Presbyterian Church (USA) Passes Vote Allowing LGBT Ordination

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted to remove a celibacy requirement that kept many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from becoming ministers. Advocates call the passing of this vote a major milestone. Others fear it could spark a crisis within one of America's oldest mainline Protestant denominations. Host Michel Martin speaks with Rev. Janet Edwards of More Light Presbyterians, a group advocating on behalf of gays serving in the ministry.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we turn to another conversation about faith. This week the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to change its constitution to effectively allow gays, lesbians and transgender people to be ordained. It ends a debate that has roiled the denomination as it has others. And it brings the Presbyterians in line with a number of other mainline Protestant denominations.

We wanted to know more about what this means and how this came about. So we've called upon the Reverend Janet Edwards. She heads the group More Light Presbyterians, which has advocated on behalf of gays and lesbians serving in the ministry and she joins us now from member station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Reverend Edwards, thank you so much for joining us.

The Reverend JANET EDWARDS: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: And I guess congratulations are in order since this is something that you have been working for for quite some time. I wanted to ask how this came about. As I understand it, this is a big change from only two years ago when a majority of the church's regions voted against the change. What do you think happened in the last two years to change people's minds?

EDWARDS: We have opened up our minds and hearts to see God's word to us now. You know, we understand that change is a necessary part of Christian life. We are reformed Christians. And reformed means always knowing that God will show us new things and call us forward. And that's exactly what has happened.

MARTIN: If you can explain to me exactly how the change in the constitution works. The church's constitution does not now explicitly say that gays and lesbians and transgender people can be ordained. As I understand it, it makes a change to the clause that did not allow ordination for anybody who did not, quote, "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." So what happens now?

Is the argument then that because gays and lesbians are not permitted to be married legally in many parts of the country that it's not fair to apply this provision only to them? Or is that chastity in singleness, fidelity and marriage provision no longer applicable to anybody?

EDWARDS: The emphasis is upon the talents that these people bring and the witness of their lives. And each of those groups, the Presbyterian and the churches who will really get to know those candidates are the best ones to make that assessment. That is a very Presbyterian thing to do. So my Presbytery of Pittsburgh, which voted no, probably will not ordain a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person soon.

But the Presbyteries who already have candidates under care like San Francisco or New York will be able to sense the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and elect these candidates to ordained office.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about the membership in the church? For some time now, membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as well as in other mainline Protestant denominations has been dwindling. The Presbyterian Church says it's lost nearly 450,000 members in the past decade. That's almost 20 percent of the membership. Why do you think this membership decline has occurred? And do you think that this change will affect that in either direction?

EDWARDS: The great commission from Christ is for us to proclaim God's love to the whole world. That is what the Presbyterian Church is meant to do. We have not even done it to our own. This will strengthen our church both within ourselves and to the world in proclaiming the gospel.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying theologically, spiritually this is the right thing to do from your perspective and obviously now the rest of the denomination agrees with you, or at least a significant or majority now does. But what if the membership continues to decline? How will you interpret that?

EDWARDS: We have come to this point in the Presbyterian Church, by having had thousands and thousands of conversations. I know that there are those who are afraid of the future that you are speaking of. But the Bible tells us that love casts out fear. So I'm very hopeful. I see a stronger more unified church in the future. And the future is in God's hands.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting is that we were trying to research this question and according to the Presbyterian news service, an estimated 100 congregations out of nearly 11,000, it has to be said, have left the church in the last five years. Not all related to this issue, but some related to this issue. On the other hand, we caught up with the Reverend Randy Tremba. He's a minister at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in West Virginia. And he was worried that this would cause a crisis within the church. But then he says, in fact, it was the opposite.

The Reverend RANDY TREMBA: Much to our surprise, our church has just blossomed. I mean, our Sunday school families have come into the church. It's bursting at the seams. Our financial giving has increased. We have a support - all the missions of our church. Some people would say that was violating God's law and therefore you'll be cursed. And of course we did what we thought was right. We feel like we've been blessed.

MARTIN: So, two different realities playing out. Final thought - just a final thought from you. You've worked on this for quite some time. How do you feel today now that this has been accomplished?

EDWARDS: I entered into ministry convicted that God loves everyone. And God's gifts are given as God chooses, not as we do. For me it is awesomely humbling to be active in the church in a moment when we live out our basic gift to the whole of Christendom and to the world which is reformed, always being reformed. God has shown us in my time a new thing. And my church is in the process of embracing it and is reforming before my eyes.

So that makes me overjoyed and this is just one moment in it. We pause to understand that there are challenges ahead and the conversation will continue.

MARTIN: Reverend Janet Edwards heads the organization More Light Presbyterians, which has been advocating for years to allow LGBT members to be ordained as ministers, elders and deacons in the Presbyterian Church. The church voted this week to allow that change. And she joined us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Reverend Edwards, thank you so much for joining us.

EDWARDS: Peace be with you, Michel.

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