The gay rights movement has all the markings of a pivotal point for the Presbyterian Church, prompting celebrations in some congregations and vows for departure in others.
In June, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem became the fourth congregation in the Lehigh Presbytery to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), citing the national affiliate’s drift from Scripture and toward more liberal thinking on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The “future of the PC (USA) is grim at best,” the Bethlehem church said in a June letter announcing the plan to members.
Some say the rift may be as significant as those that derived from churches’ positions on slavery, desegregation and the acceptance of female clerics.
“This takes its place among those kind of watershed times when churches tended to divide over those other issues,” said Ken Briggs, a retired Lafayette College professor and former New York Times religion editor.
“I don’t think it’s simply because they want to look trendy,” he said of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s acceptance of gays. “I do believe they’ve become content with the idea, that they do believe this is truly something that God has called them to do.”
The leadership of the 2,600-member Bethlehem church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the Lehigh Valley, voted 19-1 on June 15 to seek dismissal in the interest of joining the ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a budding denomination started in 2012 in response to the changes within the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Meetings with the Lehigh Presbytery will begin in September in the long process of determining the congregation’s intent. A supermajority would be required for the church to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). The process could take months or years to complete, since assets and properties would have to be settled if the congregation were to leave.
The church has no pastor after the Rev. Alf Halvorson left in June to lead a Houston congregation that also is seeking to break from Presbyterian Church (USA). Jackie Etter, interim head of staff at Bethlehem First Presbyterian, declined to comment.
Decisions by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly, the organization’s governing body, have taken a toll on church membership. In 2009, before the ordination of gay ministers, there were approximately 2 million members in 10,657 churches across the country. In 2014, there were 1.67 million members in 9,829 churches. Earlier this year, the presbyteries voted in favor of performing same-sex marriages in the church, which led to even more churches departing.
Race and women’s role in church leadership invited similar criticisms and departures, said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the stated clerk of the general assembly for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“This particular chapter in some way reflects some other times,” he said. “The whole conversation about the life of the LGBT community in the Presbyterian church is really a 40-year conversation. It’s not like this is something we just starting talking about last year. We didn’t come to this spot overnight. We came to it after a long period of conversation, of prayer and of decisions.”
While some congregations have decried the church’s position, others have embraced it, he noted. Seventeen of the 25 largest churches in the denomination have grown in the last year, he said, and members gave roughly $1.8 billion in Sunday collections.
“That may be a shrinking organization, but that’s not a dead organization,” Parsons said.
The Third Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., broke away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2011 and Associate Pastor Ed Satterfield said the decision to do so was heavy and emotional.
“We felt very strongly about the need to do what we did, but we also felt really sad,” he said.
The discernment process started in 2011 and wrapped up in 2013, putting the congregation on hold for a long period, he added.
Satterfield said his church’s main objection was what members saw as a movement away from a faithful interpretation of the Bible, which they don’t believe sanctions same-sex marriages or the ordination of gay ministers.
“It was a big shift,” Satterfield said. “We felt we were left with no other choice.”
But Parsons said there are choices. The church allows congregations to follow the Scripture in whichever way they feel comfortable, he said.
Many churches chose to develop a more welcoming attitude toward the LGBT community, which evolved over time as gay members became more visible and involved.
“The way we got here is the way America got here,” Parsons said. “People suddenly met their gay fellow Presbyterians, their gay children or grandchildren and realized that false dichotomy — that a person couldn’t be Christian and gay — it just wasn’t true.
“But it also means that the church still loves and affirms those people who think differently,” he said. “We want to be a church where both sides of the issue can live together.”
That may be easier said than done, said William “Chip” Gruen, associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College. Although churches stress the importance of fellowship, Gruen said, human nature is to seek out those with whom we’re most comfortable. That’s why there has been a growth in denominations, he said.
“I think it’s important to realize that this is how Christian groups deal with change,” he said.
There have always been reasons — whether they be demographic reasons, social reasons or political reasons, he said, noting division is much more common than unification.
While there are many things that can cause disagreements among worshippers, human sexuality has always tended to divide, said Benjamin Wright, Lehigh University professor of religion studies. The gay rights movement, he noted, highlights that fact.
“It’s really been an anxious, emotional experience for a lot of churches,” Wright said.
The issue has divided other denominations, such as the Lutherans and Episcopalians, which also have seen churches separating.
Witnessing the severance of long-standing relationships is painful, Parsons noted.
But Parsons also has witnessed the benefits of the church’s decision to be inclusive. He has seen LGBT members and their families find a sense of belonging in the faith. This, he said, has been heart-warming.
“They feel acceptance. They feel acceptance for their families,” Parsons said.
To help Lehigh Valley churches embrace inclusivity, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center will host a December conference, according to Adrian Shanker, the organization’s founder and executive director. The event’s keynote speaker will be Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians and a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“A lot of congregations are there in their minds, but not yet there in their practice,” Shanker said of inclusion.
Shanker was disappointed to hear about the Bethlehem church’s decision, but believes members who disagree with the stance can find a Lehigh Valley church that better reflects their values.
“If a specific church feels so strongly that they have to adopt an anti-gay position … perhaps their congregants that don’t share that should find a church that is more LGBT-inclusive,” he said.
Carmen comments on the above article in “As goes the USA so goes the PCUSA, so says the Stated Clerk“