At 2:30 PM, Sunday, April 15, 2012, Katie Ricks was ordained at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and became the first out lesbian to be ordained for ministry in the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) since an important change last year. Ricks has been serving as an Associate in Ministry at Church of Reconciliation -- also in Chapel Hill -- since her graduation from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA in 2002. Until recently, formal ordination was not possible for Ricks because of statements in the PCUSA's Book of Order.
"In 1978, when this issue was first debated, it was like a firestorm," said Rev. Dr. Tony Wolfe in an interview. Rev. Dr. Wolfe has been the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA since 2007. He is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Claremont Graduate University. "They came down really hard on saying, "no." Every year since then there has been some proposed amendment to the Book of Order, and it has always been shot down."
Tensions rose in the late 1990s, he explained, and it seemed that an irreversible blow had been inflicted upon members of the PCUSA who hoped for LGBT ordination. "In 1997, at the General Assembly in Syracuse, NY, an addition was made to the Book of Order that stated marriage as always being between a man and a woman, and that those who are not married must live in chastity. This fundamentally precluded LGBT persons from ever being candidates for ordination." In 2001, Ricks was joined in Covenant Union with retired police officer Paula Gibbs.
For the last 10 years, Ricks has done youth and children's ministries at Church of Reconciliation, a More Light congregation that has long advocated for the ordination of LGBT persons. Since ordination was not possible, however, Ricks could not officiate weddings or funerals, could not serve communion and could not perform baptism. This, no doubt, was a challenging and painful restriction. "I love the sacraments," she said in a recent interview. "They are very meaningful to me."
"The change happened at the General Assembly last year, May 2011," said Rev. Dr. Wolfe. "They took out the clause that was added in '97, and simply put that ordained persons must follow the teachings of Jesus Christ." This marked a monumental change for the PCUSA, one allowed LGBT persons -- people like Ricks who had been serving for years -- to formally be recognized by their churches and presbyteries as ordained ministers.
Unsurprisingly, the change did not come without conflict. "A number of churches want to leave the denomination and take their property with them," said Wolfe. "Many churches want to start a new denomination." While the likelihood of such action remains clouded, one thing is certain: "the door's open for LBGT people to be ordained, and it's happening."
Last fall, Scott Anderson of Wisconsin became the first gay man to be ordained in the PCUSA. Rev. Ricks is the first lesbian to receive the honor. She, Paula, and their five-year-old daughter Jordan live in Durham, NC.
Follow Todd Clayton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/todd_clayton