The Slow Humanization of the Presbyterian Church

When the 1.8 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, announced last week that its policies would change to allow ministers to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies, it reminded us that human sexuality has been a battleground in this denomination for the entirety of its existence. In fact, humanism was in the thick of it.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PC(USA), was formed in 1983 through a “reunion” of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Regarding same-sex issues, it was the latter organization’s position that gained general acceptance in the new denomination—this being the 1978 “Definitive Guidance on Homosexuality” that regarded open homosexual practice as a sin and only recognized gays who were sexually abstinent and essentially closeted as eligible for ordination.

By contrast, the American Humanist Association, in 1976, issued a comprehensive statement on human sexuality. Its New Bill of Sexual Rights and Responsibilities, with broad strokes, called for an expansion of socially approved sexual boundaries, replacement of repressive taboos with understandings gained through science and sensitivity (specifically replacing the taboos against “homosexual and bisexual relationships”), repeal of oppressive laws, and wider and freer dissemination of sexual information. It supported family planning and abortion rights, “equity between the sexes,” the moral value of pleasure, and a general humane and humanistic approach to sexual expression.

The AHA’s statement garnered national publicity, including coverage in TIME magazine where humanism was lauded for celebrating responsible sexual freedom. Soon some humanist celebrants were performing same-sex commitment ceremonies (there being no legal same-sex marriage at the time). But what went unnoticed was how the statement’s ideas struck a responsive chord among a few progressive-minded and compassionate social thinkers within the Presbyterian fold.

This latter fact wouldn’t surface until fifteen years later in 1991—the year the PC(USA)’s internal debates on sexuality received unwanted illumination in the national spotlight. A Special Committee on Human Sexuality was appointed in 1987 to resolve these debates. That same year the General Assembly had approved a progressive overture calling for the elimination of governmental laws restricting private sexual behavior between consenting adults and for the passage of laws against sexual-orientation-based discrimination. But the year before, and subsequently, efforts were being made to oust or censure a church group called Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns.

Hence matters came to a head when the Special Committee issued its report in March 1991. Running two hundred pages, this report—Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice—sold 42,000 copies and ignited a firestorm across the denomination. Its subject went on to dominate the June General Assembly, held in Baltimore, Maryland.

The report pointed a finger at traditional Presbyterian doctrine as out of touch and the church as rife with sexism. It viewed sexual expression as something to be confined neither to marriage nor to heterosexuals. It advocated the ordination of those who were actively and openly lesbian or gay and called for granting same-sex couples equal rights with heterosexual couples. Finally, its extensive footnotes revealed a reliance on some materials developed by humanist sexologists and the Christian clergy they had influenced.

To all of this, the church’s response was as swift as it was blunt. At a meeting of the Assembly Committee on Bills and Overtures, the report found absolutely no districts in support. Indeed, the report was denounced for exhibiting “a secular humanism that concludes in essence that contemporary mores set the standard for morality.” The Associated Press quoted John Roberts of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, declaring summarily: “Adultery is a sin, fornication is a sin, promiscuity is a sin, homosexuality is a sin, no matter what the committee says.”

Then, in an overwhelming final rejection, the full General Assembly voted on the matter June 10, 1991. The delegate count was 534 to 31 with one abstention. Keeping tabs on these developments, Isaac Asimov, who was then president of the American Humanist Association, reported the results to the AHA membership via an open letter published and quoted in the media:

Many Presbyterians had hoped that, at long last, their church would forthrightly address itself to the realities of modern life, the discoveries of science, and the needs of its people. But such hopes were all but dashed in a compromise that reassigned the question of human sexuality to the Theology and Worship Ministry and delayed any outcome for at least another year.

Asimov ended his letter with the hope that the minority of Presbyterians who had favored the report would “understand that they have been humanists all along. We must therefore open our doors wide to them and show that Presbyterians rebuffed by their church’s position on human sexuality have a home in humanism.”

As the decades passed, debate and discussion within the PC(USA) resulted in a gradual easing of rules concerning same-sex unions. At first solemnizing such relationships with ceremonies was criticized, then approved so long as the ceremonies weren’t understood to confer “marriage as defined in the Book of Order” (the church’s constitution), and then accepted in 2014 as authentic marriage, but only in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage was also legally recognized. Today, at long last, the Book of Order has been changed.

Roughly 71 percent of delegates gave their approval at the June 2014 General Assembly. For that vote to become official, however, a majority of the PC(USA)’s 171 presbyteries (regional bodies) had to ratify. By March 17, 2015, the tally was 87 in favor, 41 against, and one with a tie vote. The remaining presbyteries have yet to report. So, with majority approval reached, news of the decision was released, although the change won’t take effect until June.

But what has actually changed? In terms of wording in the Book of Order, not much. Marriage was previously defined as “a unique commitment between a man and a woman.” Now it’s “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” Moreover, ministers who are personally opposed to same-sex marriage won’t be required to solemnize such ceremonies.

There’s more. In the wake of the ongoing dispute that has attended this evolution of policy, there has been an exodus of conservative parishes from the denomination. The PC(USA) had 10,959 churches in 2005 but dropped to 10,038 in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available. Most of the losses were suffered in and after 2011 when open lesbians and gays were finally approved for ordination.

The conclusion from all of this history is that it has taken nearly forty years for one mainline branch of Presbyterians to catch up to organized humanism in just a portion of its positions on human sexuality. And this church didn’t even do that until the laws and the mood of the whole country had changed.

It seems they’re still not really sure.