People in the pews of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly disagree with a denominational policy that permits ordination of celibate homosexuals, according to a report recently issued from church headquarters in Louisville.
The report, based on a survey commissioned by the church's Theology and Worship Ministry Unit, reveals that more than two-thirds of the church's members and elders -- local congregational leaders -- disagree with the current policy and, among those, more than half "strongly disagree" with current policy.
The study was part of the 2.9 million-member denomination's ongoing "Presbyterian Panel Report" series that takes the pulse of the church on a wide range of issues on a regular basis.
Titled "Theology and Practice of Ordination," the report demonstrates also that there is a wide split between Presbyterian clergy and laity over current policy, as 64 percent of the pastors and 70 percent of "specialized clergy" -- ordained members without a full-time parish appointment, such as seminary professors -- endorse ordination of celibate homosexuals.
Presbyterian policy on ordaining homosexuals is similar to that of other liberal mainline church bodies, most of which have adopted an approach that permits ordination of persons with homosexual orientations as long as they do not engage in same-sex relationships.
The subject has become perhaps the most divisive issue in mainline Protestantism in recent years, as major debates on homosexuality have embroiled not only the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) but the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Methodist Church.
The survey also asked Presbyterians if the church should liberalize its policies by allowing ordination of practicing homosexuals, and on that score there was strong rejection by clergy and laity, regardless of the quality of a same-sex relationship.
Major policies of the church are set at the annual General Assembly, composed of delegations of pastors and ruling elders from each of the church's 171 presbyteries, or regional bodies.
The report, based on responses from 2,261 Presbyterians to questionnaires distributed in April 1990, comes at a time when a special denominational panel on sexuality is giving strong consideration to a recommendation that the church allow ordination of self-acknowledged, practicing homosexuals.
The Rev. John Carey, chairman of the church's Special Task Force on Human Sexuality, said in an interview last week that he was not surprised at the survey results because they confirmed some of the sentiments expressed in a previous Presbyterian Panel survey conducted for his committee.
Carey, the Wallace M. Alston Professor of Bible and Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., said his panel is "mindful" of the existing widespread sentiments against ordaining homosexuals in the denomination but does not believe those sentiments should "bind or shape" the work of the panel.
The previous survey did not ask about current church policy on ordinations but did ask whether it would be difficult to imagine circumstances under which a practicing homosexual should be ordained.
Strong majorities of members, elders and pastors said it would be difficult, compared with 46 percent of specialized clergy.
In the more recent survey, 90 percent of the members, 95 percent of elders, 83 percent of the pastors and 68 percent of the specialized clergy said homosexuals who engage in sexual activities with persons of the same sex should not be ordained.
The report noted that few issues presented to Presbyterian Survey panels have united panelists to such a degree.
Asked about cases in which same-sex relationships are "committed" and "monogamous," majorities in each category still objected to ordination of homosexuals, although by smaller margins: members, 86 percent; elders, 90 percent; pastors, 73 percent; specialized clergy, 54 percent.
The report concluded that those figures suggest that "for a small portion of panelists the key issue is not same-sex behavior per se but promiscuity."
The Special Task Force on Human Sexuality is scheduled to meet again Jan. 31 through Feb. 3 in Tampa, and at that time will consider what portions of its report to recommend for action at the church's 1991 General Assembly and what to include as part of a two-year study for potential action in 1993.
If the panel does recommend ordination of practicing homosexuals, Carey said, such a recommendation would likely be made part of the two-year study package.
He said his panel is somewhat frustrated by a public perception of it as being a single-issue body -- that is, focusing on the topic of homosexuality.
He noted that the report contains 11 chapters covering such topics as sex and the elderly, sex and the handicapped, teenage sex, AIDS, new reproductive techology, and sex issues that are specifically male and female.
If Carey's panel does recommend ordination of homosexuals, the survey is almost certain to become ammunition for opponents of homosexual ordination within the denomination, such as Presbyterians for Renewal, which already has charged the panel's tentative findings with being "weird and scandalous."
While the recent survey has obvious implications for Carey's panel, it was actually requested by the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit's Task Force on the Theology and Practice of ordination.
That task force is not expected to produce a report until 1992.