It Doesn’t Work: Presbyterian Church USA
by Aaron Vriesman
LGBTQ ideology has divided one church after another: Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Mennonite Church USA, United Methodist Church, Church of the Brethren, Reformed Church in America.
In this series, we will look at some of their stories. Each one shows how legitimizing alternative sexualities in the church is a mix of oil and water. It simply does not work. Another case in point: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) was organized as a merger between two Presbyterian denominations that separated during the Civil War. The northern United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) and the southern Presbyterian Church in the United States officially joined together on June 10, 1983 in Atlanta, Georgia. The combined membership topped 3.1 million. Since then, developments in the PCUSA serve as yet another painful and profound illustration of two realities: first, that compromises on sexuality are invariably connected to a much broader erosion of biblical authority and faithfulness; and second, that competing visions of biblical sexuality cannot remain under the same denominational umbrella. In short, it doesn’t work.
Signs of Decay
Signs of theological decay were already present prior to 1983. The southern Presbyterian branch had already shed members and churches into the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church officially organized in 1981 out of concern that both northern and southern Presbyterians were no longer holding to their basic standards of belief. Ordination in the UPCUSA only required affirmation that the Bible is "God's Word to you." In 1974, UPCUSA ordination candidate Walter Wynn Kenyon informed the Pittsburgh Presbytery that he could not participate in women’s ordination services. The presbytery narrowly ordained him but in 1975 the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly overturned the presbytery. In 1981, the same court approved Mansfield Kaseman’s ordination despite his unwillingness to affirm the deity of Christ, the Trinity, bodily resurrection, the sinlessness of Jesus, and Christ's death as an atonement for sin. In 1979 the UPCUSA church order was amended to mandate election of women elders in all sessions. Those who would not ordain women as elders were being denied ordination. Zeal for evangelism had significantly dried up. UPCUSA had 1400 missionaries in 1958, but only 300 in 1980.
Nevertheless, a sizeable contingent decided to stick around and hold fast to orthodoxy in the “big tent” of the PCUSA. It would prove to be a long losing war of attrition.
On June 18, 1984, the PCUSA Permanent Judicial Commission ruled in favor of Westminster Church of Buffalo and their open and affirming policy when the Western New York presbytery brought charges. The Commission ruled the denominational ban on gay clergy unconstitutional, saying the ban goes against “the constitutional power of each congregation to control the selection of its own officers for ordination. The Church is committed to inclusiveness, and segments of the membership cannot be excluded except by constitutional amendment.” The Commission would reverse this ruling in February of 1985.
Orthodox stances on sexuality were reinforced at the 1985 General Assembly, which voted down an amendment to the church constitution that would have protected homosexuals from employment discrimination. Additionally, the General Assembly declared all homosexual acts are inherently sinful regardless of the nature of the relationship or the degree of commitment.
“Fidelity and chastity”
By 1993, exhaustion prevailed. A three-year moratorium on homosexual ordination was called. 1996 came and the orthodox won a tremendous victory when the General Assembly voted 313 to 236 to approve a report calling homosexual practice a sin and adding requirements to the constitution that officers must practice sexual “fidelity and chastity.” The majority of the 172 presbyteries would approve this the following March.
The official wording was as follows:
“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of Word and Sacrament.”
The “fidelity and chastity” amendment brought plenty of angst. Chris Glaser, a homosexual leader of the Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns called the vote “spiritual abuse.” Rev. Myra Kazanjian of Pittsburgh said, “We are asking people again: 'Don't ask. Don't tell. Let's live our lives in secrecy.' I don't believe that is the Gospel.” Kazanjian was among 300 people who marched through the hall at the Albuquerque Convention Center to protest the vote. After the vote Friday, hundreds of gay and lesbian church members and leaders gathered to sing, “We Are Staying in the Church of God.''
“A lot of people will leave,” said Sandy Martin, an elder from Pittsburgh. “I don't think they realize what kind of pain they bring to gays and lesbians. One of the things that could happen is the church could split on the issue.”
But the PCUSA would not split over drawing firm lines. The 1997 General Assembly gave final approval to the “fidelity and chastity” amendment.
