The United Church of Canada has left the door open for the ordination of practicing homosexuals, after a 13-hour debate on the issue at its thirty-second general council, held in Victoria, British Columbia.

A raised-hand vote showed that some two-thirds of the council’s 388 commissioners supported a statement that affirmed the right of church membership to everyone living in obedience to Jesus Christ “regardless of sexual orientation”—and the subsequent right of all church members to “be considered eligible” for ordination.

Earlier this year the church produced a report suggesting a gay lifestyle could be considered a “gift of God,” leading gay activists to expect a statement from the council in support of practicing homosexuals. But efforts of the Community of Concern (COC), a 300-member coalition of evangelicals and moderately orthodox ministers and laypeople, helped soften the church’s position. Headed by William Fritz, minister of the 2,400-member Collier Street United Church of Barrie, Ontario, the COC won several concessions, both from Affirm (the church’s gay lobby) and from the committee that led the commissioners in hammering out the final statement.

In addition to its position on sexual orientation, that statement included:

• A strong affirmation of Christian marriage, which included reference to married heterosexuality and single celibacy as “gifts from God”;

• A firm rejection of the one attempt from the floor to include endorsement of homosexual practice;

• A “confessional” segment that suggested the United Church has “participated in a history of injustice and persecution against gay and lesbian persons in violation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Leaving The Church?

The big question mark hanging over the United Church in the general council’s aftermath is how many ministers, members, and congregations will leave the church. So far, there has been no mass exodus, although there are indications that many laypeople are refusing leadership roles until they see what happens.

Several ministers have already announced their intentions to leave. Rodger Jackson, pastor of Woodslee and Belle River United Churches near Windsor, said the council’s decision “will cause congregations and clergy to separate themselves either as I am doing or simply change the sign out front and ignore the fact that the church exists.”

For his part, Fritz is urging ministers and congregations to stay with the church and help turn the tide. He believes strong emphasis on Christian family values and diligent pastoral care will be essential during the next few years.

The United Church’s dichotomy on this issue is explained in part by the church’s very makeup. Formed in 1925 by a merger of Canadian Methodists, Congregationalists, and two-thirds of its Presbyterians, it has since added segments of the Evangelical United Brethren and Disciples of Christ denominations to its roster. And 13 years ago it failed to consummate a long-proposed marriage with Canadian Anglicanism.

In fact, the elected leader of the church for the next two years reflects the diversity of the church. Siberian-born, Korean-parented Sang Chul Lee, minister of Toronto Korean United Church, will seek conciliation as he leads his denomination through the gay-ordination debate’s aftermath. A theological liberal by Korean standards, Lee leads a congregation that practices evangelism and Bible study with a vigor generally uncharacteristic of his denomination.

He believes the United Church will respond positively to strong pastoral care, blended with a continuing trend to consensus.

By Lloyd Mackey in Victoria, British Columbia.

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