Presbyterians don't get any respect

rodney dangerfieldLast week the highest court of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled on a pretty contentious issue. I thought I'd wait a few days until more coverage of the ruling appeared in the mainstream press. But other than a few reports from veteran local religious reporters, I haven't seen much of anything. Apparently a church ruling on homosexuality is only interesting to the media when it happens in The Episcopal Church. A bit of background may be in order. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been engaged in debates over homosexuality, most notably over Amendment B -- a church law that says unmarried clergy must remain chaste. Some presbyteries have ignored the law.

Peter Smith, the Louisville Courier-Journal's ace religion reporter, always covers Presbyterian Church (USA) goings on as the denomination is headquartered there. Here was his story from last week:

Presbyterians may disagree with their church's ban on ordaining noncelibate gays and lesbians, but they must follow the rules, according to the Louisville-based denomination's highest court.

The decisive ruling means that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will allow no exceptions to the ban, ending the expectations of some that a controversial policy adopted in 2006 would allow regional governing bodies flexibility in enforcing the tenet on homosexuality.

The constitution gives "freedom of conscience" to disagree with church law, which restricts ordination to singles living in "chastity" or those living in "fidelity" in a heterosexual marriage, the court ruled.

But the constitution "does not permit disobedience to those behavioral standards," according to the court, known as the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.

Smith spoke with groups that applauded the decision and others that said they would once again try to repeal the ban on unchaste clergy. Smith does a great job of concisely explaining the background to the case and how it changes things:

The court made its ruling on a 2006 policy change that many had promoted as a compromise in the long battle over homosexuality in the 2.3 million-member denomination.

The denomination's legislative General Assembly that year adopted a policy that tapped into a historic Presbyterian tradition allowing candidates for ordination to declare a "scruple," or reservation, about a point in the Presbyterian constitution.

A church or presbytery considering the candidate for ordination would then have the option of ordaining the person if it decided the "scruple" didn't involve an essential tenet of the faith.

The policy got its first test cases last month when presbyteries in California and Minnesota gave approvals to openly gay candidates for ministry.

But appeals in those cases had barely gotten under way when the denomination's top court issued its ruling this week in a separate set of cases. Those cases involved presbyteries and congregations that declared -- without any candidates in mind -- that they would never ordain an openly gay candidate under any circumstances.

The case that was ruled on came from Pittsburgh. Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette used local clergy to explain the two sides of the debate: PCUSA

The Rev. Doug Portz, acting pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, was pleased that the ruling upheld the intent of Pittsburgh's resolution.

"There was concern in this and other presbyteries, in light of certain General Assembly actions, that the national standards for ordination would not be adhered to. This decision makes it clear that they are to be adhered to. For presbyteries to make super-standards is not necessary," he said.

The Rev. Randy Bush, pastor of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, one of those who had appealed the resolution through the church court system, called the ruling inconsistent. He said it upheld his arguments that a presbytery cannot determine what is an essential of the faith, and that candidates must be examined on a case-by-case basis. But he believes it failed to apply those principles.

"They have affirmed the overall process," he said. "Our disappointment is that they seem to be treating the sexuality questions different from the process they have just affirmed. That is a flaw, and we will look to see if the General Assembly, at its meeting in June, will address that."

The gay press covered the issue but why wasn't it big enough news for mainstream media? The Presbyterian Church (USA) even has a few hundred thousand more members than The Episcopal Church. I think the amount of coverage for The Episcopal Church is great -- but why are news events in other denominations left relatively ignored?

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