Meanwhile, theological decline was evident on other fronts.
At the Peacemaking Conference in 2000, Rev. Dirk Ficca delivered the keynote address, “Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a Diverse World,” suggesting that there are many paths to God. At one point Ficca asked rhetorically, "What's the big deal about Jesus?" Conservatives would raise an outcry. A month later an explanatory letter would be sent and the 2002 General Assembly would approve a statement saying “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord… No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.”
The 1992 General Assembly adopted a pro-choice position on abortion, saying that each situation is different and that no laws should restrict it. By 1998, the General Assembly granted a “Relief of Conscience” program for congregations to not have their mandatory medical dues go to cover abortions. PCUSA medical insurance would continue to provide coverage for abortions. The 2006 General Assembly reaffirmed that the Board of Pensions will pay all claims for legal abortions without regard to the health or gestational age of the baby or the woman’s reason for choosing to abort her child.
Efforts to overturn the “fidelity and chastity” requirement were relentless. The 1999 attempt failed. In 2001, the General Assembly voted 317 to 208 to delete the “fidelity and chastity” clause. The majority of the 173 presbyteries would fail to ratify the decision but each attempt would bring the votes closer together.
Removing the “fidelity and chastity” requirement
The 2010 General Assembly opened with a pagan-themed worship service. The same assembly voted 373 to 323 to propose a constitutional amendment to remove the “fidelity and chastity” clause. This time revisionists were successful. On May 10, 2011, the Twin Cities Area presbytery became the 87th presbytery to ratify the 2010 removal of the pivotal clause. On October 8 of the same year, Scott Anderson would be ordained in Madison, Wisconsin by the John Knox Presbytery as the PCUSA’s first openly gay minister.
The fallout would be dramatic. An avalanche of congregations would depart. At least 32 congregations would initiate separation from the PCUSA by the end of 2011. Annual declines in total congregations would jump from 94 in 2011 to 204 in 2012 and remain around the 200 level for the next five years.
PCUSA membership decline accelerated. Annual declines had been around the 2 to 3 percent range. Starting in 2012, the annual declines jumped to 5 percent and stayed at that level in the years to come.
Ecclesiastical connections were severed by the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico in mid-August, ending a 139-year partnership, and by the Mizoram Synod of India. Both separated because of PCUSA’s stance on homosexuality.
The following January would see representatives from over 500 PCUSA congregations unveil a new denomination, which would eventually be called “ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.” ECO’s growth would be rapid. By the end of 2013, ECO added its 100th congregation. When the PCUSA released its 2012 statistics, showing its greatest annual decline since its formation, the very next day ECO announced its acceptance into the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
In mid-May 2012 the General Assembly Mission Council board would vote for a 2013 budget down $7 million from the prior year, and $3.5 million additional decrease for 2014, as well as 13 job cuts. The council’s workforce would remain at 308, half of its size 10 years before.
The PCUSA did its best to paint a rosy picture.
“Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination,” said Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of General Assembly upon releasing the dismal statistics in 2014. “But the numbers also illustrate fewer losses than the previous year. The membership declined by 89,296 in 2013, compared to 102,791 in 2012. We are meeting the challenges we have had and it’s showing,” he said. “And, our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady.”
When the 2016 membership statistics were released, showing a decline of 89,893 members, Stated Clerk Parsons noted “the lowest net loss since 2011” and celebrated in his official statement, “We are not dying, we are Reforming.” (Not mentioned in the report, the 5.7% decline was exactly the same as 2015). Nevertheless, Parsons was excited that “the number of congregations dismissed to other denominations declined to 99—the fewest dismissals since 2011.”
One day of the 2014 General Assembly closed by singing “Happy” by Pharrell Williams while tossing around 248 beach balls. Each ball represented a New Worshiping Community on the way to meet the 2012 goal of 1001 new worshiping communities. Not mentioned were the 258 congregations dismissed to other denominations in the same 2-year period, mostly due to homosexuality, nor the number of congregations that dissolved.
