The newly re-ordained Rev. Scott Anderson of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resigned as pastor of his California church in 1990 after telling his congregants that he was gay. More than 20 years later, on Saturday October 8, he was welcomed back into the ministry as the denomination’s first openly gay pastor, several months after the Presbyterian national assembly decided to remove language from the church constitution that required clergy to live “in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
A recent PRRI survey shows that a majority (57%) of white mainline Protestants currently support the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy with no special requirements. Forty percent of white mainline Protestants also say that gay and lesbian people attend their congregations, and a 73% say that they would continue to attend their church if it decided to bless gay and lesbian couples. Half of white mainline Protestants also agree that churches are alienating the young by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.
Despite solid support for the ordination of gay pastors among mainline Protestants overall, PCUSA says that it expects to lose people who strongly oppose the decision. “The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ have all made this step and all have experienced losses,” said Tom Hay, the director of operations for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. “I would expect we will, too. I would grieve that and hope we can find better solutions than to break apart.”
As a strategy for drawing Millennials back into the fold, however, gay ordination could be particularly powerful. Last week, we commented on new research that shows that young adults who were regular Christian churchgoers are leaving their congregations in later adolescence over issues like science, pointing out that gay and lesbian issues are also generationally divisive. After all, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Millennials agree that religious groups are estranging young people with their stances on lesbian and gay rights; only 37% of seniors agree.
Rev. Anderson says that his ordination represents a larger cultural shift. “What’s happening in the Presbyterian church is happening also in the Christian church across our nation right now,” he explained. What remains to be seen is whether the denominations that are choosing to embrace gay ordination will make up for lost members with renewed involvement from Millennials.