Friday, April 21, 2006

Pittsburgh Presbytery meeting 04-06: 3. Cincinnati overture

When the Pittsburgh Presbytery met on April 20, 2006 at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary it handled its most controversial piece of business fairly early in the meeting. The fact that it failed to concur with the Cincinnati Overture On Amending the 1978 Policy Statement of the UPCUSA and the 1979 Position Paper from the PCUS by Deleting Certain Statements by a vote of 135-84 was the focus of the story in Friday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

For the benefit of non-Presbyterian readers of my blog, an overture is a resolution adopted by a lower governing body asking a higher governing body to do something. In this case the overture from Cincinnati Presbytery was asking the General Assembly to amend two almost identical policy documents adopted by the PCUSA's predecessor denominations. The policies were adopted by the two churches in 1978 and 1979 to deal with the question whether a governing body could ordain a homosexual. Both churches came to the conclusion that they should not, and the policy statement and position paper in question describe the rationale that led those churches to that conclusion.

Since the adoption of the two documents, the rules have become more entrenched in the life of the PCUSA, and a version of a portion of these policies is now a part of the church's constitution. Debate continues about whether the church has reached a conclusion that reflects the mind of Christ.

The Cincinnati Overture proposed that seven "inhospitable" statements be removed from the two policy documents. The seven statements are not part of the policies that were adopted, but simply part of the rationale. Their deletion will leave the rules intact but standing on the basis of a smaller rationale.

The statements proposed to be deleted are:

1. “We conclude that homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity. This we affirm, despite the fact that some of its forms may be deeply rooted in an individual’s personality structure” (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1979, Part I, p. 262; Minutes, PCUS, 1979, Part I, p. 203, lines 108-110).

2. “In many cases homosexuality is more a sign of the brokenness of God’s world than of willful rebellion. In other cases homosexual behavior is freely chosen or learned in environments where normal development is thwarted” (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 262; Minutes, PCUS, p. 203, lines 111-114).

3. “Even where the homosexual orientation has not been consciously sought or chosen, it is neither a gift from God nor a state nor a condition like race; it is a result of our living in a fallen world” (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 262; Minutes, PUCS, p. 203, lines 114-116).

4. “As we examine the whole framework of teaching bearing upon our sexuality from Genesis onward, we find that homosexuality is a contradiction of God’s wise and beautiful pattern for human sexual relationships revealed in Scripture and affirmed in God’s ongoing will for our life in the Spirit of Christ” (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 262; Minutes, PCUS, p. 204, lines 174-178).

5. “Homosexual persons who will strive toward God’s revealed will in this area of their lives, and make use of all the resources of grace, can receive God’s power to transform their desires or arrest their active expression” (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 263; Minutes, PCUS, p. 205, lines 197-200).

6. “Yet the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life” (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 263; Minutes, PCUS, p. 206, lines 239-240).

7. “On the basis of our understanding that the practice of homosexuality is sin, we are concerned that homosexual believers and the observing world should not be left in doubt about the church’s mind on this issue during any further period of study” (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 264; Minutes, PCUS, p. 207, lines 324-328).

Part of the debate involved concerns that the Overture would require amending the report of a committee 28 years after it finished, or even amending the published minutes of the General Assembly. Readers of this blog will remember a recent discussion this week of the topic motions to amend something previously adopted. A governing body can change its mind about something it has previously decided. It does not have to amend the minutes (although even they can be amended if they are wrong) but it can change its mind about what it want to say on an issue. The necessary vote depends on whether the body has notice of the proposal in advance of the meeting. Cincinnati Presbytery has sent their overture to the General Assembly in a timely way, so a simple majority of those voting at the General Assembly would be necessary to make the proposed change.

While we were voting at the Presbytery meeting, an observor sitting next to me asked me what the effect of concurring would be. It was a good question, Pittsburgh's failure to concur does nothing to stop Cincinnati's overture from reaching the General Assembly. If we had concurred, the papers given to the commissioners to the General Assembly would include the statement that we concurred, and we would have been able to appoint an overture advocate to support the proposal in the committee that handled it.

My answer was not complete. Deacon Carol Untch from the East Liberty Presbyterian Church (one of the three churches sending the overture to the Presbytery), and the chairperson of the Presbytery's Task Force on Ministry with Sexual Minorities made an important point in her presentation of the overture. She said that it "gives a message to people we know in Pittsburgh". Although the intended hearer of the overture is the General Assembly, there are bystanders listening in on our church-wide conversation. They hear snatches of what we have to say to each other, and what they hear influences their perception of the PCUSA as a welcoming church.

As a survivor of 20 plus years of debates of this issue, I had some concerns that a debate about deleting inhospitable statements was almost an invitation for there to be more inhospitable statements made. With the exception of one unfortunate statement in the debate that compared homosexuality to murder, I think we came through it pretty well.

There was a difficult point when it came time to vote and a request was made for us to use paper ballots. During the previous year the moderator had ruled that the request for paper ballots was sufficient to require them to be used. This year Moderator Carol Divens Roth consulted with our stated clerk Jay W. Lewis, who advised her that there was not a right to use paper ballots, but that the the Presbytery could vote to use them. I think the stated clerk was correct.

But what surprised me was the vote of the presbytery against using paper ballots. In my experience presbyteries have recognized that the privacy of a paper ballot protects conscience as well as the unity of the body. The decision not to use paper ballots felt to me like a power move to deter those in the minority from voting their conscience. It did not change my vote. I've been in the minority before, and I am sure I will be again, but I hope that there were not others who were held back from voting the way they thought Christ would want them to vote.

My other articles about this meeting: 1 2 3 4 5

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W. said...

I'm confused. I read your post and I read the P-G story and I still can't figure out if the forces of let's-make-the-church-gay-friendly want the statements removed or preserved.

Stewart said...

Sorry for leaving things confusing.

The forces of let's-make-the-church-gay-friendly want the statements removed from the position papers.

W. said...


Have you noticed the television commercials lately _ I can't remember if they're for the United Methodists or the United Church of Christ _ that essentially advertise that they're gay friendly?

Religious marketing. I'm not sure what to make of it.

Stewart said...

I have not seen those commercials. Can you remember when you saw them?

W. said...

Found it:

I could swear I've seen a slightly less edgy one too for the United Methodist Church.

Stewart said...

Thanks. That was nice.

They have more at

The UCC can make commercials like those in a very legitimate way.

The United Methodists are in a bind similar to the Presbyterians with policies that are officially welcoming into membership, but that maintain barriers to service in an ordained capacity.