Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Presbyterian Church (USA)
With its roots in the 16th century teachings of John Calvin, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) boasts more than 1.8 million members who participate in more than 10,000 congregations across the country. The largest Presbyterian organization in the country, the denomination was formed in 1983 when the southern-based Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) joined the northern-based United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) to form a single entity. The Presbyterian Church (USA) remains distinct from the Presbyterian Church in America [link to stance page], which tends toward less inclusive policies.
The Presbyterian name derives from the Greek word for “elders” – lay leaders who govern the church and are chosen by its congregants. According to the denomination’s web site, elders work closely with clergy to, “exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large.” Elders serve at every level of leadership from “sessions,” which govern a single church, to “presbyteries,” consisting of regional church communities, to the General Assembly, representing the entire denomination.
As recently as 2010, the General Assembly agreed that the Presbyterian Church (USA), “has no consensus in the interpretation of Scripture on issues of same-sex practice.” However, the church has also adopted policies that allow for the ordination of LGBTQ ministers and the celebration of same-sex marriages. Experiences may differ greatly across individual communities but many congregations are entirely welcoming and inclusive. Groups such as More Light Presbyterians are committed to “work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.” Similarly, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is a coalition of clergy and laity who hope to “strengthen the church of Jesus Christ, with the help of God's grace,” and are, “called to achieve this goal by furthering the inclusion of LGBTQ persons, and by working for the unity of the PC(USA).”
In 1996, Erin Swenson became the first transgender minister to serve in the Presbyterian Church (USA) when members voted to continue her ministry following her transition from male to female. While the church has no official policy regarding transgender inclusion, organizations such as More Light Presbyterians are specific in advocating for transgender congregants.
On Marriage Equality
In 2014, the General Assembly passed a measure that permits ministers and sessions (local church government), “to use their own discernment to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies where allowed by law.” In addition, the General Assembly recommended an amendment to update the description of marriage in the denomination’s Book of Order so that it would no longer exclude same-sex couples. Effective June 2015, the amendment to the Book of Order updates the description of marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” The latter was added during debate of the amendment on the floor of the General Assembly out of respect to the denomination’s more conservative members.
In 2010 the General Assembly approved an amendment that allows ordination of openly LGBTQ ministers at the discretion of individual presbyteries and sessions, essentially allowing each congregation the decision to ordain or not. The amendment was ratified in 2011, following approving votes from a majority of presbyteries. The denomination’s history of ordaining women as elders reaches back to 1883.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) was one of many faith groups to sign a letter supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The letter states, in part, “Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people should be able to earn a living, provide for their families and contribute to our society without fear that who they are or who they love could cost them a job.”
In recent years the Presbyterian Church (USA) has made enormous strides toward a national stance of inclusion for its LGBTQ members. The work, now, lies with individual congregations who are free to make their own decisions regarding ordination, marriage, and the creation of affirming communities. It is an ideal time for LGBTQ parishioners and their straight allies to make a difference. For more information on finding your place as an LGBTQ congregant, or on finding your voice as a straight ally committed to creating an inclusive church community, download the HRC resource Coming Home: To Faith, To Spirit, to Self.
Resources for LGBTQ Presbyterians
Covenant Network of Presbyterians, is a broad-based, national group of clergy and lay leaders working for a church that is simultaneously faithful, just, and whole.
More Light Presbyterians, a national organization working for the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in society.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
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