Over the past summer, several mainline Protestant denominations committed their constituencies to important ecumenical and gender-related policies, matters currently in the forefront of conflict in American religious institutions in general.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (2.7 million members) attempted to take a major step in reconciling the long-standing conflicts within its ranks over whether to ordain homosexuals to the clergy. A year before, that assembly had passed a resolution stating church officers must live”in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”
In 1997 the national assembly changed the wording to read that church officers should “demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships in life.” The changing of the word `chastity’ to `integrity’ was hailed by pro-homosexual spokespersons in the PCUSA as a major step forward for opening the doors of ordination to gays and lesbians, reports Christianity Today (Aug. 11).
The assembly also voted overwhelmingly to authorize the church to enter into full communion with three other mainline bodies, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church in Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. In early July the United Church in Christ in national assembly took a similar action, voting by a margin of some 700 to 10 to enter into “full communion” relations with the three denominations.
The vote culminated a long process of planning with the other church bodies for extended cooperation. Also the UCC discussed but took no action on a resolution that would have “encouraged fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness” as a standard for its ordained ministers. The vote was considered a victory for pro-gay forces in the UCC, according to the Christian Century (July 16-23).
In mid-July the Episcopal Church overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal that would bring their church into `full communion’ with the ELCA. Under the accord a clergy member of one denomination could serve a congregation in the other, both churches could pool resources for missions and social service, and Lutherans and Episcopalians could share the sacrament of Communion.
The assembly also endorsed a resolution stating that no bishop could refuse ordination to a candidate for priesthood in her or his diocese solely “on account of sex,” reports the New York Times, July 19, 1997). This motion is likely to cause considerable dissent among Anglo-Catholics and other conservative Episcopalians. Critics protest that making the acceptance of women priests required goes against the diocese-by -diocese practice the denomination has practiced, in effect, doing away with the “individual diocesan latitude,” says theologian John Ford in the National Catholic Register (Aug. 17-23).
Another resolution failed (though only by one vote) which would have prepared the way for a rite for same-sex marriages, according to reports in the Christian Century (July 30-August 7) and the Washington Post (July 26).
On Aug. 18 the 5.2 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stirred considerable controversy when it turned down the concordat for intercommunion with the Episcopal Church. At the same time, the agreement with the Reformed denominations was accepted. On the denomination’s non-official computer discussion group ELCA-L, supporters claimed that the rejection of the Episcopal “Concordat” was due to the anti-hierarchical stance of many Midwestern Lutherans and others who did not believe that church unity should necessitate a change in the ELCA’s structure (as in adopting the Episcopal Church’s apostolic succession of bishops).
The acceptance of the Reformed agreement is seen by some critics as diluting the sacramental nature of Lutheranism and propelling the ELCA further into the mainline Protestant orbit. Others viewed the decentralized nature of the Lutheran-Reformed agreement (requiring no changes in national structures) as signifying a more localized kind of ecumenism.
(Christian Century, 407 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60605; Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188; National Catholic Register, 33 Rosotto Dr., Hamden, CT 06514)
— This article was written with RW contributing editor Erling Jorstad