The breakthrough for Presbyterian gays?

One would think, after decades of liberal Protestant battles about sexual morality, that each and every American journalist who comes near one of these stories would have the basic facts down pat. Not so, as we see at the top of the Los Angeles Times mainbar on the latest incremental change in the teachings and polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). First, let's look at that double-stacked super headline (assuming that it reflects the understanding among copy-desk folks and other editors):

Presbyterian Church votes to allow gay ordination

The ratified measure will allow the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders, while giving regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.

OK, veteran GetReligion readers will already have spotted the main problem, a misunderstanding that runs deep into this story. Is it really true that regional PCUSA have not been ordaining any gay, lesbian and bisexual pastors? If that is the case, then why are there so many of them? Even in leadership posts, on campuses and in denominational offices?

Well, that's a complex question.

First of all, it has always been possible to ordain homosexuals who -- for whatever reasons in their own beliefs -- were willing to live within the teachings of their church and centuries of traditional Christian doctrine. In other words, those who were committed to not having sex outside of the sacrament of marriage.

Also, it's clear that some regional bodies in the mainline church have -- the term tossed around for several decades has been "local option" -- simply looked the other way and have been willing to ordain whoever they wanted to ordain, using their own modernized doctrinal standards. Some have been more open about this than others. Still it has been a reality since, oh, the early 1980s.

So what precisely has the PCUSA done? Let's keep hunting. This is the top of the story.

A debate that has raged within the Presbyterian Church for more than three decades culminated Tuesday with ratification of a measure allowing the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and lay leaders, while giving regional church bodies the ability to decide for themselves.

With the vote of its regional organization in Minnesota, the Presbyterian Church USA became the fourth mainline Protestant church to allow gay ordination, following the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches and the United Church of Christ. The Minnesota vote was closely followed by one in Los Angeles.

Same problems, right. Let's keep hunting. There are the usual paragraphs on the historic nature of the change, comparing this step with the ordination of women and, yes, racial integration.

Finally, more than halfway into the report, one hits some additional information.

The amendment ratified ... changes language in the Presbyterian constitution regarding the "gifts and requirements" of those ordained, whether as clergy or in the lay positions of elder and deacon. Since 1997, the constitution has required those seeking ordination to be living "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Now, it will simply require church officials to examine "each candidate's calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office."

That gives enough leeway that even the amendment's advocates say it is likely to mean that more-conservative presbyteries will continue to deny ordination to gays and lesbians.

Bingo. So what happened? The "local option" approach has simply gone public -- for gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are not willing to honor "chastity in singleness." And "local option" will now be the practical defense of those on the doctrinal right. That's the big change.

Yes, that also points straight to bitter battles over changing doctrines about the definition of marriage as well (Say hello, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America!) as about whether it is moral for same-sex couples to have sex BEFORE their covenant rites. How does one define terms such as "faithful" and "monogamous"?

In other words, this news story is actually about a tweak in the system and many important doctrinal edits remain to be openly made by liberal PCUSA leaders in seminaries, bureaucracies, etc. And these battles will continue at the regional levels. As one traditionalist noted:

The Rev. Mark Brewer, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian and another opponent of gay ordination, said he didn't think the vote would cause any immediate crisis in the church. "I think this is a tectonic plate slowly separating, more than a big earthquake," he said.

So how hard is it to get the language straight? Not very hard at all. Let's look at the lede of this Nashville Tennessean report, featuring some familiar names for GetReligion comment-box readers:

FRANKLIN, Ky. -- The Presbyterian Church USA became the latest Protestant denomination to allow non-celibate gays and lesbians to serve as pastors.

It's about the doctrine folks. Pay attention.

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