Presbyterians Confront Exodus over Sexuality

Article excerpt

The last time Presbyterians held their national convention in Pittsburgh, in 1958, the event featured two of their largest denominations joining powers.

When they arrive this week to open their 220th General Assembly, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- the country's largest Presbyterian denomination with 1.95 million members -- will do their best to stem an exodus over issues surrounding sexuality and the church.

Church leaders expect same-sex marriage to spark the most heated debate at the biennial conference that begins on Saturday and runs through July 7 in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. Gay ordination, same-gender partner benefits, immigration and Israel- Palestine relations are among the roughly 800 items of business to address.

"The whole question of what to do with same-sex people has been a topic of discussion in the denomination for decades in one form or another," said the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, pastor of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which includes 145 congregations and 37,000 members in Allegheny County. "I think there is a lot of energy and tension around the issue, much like is reflected in the larger society."

The General Assembly, the church's governing body, will consider several proposals concerning same-sex marriage:

- Confirm the denomination's definition of marriage as "between a woman and a man" and require a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority for amendments to the church's constitution to take effect

- Endorse a constitutional amendment to change the marriage definition to between "two people," which would require ratification, or

- Issue an authoritative interpretation, which does not need to be ratified, that would allow pastors to officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies in states where gay marriage is legal.

The Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Church (USA) is the latest mainline Protestant denomination to address same-gender issues, following the Episcopal and Lutheran churches.

In 2010, the Presbyterian assembly endorsed a measure to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ministers and lay leaders. A majority of the denomination's 173 presbyteries, or regional bodies, last summer voted to allow congregations and presbyteries the option of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy.

"The chances that would happen here are highly unlikely," Sorge said. The Pittsburgh Presbytery voted 2-1 to reject the change.

More than 100 congregations across the country -- including several in Western Pennsylvania -- have left the church in recent years during debate over same-sex issues, lowering the number of congregations nationwide to 10,466.

'Traumatic'

"These changes are traumatic for the church and some people cannot abide by them," Sorge said.

He and other leaders vowed to do all they can to keep disgruntled congregations from leaving to join smaller, more conservative Presbyterian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in America or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Both ban gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

"It's always been part of our conversation, a rallying cry of sorts, to have unity in diversity," said the Rev. …