Church’s vote sparks debate

Published 12:57 pm Saturday, July 10, 2010

A split decision from Presbyterian leaders on two gay-friendly measures may bring debate to area congregations.

Delegates to the Presbyterian church’s convention in Minneapolis voted Thursday for a more liberal policy on gay clergy but decided not to redefine marriage in their church constitution to include same-sex couples.

Under current church policy, Presbyterians are eligible to become clergy, deacons or elders only if they are married or celibate. The new policy strikes references to sexuality and instead requires candidates to be committed to “joyful submission to worship of Christ.”

But before the change is finalized, a majority of the church’s 173 U.S. presbyteries must approve it.

Mower County falls under the Twin Cities Presbytery, as home to two Presbyterian churches.

Pastors at both churches said Friday that advocacy for or against gay policies has not come up much in their congregations.

Rev. Neal Solomonson said gay marriage or gays and lesbians seeking to join the clergy has not exactly confronted him at First United Presbyterian in LeRoy — which has about 125 members, and counts about 65 in attendance each Sunday — but that he still grapples with the issues.

“Personally, I am generally supportive of their right to be together and marry … But, it’s a complicated issue and I do struggle with it.”

Both of Thursday’s votes in Minneapolis were close. Fifty-one percent of delegates voted to shelve the proposal to redefine marriage as being between “two people” instead of between “a man and a woman,” just hours after 53 percent of them voted to allow non-celibate gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy.

And Friday, delegates voted down a motion to reconsider the marriage vote. Gay rights supporters must wait two years until the next general assembly to try again.

The waiting game is nothing new to supporters. Two years ago, after years of efforts, a similar measure on gay clergy was sent out to presbyteries but died when 94 of them voted against it.

The Twin Cities Presbytery, which includes about 70 congregations in the Twin Cities, southeastern Minnesota and eastern Wisconsin, voted in favor of the measure last time, said executive presbyter Chaz Ruark.

Ruark said they could vote on the new measure as early as this fall, but probably will wait until spring.

“I’ve given up on trying to predict elections,” Ruark said when asked how he expects the presbytery to vote. “It’s dependent on the folks that are here, the debate that we have and how we feel about it.”

Ruark said the presbyteries do not allow voting by proxy, and attendees are directed to vote by what the holy spirit tells them, not by personal opinions they may hold.

Ministers and elders from Westminster Presbyterian in Austin will likely be among voters.

Associate pastor Rev. Michael Olmsted said there has not been activism on either side of the issue at the more than 400-member church; Westminster’s Rev. Andrew Lindahl was unavailable to comment Friday.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is ranked the 10th-largest church in the U.S. with 2.8 million members, according to the National Council of Churches’ 2010 “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.”Approval of both the gay marriage and clergy measures could have made the Presbyterian Church one of the most gay-friendly Christian churches in the country.

“Christ taught us to love our neighbors and to do our best to take care of them,” Rev. Solomonson said in explaining his own stance. “It’s a complicated issue and I think people are all struggling with it. We all realize we have friends and acquaintances who are gay or lesbian, and the question is, ‘how can we best take care of them?’”

Several major Christian denominations have voted in recent years to allow non-celibate gays to serve as clergy if they are in committed relationships. Among them are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the U.S. Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.

Fewer major U.S. denominations have taken the step of fully endorsing gay marriage. Only two, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, have explicitly allowed it.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.