Changing the definition of marriage
Allowing noncelibate clergy was not the end of the struggle. Then next battle would be over changing the definition of marriage. Surprisingly, the 2012 General Assembly voted down a proposal to change marriage between a man and woman to “two people.” Removing the “fidelity and chastity” expectation for ministers was manageable for the PCUSA, but changing the definition of marriage was not. The same 2012 General Assembly thought it wise to affirm abortion as part of women’s health care and pass a resolution against spanking children, but the definition of marriage was to stay. After voting down the proposal to change marriage, moderator Neal Presa lamented in his prayer, "We are a divided church."
Changing the definition of marriage would sever more ecumenical ties according to comments made by Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission. Farrell told commissioners that of the PCUSA’s 54 global mission partners, 17 would break relationships with the PCUSA if same-sex marriage were approved. Another 25 of their global partners said that the change would cause damage to their relationship but would not completely sever ties. General Assembly Moderator Heath K. Rada expressed hope that they could be talked out of severing connections. “We aren’t going to joyfully say that we are sorry you want to break our relationship,” said Rada. “In my heart I want to believe that they have made strong statements, but we may have ongoing communication that may alter that.”
It would be 2014 before the General Assembly finally approved an amendment to change the definition of marriage, and the following March before the majority of presbyteries ratified the change. Even so, the official wording described marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
Interestingly, the very same day that this decision was ratified by the majority of presbyteries (March 17, 2015), Rev. John Shuck of Beaverton’s Southminster Presbyterian Church posted “I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.”
On March 27, the National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 churches of 15 denominations, voted to break its connection with the PCUSA, saying they “voted to change the Word of God” and this “forfeits Christ’s saving grace.”
Of course, when the definition of marriage is changed, following an outdated definition of marriage becomes unacceptable. On April 28, 2016, the Salem Presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that a congregation cannot have a marriage policy excluding same-sex couples. In overturning the heterosexual couples only policy of First Presbyterian Church of Asheboro, North Carolina, the Commission ruled that pastors are required to “give instruction to any couple requesting a Christian marriage. This includes same-sex couples. … W-4.9003 affirmatively requires the teaching elder to instruct and evaluate each couple who seeks a Christian marriage. This is not optional.”
Since the change of the definition of marriage, the PCUSA seems to have lost all counterbalance to contemporary progressive ideologies. Having lost its conservative contingent, the PCUSA appears to be in theological and moral freefall with few voices seeking to preserve any historic biblical understandings.
On the first day of the 2016 General Assembly, the opening prayer was by a Muslim imam offered to Allah. Delegates then overwhelmingly elected co-moderators. One of them had written a blog within hours of the Orlando nightclub shooting that said people in church are just as evil as the shooter. Two days later, the assembly heard from the Presbyterian Mission Agency, which claimed to have “an unclear sense of identity and purpose,” that it “lacks a theological foundation,” and “is driven in decision-making by resources rather than vision and strategy.”
The 2018 General Assembly approved a resolution opposed to religious freedom protections in US law for those who disagree with gay marriage and abortion. The PCUSA is “opposed to discrimination on matters of gender orientation and identity, and in support of freedom of the conscience in matters of reproductive rights,” they declared.
The Office of the General Assembly announced it will add nonbinary/genderqueer category to official church statistics.
For Pride Month 2022, PCUSA released "Queering the Bible," which focuses on "going against all the heteronormative ways that Scripture has been interpreted and creating some new theologies that we can use."
PCUSA pastor and Planned Parenthood advisor Rebecca Todd Peters gave a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist congregation about how she felt “God’s presence” during her two abortions. She condemned “anti-choice” evangelicals who “colonized our minds” with “toxic theology.”
PCUSA statistics are also in a freefall. By 2021, PCUSA membership was at 1,193,770. They have lost more than half of their members since 2003 when they had 2,405,311 members. Their membership today is only 38 percent of what it was at its founding in 1983.
The PCUSA is a story of how legitimizing same-sex marriage and drifting from biblical orthodoxy invariably go hand in hand. It’s not that Christians are obsessed with sex or picking on one sin. Compromises on sexuality are connected to general erosion of biblical fidelity. It doesn’t work.