After four years of work on the most contentious issues facing the church, a task force of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recommended yesterday that the 2.4 million-member denomination keep all its national standards for ordination but give local bodies the option of making individual exceptions for some gay ministers.
If approved next year by the church's General Assembly, the proposal would open the door to the ordination of openly gay clergy members -- although only on a case-by-case basis that would be subject to challenge in church courts.
Unveiling its long-awaited report in Chicago, the 20-member Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity called for Presbyterians to "make every effort to prevent schism." Its recommendations, adopted unanimously, represent a concerted effort by a mainline Protestant denomination to come to terms with internal disagreements over homosexuality and to avoid the kind of acrimony that has divided Episcopalians since their consecration of an openly gay bishop.
A leading conservative Presbyterian, the Rev. Michael R. Walker of Louisville, said the task force "did a very good job affirming some traditional Christian beliefs and convictions, such as that Jesus is the only Lord and Savior of the world, and that the Bible functions as our sole authority for faith and life."
But Walker, who is executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, the largest conservative organization in the church, said he is disappointed by the recommendation on standards for ordination.
"Though it's not radical, their recommendation does allow for some movement in the liberal direction" and "gives greater flexibility to our local governing bodies to knowingly ordain those who are practicing homosexuals," he said.
The recommendation is framed not as a change in doctrine but as a proposed interpretation of the church's constitution. It would allow the 173 presbyteries, or local councils of ministers and elders, to consider all aspects of a potential minister's life, work and beliefs and to decide that it is acceptable if the candidate is not in accord with the church on a "non-essential" matter. It would be up to each presbytery to decide what is essential.
"We ordain human beings, and no human being is perfectly obedient to Scripture," said Barbara G. Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and a prominent liberal member of the task force.
Wheeler described the recommendation as a return to the church's tradition, dating to its founding in 1729, that a minister could be ordained despite declaring a "scruple," or principled disagreement, on one or more aspects of Presbyterian doctrine.
The Rev. Jack Haberer, pastor of Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in Houston and a conservative on the task force, agreed: "We are reclaiming an historic Presbyterian practice that says 'national standards, local application,' which I always have believed to be the way that Presbyterianism operates."
The church's constitution requires ordained clergy to live in "fidelity in marriage" or in "chastity in singleness." Over the past decade, its General Assembly, or legislature, has voted three times to alter that standard, but each time the proposal did not win ratification by a majority of the presbyteries.
The proposed constitutional interpretation could be made by the Assembly without being sent to the presbyteries for approval.
Two weeks ago, another mainline denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted to reject a similar recommendation that would have allowed individual exceptions for ordaining gay ministers without changing church doctrine on homosexuality.