An official task force of the United Presbyterian Church has recommended that the 2.6 million member denomination drop its ban on ordaining homosexuals as ministers.
If the church's General Assembly adopts the task force recommendation at its national meeting in San Diego in May, a schism could result.
The question of ordaining homosexuals was first brought before the church two years ago when the Presbytery of New York (the regional association of churches) asked the 1976 General Assembly for guidance on whether to ordain a young man who had volunteered that he was homosexual.
The 1976 assembly called for a task force to make a detailed study of the question in the light of psycho-social as well as biblical considerations and to recommend a policy for the church.
In the past 18 months while the task over the issue has built, and growing numbers of anti-ordination persons are threatening to leave the church if gay clergy are approved.
The dispute became so bitter that last month, in an unprecedented step, 24 past moderators (chief elected officers) of the church joined with the current moderator, the Rev. John T. Conner, to issue an appeal for moderation and prayer on the question, pending General Assembly action.
The task force's full report completed some weeks ago, has not been made public. In its place a summary statement was sent to all pastors last week so they might brief congregations in sermons yesterday before the task force findings were reported in the media.
The task force's majority report concludes' that an acknowledged "practicing homosexual" who is otherwise qualified "may" be considered eligible for ordination.
The proposed policy statement points out, however, that although the church's constitution "does not prohibit a presbytery from ordaining a candidate who is homosexual, it is also clear that it does not require it to do so."
A minority report signed by five of the 19 task for members, disagrees, asserting that "our present understanding of God's will for his people" precludes ornination of gays except for "the repentant homosexual person" who remains celibate.
The Presbyterian controversy deals only with the ordination question. Unlike more conservative Christian groups, the United Presbyterian Church supports civil rights for homosexuals.
Only one Christian denomination, the ultra-liberal United Church of Christ, permits known homosexuals to be ordained. Several other denominations have the matter under study.