For the first time, leaders from the majority of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in Central and Eastern Kentucky have agreed that a national ban on gay ministers should be overturned, raising fears of a schism in the denomination.
The commissioners of the Presbytery of Transylvania, which includes 56 Central and Eastern Kentucky counties, voted 83-61 Tuesday to approve an amendment that, if supported by the majority of the presbyteries in the United States, would open the door for gays and lesbians to be ordained as pastors, elders and deacons.
The proposal is being considered by each of the nation's 173 presbyteries. It would have to be accepted by a simple majority of them to take effect.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has considered such amendments to its Book of Order several times since 1996, when an amendment was put in place requiring church officers to live "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
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Each time, amendments to change that language have failed, but a close vote is expected this year.
The Rev. John Manon of Corbin Presbyterian Church, who opposed the amendment, said he expects the proposal to be approved nationally. If that happens, "the potential is there" for a split in the denomination, he said. "My hope and prayer is that it does not" cause a schism, he said.
Still, Manon called the amendment "a movement for our church to begin serving man instead of God."
Under the amendment, individual churches would be able to choose a gay or lesbian person for ordination under "really tight circumstances," said Richard Smith, general presbyter for the Transylvania presbytery. "We're not going to be ordaining anybody who's not a confirmed, solid Christian person. It's not a wide open door by any means," he said. "We take the question of ordination very seriously."
As general presbyter, Smith handles administrative matters and acts as a "pastor to the pastors."
The amendment deletes the "fidelity and chastity" wording and replaces it with a paragraph that says those who are ordained "pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church."
Smith said he thinks the votes from all the nation's presbyteries should be in by May. Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, which includes Louisville, voted by a wide margin last month to support the amendment.
Seven meetings on this issue were held over the past two months at churches throughout the Presbytery of Transylvania, which includes First, Second, Maxwell Street and Beaumont Presbyterian churches in Lexington.
"I think this is much better crafted language, and the times have changed," Smith said of the local vote. "There's much more willingness to recognize and accept the diversity."
The Rev. Eric Mount, a former Presbyterian pastor and professor emeritus of religion at Centre College, said leaders are working hard to avoid a split in the church. "There are efforts being made to build bridges across the divide of disagreement on this," he said.
However, he acknowledged that some congregations and individual members will probably leave the denomination. Some already have.
After the vote of the Presbytery of Transylvania Tuesday, Mount said he thought some commissioners, a group made up of pastors and church elders, were "deeply disappointed" at the outcome.
The Rev. Scott Wiest Sr., pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Pikeville, was one of those who spoke against the amendment. In a written statement Wednesday, Wiest said he opposes "the ordination of any person who continues to live in sexual sin and refuses to repent of it."
Wiest said he expects the amendment to fail on a national level, but if it is approved, he expects a split will occur. However, he pledged to "encourage the members of this church to stay together ..."
Mount said he was proud of how folks on both sides handled the debate and the announcement of the final vote.
"I was pleased that our presbytery did pass it," he said. "There are a lot of really good people standing outside the gate waiting for a chance to serve in leadership positions in our church."