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social sciences

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By 1998, there were almost 100 congregations in 26 states that were designated as More Light Churches. (Now, there are more than 200 More Light Churches.) Linked together in a network, the movement has produced a number of activists who have worked within the Presbyterian Church (USA) to change the denominational policies that excluded gay men and lesbians from full participation in church life and that stigmatized homosexuality. Many of these congregations defied the policies that barred active homosexuals from leadership positions.

In 1992, another activist group within the PCUSA, "That All May Freely Serve," was formed to advocate for an inclusive and welcoming denomination and for the ordination of qualified glbtq candidates for ministry. It was formed in reaction to an ecclesiastical court decision that set aside the pastoral call to the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York of Rev. Jane Spahr, an ordained minister who had recently come out as a lesbian. After she had been hired by the Rochester church, 14 congregations in the presbytery protested her hiring. In an ugly trial in which she was compared to a bank robber and a child molester, the highest court in the Presbyterian Church eventually ruled that Downtown Presbyterian had erred in hiring Spahr.

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Subsequently, the indefatigable Rev. Spahr became a traveling evangelist crusading of behalf of justice within the Church.

However, despite the activism of the More Light movement and the "That All May Freely Serve" group, in 1996 the PCUSA General Assembly adopted an ordination standard that reaffirmed its discriminatory policy and effectively excluded sexually active homosexuals from all leadership positions in the Church: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and / or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."

In response to the action of the 1996 General Assembly, in 1997, the Covenant Network, a broad-based group of clergy and other leaders, was formed. Its goal is to make the Presbyterian Church more inclusive and welcoming. Initially, they hoped to reverse the 1996 General Assembly action with a 1998 amendment that would give greater leeway to sessions and presbyters in the process of ordaining leaders. The General Assembly approved the amendment, but it was overwhelmingly voted down when it was sent to the presbyteries for ratification. The Covenant Network, however, continued its advocacy for a more inclusive Church and gradually developed into a leading voice of change within the denomination.

Attempts to revise the ban on sexually active clergy occupied activists within the Church for many years, with amendments routinely rejected and new studies ordered. In the new century, however, a pattern developed in which the General Assembly adopted progressive policies that were then rejected by the presbyteries, reflecting a disconnection between the leaders who were elected to attend the Assembly and the more conservative grass roots in the pews. For example, in 2000, the General Assembly voted to remove the "fidelity and chastity" clause in the ordination requirements, but it was rejected by the presbyteries. The same thing would happen repeatedly until 2011, when a majority of the presbyteries finally ratified an amendment to permit the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

A breakthrough came in 2006 with "A Season of Discernment: The Final Report of the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church." This report acknowledged what had been obvious for many years, that the Church was deeply divided over key issues, both theological and pastoral, including whether homosexual acts were sinful.

Nevertheless, the task force reached agreement on some important points such as the following: 1) It is a grave error to deny baptism or church membership to gay and lesbian persons or to withhold pastoral care to them and their families; 2) Those who aspire to ordination must lead faithful lives. Those who demonstrate licentious behavior should not be ordained; 3) Sexual behavior is integral to Christian discipleship, leadership, and community life. It is not a purely personal matter; and 4) Sexual orientation is, in itself, no barrier to ordination.

Rather than proposing a wholesale change in the ordination standards, however, the report recommended that candidates for ordination be allowed to express "scruples" or questions of conscience about certain requirements of ordination and that members of ordaining and installing bodies be permitted to decide "what departures can be tolerated and which are so serious that essential matters of faith and practice are compromised." In other words, the report proposed allowing practicing homosexuals to indicate that they have "scruples" about the requirement that they be celibate and that the ordaining and installing bodies be given discretion to decide whether they can be ordained or installed despite their unwillingness to commit to celibacy.

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