Episcopal church leaders on Tuesday rejected a temporary ban against gay bishops, while Presbyterians agreed to let local and regional governing bodies decide whether to ordain gay or lesbian ministers.
The actions by the churches’ governing assemblies could cause further rifts in denominations already coping with theological divisions over homosexuality and declining membership.
The Episcopal House of Deputies, composed of more than 800 lay leaders and clergy, has been meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members in the U.S., is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Leading Anglican officials had asked the U.S. church to approve a temporary ban on gay bishops after V. Gene Robinson, who is gay, was elected bishop of New Hampshire three years ago. His election outraged conservatives, who constitute a minority in the U.S. church but who dominate some congregations overseas.
Robinson is the nation’s only openly gay Episcopal bishop, though in May, two gay men and a lesbian were among six finalists to become bishop of a Bay Area diocese.
“I was very pleased that they voted it down,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who was at the meeting.
Bacon, in a telephone interview, said conservatives who want to stay with the Anglican Communion were disappointed by the vote. “I would say right now the church is significantly polarized,” he said.
The nation’s largest Presbyterian group, meeting in Birmingham, Ala., approved the new policy that enables local and regional church bodies to approve the ordination of gays and lesbians on a case-by-case basis.
While leaving intact a church law that requires ministers and lay leaders to practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness,” representatives of Presbyterian Church USA voted 298-221 to adopt the measure.
In effect, the policy creates a loophole that would allow gays and lesbians to serve as ministers, even though the policy does not endorse gay clergy.
“It’s a compromise that allows the church to live together in peace,” said the Rev. Jon Walton, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York.
But the Rev. Donald Baird, a pastor from Sacramento, said he was concerned that the new policy would undermine church unity. “We used to act as one church,” Baird said. “Now we’ll have 11,000 churches.”
The policy gives sessions (boards of trustees of local churches) and presbyteries (regional governing bodies) leeway to decide who can serve as pastors, as well as deacons and elders. But such decisions are subject to review by administrative and judicial bodies.
“What has changed is to give some added authority to the local presbyteries and sessions in making those judgments,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters in Louisville, Ky. “But it is also crystal clear that the fundamental standards don’t change. And those standards are the same in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Birmingham or anywhere they’re carried out.
“Certainly, there will be differing judgments in different locations and different mission situations as to what is essential for the ordination of people in ministry.”
Attempts by liberals to rescind the requirement of fidelity in marriage and chastity for singles failed in 1998 and 2002.
At Tuesday’s meeting, numerous efforts by conservatives to defeat or delay the measure failed.