The Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) is commonly labeled “mainline Protestant”. According to Wikipedia, the attribution “mainline Protestant” suggests the following:
Mainline or mainline Protestant (also sometimes called mainstream) denominations are those that comprised the vast majority of American Christianity from the colonial era until the early 1900s. Most were brought to America by their respective historic immigrant groups. Today, most are rooted in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States.
As a group they have maintained theologies that stress social justice concerns together with personal salvation and evangelism. They have been credited with leading the fight for social causes such as racial justice and civil rights, equality for women, rights for the disabled and other key issues. Many of the issues that such groups have advocated for have been embraced by American law and society, but at the same time mainline denominations have been somewhat marginalized. In addition, mainline churches and laity founded most of the leading educational institutes in the US.
In typical usage, the term mainline is contrasted with evangelical. Mainline churches tend to be more liberal in terms of theology and political issues. This places them to the ideological left of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches.
With approximately 2.4 million members, the PCUSA is the third largest of the mainline Protestant denominations behind the United Methodists (UMC–8 million) and the ELCA (4.4 million) and just ahead of the Episcopal Church (2.1 million). Many of these denominations hold formal agreements with each other that mutually recognize clergy and sacramental practice. For instance, the ELCA has full communion agreements with six other denominations, including the UMC, PCUSA and Episcopal Churches.
After wrestling with women’s ordination a generation or two ago, that issue is now settled and females comprise a significant percentage of the clergy within these mainline Protestant denominations. Presently, LGBT issues roil these denominations. The United Church of Christ (UCC) has the longest record of allowing gay clergy, and LGBT issues seem less contentious for that 1.1 million member denomination. The Episcopal Church now has two LGBT bishops and adopted policies a year ago that succinctly offer “all the sacraments for all the baptized”. But, the Episcopalians’ relationship with the worldwide Anglican communion has been strained and a conservative, dissident group of American Episcopalians has splintered away. Also last summer, the ELCA changed its policy and now recognizes and affirms committed gay relationships and allows partnered gay clergy, but not without defecting individual and congregational membership.
All of this is background to the PCUSA weeklong 219th Annual Assembly that convenes in Minneapolis on July 3rd. Coincidentally, the venue is the same Convention Center that was the location of last year’s momentous ELCA church wide assembly (CWA09). I was present last summer as a volunteer for Goodsoil, a coalition of LGBT advocacy groups, and regular followers of this blog know that I have posted extensively about that experience. The parallel LGBT advocacy organization within the PCUSA is “More Light Presbyterians (MLP)”, and they will advocate for repeal of provision G-6.0106b within the PCUSA Book of Order.
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 (W-4.9001), 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.
At the 2006 assembly, the delegates voted by a 57% majority that this provision was “non-essential” but without repealing it, which would have required ratification by the various presbyteries (regional bodies) of the PCUSA. Detractors decried this “end run” around the PCUSA constitution. Indeed, at the next assembly in 2008, the provision was amended by the delegates, but the amendment was subsequently derailed by the Presbyteries that failed to ratify the assembly action.
In addition to regular business of the assembly, including the election of a new moderator, the issue will certainly arise next month in Minneapolis. I intend to blog extensively on this issue in the coming weeks so stay tuned. As a non-Presbyterian, I also confess to partial knowledge of the details, and I welcome any Presbyterian comment or correction.