Summer Conventions '97
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Unity was the central theme of PC(USA)'s assembly – unity in the midst of turmoil over a controversial amendment. The "fidelity and chastity" amendment, which was passed this spring by the church's presbyteries (regional units), says that deacons, elders, and ministers must "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." The amendment goes on to say that persons "refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin" shall be barred from office. The amendment is widely perceived as being aimed at the church's homosexual members, and its passage has roused strong feelings on all sides.
Presbyterian General Assembly moderator John Buchanan highlighted the tensions in his address at the assembly's opening worship service. "It is – I propose – a lot more difficult to maintain the unity than to walk away, to destroy it," he said. "I love this church of ours and the Reformed tradition that lies behind it. But I do believe it is time for us to repent and confess that we have not heard God's summons to unity and reconciliation as clearly as we should.
"Does it matter?" he added. "Does unity of the church matter as much as my conscience, my convictions, my opinions which I increasingly believe are God's opinions as well? Yes, it matters. It matters because Paul was right – whether we like it or not – the church shows the world what God's new creation looks like. And if what we show the world is a fractured, broken fragmented mess, that, I believe is a major failure, a very serious sin."
The assembly's new moderator, Patricia G. Brown, made a bid for unity when she appointed D. Eugene Sibery, another candidate for the office of moderator, as her vice moderator. A desire for unity could also be seen in the many ecumenical plans that the denomination approved. By a 489-38 votes, the assembly voted to allow its presbyteries to decide whether to ratify the ecumenical agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. The assembly also agreed to continue work within the Consultation on Church Union (COCU), an ecumenical body, and to invite 18 other Presbyterian denominations in North America to send "fraternal delegates" to next year's assembly.
But matters remained tense on June 20 when the assembly gathered to discuss whether to change the wording of the controversial amendment. The reworded amendment would require candidates for office to "demonstrate fidelity and intengrity in marriage or singleness," and replaced the flat refusal of office to other candidates with a sentence calling upon candidates to acknowledge their sinfulness and their need for repentance.
According to the General Assembly Newsroom, the debate on the new amendment was long and dignified. One delegate complained that the phrase "fidelity in singleness" was too vague; another believed that the assembly should respect the presbyteries' earlier decision on the amendment. "The church will suffer if this fight continues – can't we have one year of peace?" asked the Rev. Steve Stelle.
But the Rev. Christine Chakoian said that peace was not possible while the earlier amendment was on the books. "I had hoped that [the amendment] would settle the issue," she said, "but it has only deepened the turmoil."
The assembly voted 309-227 to send the new amendment to the presbyteries for consideration. In the meantime, the "fidelity and chastity" amendment has been added to the denomination's Book of Order.
U.S. Brief: Presbyterians Approve Chastity Amendment (June 1, 1997)
Text of the Fidelity and Chastity Amendment and Its Proposed Revision (1997) [scroll down to the bottom of the page]
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson