An historic change will take place in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on Sunday when a measure takes effect allowing openly gay men and women in same-sex relationships to be ordained as clergy.
The change, which was approved by a majority of the church's regional bodies in May after contentious debate in the 2.8-million member denomination, is being marked by a day of prayer at dozens of churches.
"We are entering a new era of equality," said Michael Adee, the executive director of More Light Presbyterians, a Minnesota-based church group that has pushed to allow openly gay clergy. "Across this country members of welcoming and affirming congregations and ministries are telling the stories of faithful candidates who can now be considered for ordination."
The new rules, which also apply to elders and deacons, do not require churches to ordain gay candidates, but they remove barriers to their ordination that were written into the church's constitution. The old text of the church's Book of Order banned non-celibate clergy who did not live "within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman." That prohibition was added in 1997.
The new Book of Order does not mention gay clergy, but it removes a requirement of chastity for non-married clergy. It places more emphasis on character traits such as a "candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability" and presbyteries' powers in picking ministers.
Pro-gay clergy advocates said that they don't expect any ordinations to happen Sunday, as the change is a technical one and Presbyterian seminarians are traditionally ordained once they find employment. But Adee said he knew of several closeted gay clergy who are planning on coming out because of the new rules.
"Presbyterians are buzzing everywhere around the country," said Paul Mowry, a 49-year-old gay seminarian from New York City who will likely be one of the first gay clergy ordained after the measure's passage. Mowry, who comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers, said he had wanted to be a minister since childhood but put those aspirations on hold after coming out of the closet in high school. He left the banking industry in 2005 to become a seminarian and is currently applying for ministry positions.
The change codifies practices that have already existed in more liberal Presbyterian communities in the United States. While current church rules officially don't allow non-celibate gay clergy, they have been still been ordained in some presbyteries.
"The New York Presbytery has been ahead of the curve on this and would have ordained me, but any other presbytery would still have been able to reject me," said Mowry, who added that the change offers a "level of protection" for him and other gay candidates for ordination.
The amendment passed last year at the church's general assembly in Minneapolis amid heated debate, with 53 percent of delegates voting to approve, but the amendment needed the approval of a majority of the church's 173 regional bodies. Gay Presbyterians celebrated in May when Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area's pro-amendment vote tipped the scale in favor of pro-gay clergy church members. By June, Providence Presbytery became the last to vote in favor of gay clergy, making the 94 presbyteries in total that voted for the constitutional change.
Despite celebrations, homosexuality is still a contentious issue among Presbyterian leadership. A majority of presbyteries defeated a measure to allow gay clergy two years ago. At the Minneapolis meeting in 2010, a slight majority voted against defining the church's stance on marriage as between "two people" instead of a "man and woman." Another vote on marriage is expected to arise at the denomination's General Assembly in 2012.
Conservative Presbyterians, such as Presbyterians for Renewal, have spoken out against the new measure, but they have not indicated that they will leave the denomination en masse. Rifts over gay clergy have led to splits in other denominations, most notably in The Episcopal Church.
"This revision of our Book of Order signals a massive change ... from the beliefs and practice of the historic and global church," the Louisville, Ky.-based group wrote in a statement. "We who are committed to holding fast the clear teaching of scripture must pray and work all the more to discern how to move forward with biblical faithfulness in and for a denomination that has lost its way.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the latest of several Protestant denominations that have dropped bans on gay clergy. Others include the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church.
A smaller denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, does not ordain women or openly gay clergy.
Read the full text of the amendments below:
New amendment to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order
Standards for ordained service reflect the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates
Old amendment in to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Order
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament