The LaCrosse Tribune (Madison, WI) is reporting that a regional governing body of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country has voted to ordain a gay Madison man with a long-term partner, bucking national church policy that bars gays and lesbians in open relationships from the ministry and perhaps setting a precedent.
The decision Saturday in Madison by the John Knox Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is expected to have a nationwide effect and be challenged by opponents.
Members of the presbytery — which encompasses parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, including churches in La Crosse and Winona, Minn. — voted 81 to 25 to ordain Scott Anderson, 54. Anderson said he’s been in a committed relationship with a man for 19 years.
“Some will proclaim this decision the best thing in the world and others will say the church is dying,” the Rev. Alex Thornburg of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison said, adding he voted for ordination. “It will have its drama around it.”
National church policy requires married candidates for ordination to take a vow of fidelity and single candidates — gay or straight — to take a vow of chastity.
However, the church does allow candidates for ordination to file an objection to a rule based on conscience. The presbytery then must decide the seriousness of the candidate’s departures from official teaching, said the Rev. Ken Meunier, executive director of the John Knox Presbytery.
In Anderson’s case, a majority of the presbytery decided his relationship status did not undermine essentials of church doctrine and his departures from official teaching “were not serious enough to overshadow his many other gifts,” Meunier said.
Presbyterian Church (USA) is the country’s largest Presbyterian denomination, followed by the Presbyterian Church in America, a more theologically conservative and evangelical denomination.
The John Knox Presbytery represents 61 churches with about 10,000 members.
Anderson is a former pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Calif. He voluntary resigned in 1990 and gave up his ordination after two church members outed him as gay, he said.
He’s been executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches in Sun Prairie, an association of 13 denominations that promotes unity among Christian churches, for seven years. He expects to continue that role after ordination but hopes eventually to return to parish ministry.
A May 15 ordination date has been set but could be delayed. At least one church in the presbytery — Caledonia Presbyterian Church near Portage, Wis. — likely will appeal Saturday’s vote, said Whitman Brisky, a Chicago attorney representing the 60-member church.
The appeal would be based on the church rule prohibiting installation of a minister “who is engaged in an extramarital, sexual relationship,” Brisky said.
Anderson said he thinks he’s the first gay person in a long-term relationship approved for ordination in the denomination. A gay theology professor not in a relationship was ordained in Minnesota, Anderson said. That candidate declined to take the vow of celibacy, leaving open the possibility of a relationship and church sanctions.
In a statement to the presbytery, Anderson wrote the ministerial prohibition against gays and lesbians in committed relationships “represents a grievous misapplication of biblical teachings” that “is unfaithful to God’s loving intentions for humankind and seriously undermines the church’s gospel witness to gay and lesbian partners. I cannot in Christian conscience support it.”