stated clerk to the whole denomination, including its gay community.

On the fringes of the conference and in panel presentations, MLCN and PLGC members tossed around other dissent possilibities, with longtime activist Chris Glaser pushing for gay Presbyterians to withhold mission dollars and to invest them in MLCN/PLGC projects, as well as joining him in a Eucharist fast until the amendment is rescinded. Clergy activist the Rev. Howard Warren proposed looking at the creation of a nongeographic gay/lesbian presbytery.

PLGC co-moderator the Rev. Laurene Lafontaine told conference attendees that the strategy to "very much let [the issue] percolate" has caused "some tension as well" in the MLCN/PLGC leadership. She insisted, however, that the inclusive nature of the movement itself resists top-down management.

Anderson agreed, adding, "This movement is a messy, disjointed ...wonderful effort." He described the current mood to the Presbyterian News Service as a "collective mulling. There's not," Anderson said, "a clear direction ... but there are things happening."



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