Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The Presbyterian Church’s Journey Toward LGBT Equality

The Presbyterian Church, one of the mainline Protestant denominations in the United States, has been struggling for decades—along with many other religious institutions—over how inclusive it should be with its congregations’ LGBT members. But the church’s recent conference should give the gay rights movement cause for hope that the arc of history may be bending toward justice sooner than they might think.

Last week in Minneapolis the U.S. Presbyterian Church, or PCUSA, held its 219th General Assembly, a biennial convention in which Presbyterians come together from across the country to worship and discuss church bylaws and policy. This year the church took important steps toward becoming a truly inclusive and just place of worship and community for its fellow LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Representatives voted to allow ordination of LGBT church leaders, extend benefits to same-sex partners of church staff, and increase education and awareness regarding HIV/AIDS.

The passage of a proposed change to the PCUSA constitution that would allow LGBT people to be ordained as leaders (ministers, deacons, and elders) in the church was one of the most exciting votes of the assembly. The current constitution, until amended, forbids sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage. The proposed amendment drops that requirement. Now a majority of U.S. presbyteries—governing bodies of ordained church ministers and elders—must pass the amendment for it to become church law.

Accompanying this document being sent to presbyteries is a pastoral letter stating, “As we heard story after story, our awareness of the marginalization of members of the LGBT community by our churches has been heightened. We repent for this neglect in the demonstration of the love of Christ to these individuals.”

The assembly also recommended greater education and awareness on HIV/AIDS to reduce stigma and discrimination. Among the recommendations was that all Presbyterians be tested, including church leaders. A floor amendment was also approved to create and disseminate educational materials to increase understanding and inclusion of HIV-positive members of congregations.

During the assembly representatives also voted on whether to allow discussion of expanding the church’s definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, the proposal didn’t pass—the issue was essentially tabled for the rest of the assembly with a narrow 51 percent of the vote.

The assembly’s collective opinion was clearly anything but one-sided, however, given how close the vote was. It’s disappointing that the General Assembly didn’t vote for full marriage equality, but it’s still a step forward for LGBT equality that there was significant division on the issue. What’s more, marriage equality was introduced for discussion at the assembly in 2008—only two years ago. LGBT rights advocates could very easily be in the majority within a few years.

Last but not least, the assembly passed an overture directing the Board of Pensions to extend benefits to same-gender spouses and domestic partners of church staff. The generational divide was stark on this issue. Older church leaders were on both sides of the debate, but young church leaders seemed almost uniformly in favor of extending full benefits to same-gender partners.

This overture, coupled with the earlier vote against more inclusive language for marriage, paints a picture of a church moving toward full LGBT equality but not quite able to commit to redefining the traditional understanding of marriage to which most Christian denominations have ascribed.

The Presbyterians’ progress last week got little media attention—probably because anything less than changing the definition of traditional marriage might not seem worthy of headlines. Even so, such progress is important to recognize. Not long ago, mainline churches such as the PCUSA were much more monolithic in their opposition to gay and lesbian equality. Now, according to a Pew research poll, a majority of mainline Protestants say that society should accept homosexuality.

LGBT equality in mainline Christian churches is seeming more and more sure with the progress made at this recent Presbyterian conference and polling showing increasing religious acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Marta Cook is a Fellows Assistant to the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative and the Progressive Studies Program.