Gay clergy: The state of the debate

Bitter disputes over ordaining gays and lesbians have roiled American denominations for years, and they are revving up again as a number of faith groups try to resolve what has seemed an intractable issue. As in the parallel arguments over same-sex unions, one camp sees homosexuality as incompatible with the Bible’s strictures on sex, and thus considers it impossible to allow for homosexual clergy. The other view holds that biblical injunctions against homosexuality are cultural artifacts akin to scriptural proscriptions on women or divorce that have long been superseded. They say modern concepts of human rights and social justice should allow for equality for homosexuals, as long as they are in stable, faithful relationships. Centrists are seeking compromises but are finding that the terrain has little middle ground. As a result, many observers believe forthcoming developments could show a way forward, or lead to de facto schisms.


Why it matters

The role and rights of gays and lesbians in American society will be determined in large part by how their roles and rights are viewed in the religious world. Experts say faith groups that deny gay rights as against biblical morality will also tend to advocate restrictions against homosexuals in society. And faith groups that promote gay rights within their communities will have a platform to promote gay rights in a wider forum. Also, faith communities that advocate for gay rights in society but continue to deny ordination to homosexuals will be seen as undermining their public policy stands, experts say.


Denominations that allow ordination of gays and lesbians

  • The Episcopal Church – In 2009, the Episcopal Church voted to make gays and lesbians eligible for any ordained ministry.
  • Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – In 2011, the PCUSA voted to lift the ban on gay clergy. The PCUSA rejected a proposal in 2012 that would have reinstated the ban.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America – In 2009, the ELCA voted to allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy.
  • The United Church of Christ – In 1972, the UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain an openly gay minister. The UCC has been one of the most accepting denominations of the LGBTQ community in the United States.
  • Reform Judaism – Reform Judaism has allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis since 1990.
  • Conservative Judaism – In 2006, the highest legal body in Conservative Judaism voted to allow the ordination of gay rabbis.

Surveys and resources

  • Stand Firm

    Stand Firm stands for “traditional Anglicanism in America” and tracks discussion and media coverage over religious debates including sexuality.

National sources

  • Institute on Religion & Democracy

    The Institute on Religion & Democracy is a prominent lobby uniting conservatives across the mainline Protestant denominations to push for more traditional policies in American churches and for more conservative policies in American politics. The IRD is considered a major player in the battles over gay rights in churches.

  • Soulforce

    Soulforce is a national activist group working on behalf of LGBTQ Christians. Soulforce was founded by the Rev. Mel White, a former speechwriter for conservative television evangelist Pat Robertson, and White’s partner, Gary Nixon. The group is based in Abilene, Texas.

  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Steven Charleston

    The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston is a visiting professor of Native American ministries at St. Paul School of Theology in Oklahoma City, Okla. He has said he believes that sexual orientation should not be a deterrent to ordination.

  • Frederick J. Gaiser

    Frederick J. Gaiser is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. He wrote a May 2, 2006, article, “At Ground Zero: Homosexuality and the message of Isaiah,” in The Christian Century (subscription necessary).

  • James Davison Hunter

    James Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is a frequent writer and commentator on the culture wars dividing America, especially as regards homosexuality. Contact Hunter through his assistant.

  • Ian Markham

    The Very Rev. Ian Markham is the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. He is an expert on mainline Christianity, and he wrote a book, with the Rev. Martyn Percy of Oxford, called Why Liberal Churches Are Growing. Markham is also the author of Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong.

  • Thomas Ogletree

    Thomas Ogletree is a United Methodist minister and the Frederick Marquand professor emeritus of theological ethics at Yale Divinity School. He has said he believes the debate over homosexuality indicates the church will eventually change its position.

  • Jack B. Rogers

    The Rev. Jack B. Rogers is a lifelong evangelical and former leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA). In March 2006, he published a book, Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, describing how he has changed his position from opposing gay ordination to supporting it.

  • James Stanton

    Bishop James Stanton of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas has been active nationally and internationally in the Anglican debate over the role of gays in the church. He was involved in the founding of the American Anglican Council, which works to oppose the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. 

  • Richard J. Mouw

    Richard J. Mouw is a well-known writer and commentator on evangelical Christianity and the president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a leading evangelical institution. Contact Mouw through Fred Messick, Fuller’s associate vice president for public affairs.

    In November 2003, Mouw engaged in a widely followed debate with Barbara G. Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological seminary in New York, about the issue of gay ordination. The exchange, titled “Strangers: A Dialogue About the Church,” took place at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In his address, Mouw spoke against ordaining active homosexuals, but also about the dynamics of the debate and its negative impact on the churches.

Religious sources

Episcopal Church

  • Forward in Faith North America

    Forward in Faith North American was organized in 1999 largely in response to the debates over sexuality issues. Its web site includes a listing of member parishes around the country. Executive director Michael Howell can be emailed through the FiFNA contact page.

    Contact: 800-225-3661.
  • American Anglican Council

    The American Anglican Council was founded in 1996 to call the Episcopal Church back to the apostolic faith, according AAC president and CEO the Rt. Rev. David C. Anderson. The AAC was a founding member of the Anglican Church in North America in 2009. Contact through communications officer Robert Lundy.

  • Anglican Church in North America

    The Anglican Church in North America was initiated in June 2008 and formally recognized in April 2009 in response to what many in the denomination saw as the liberalizing and moving away from Scripture of Episcopal and Anglican churches in America and Canada. Members of the media should request Matthew Swab when calling for information.

  • Integrity USA

    Integrity USA is a nonprofit organization and the major national network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Episcopalians and supports gay ordination. It is a leading grass-roots voice for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church and equal access to its rites. Contact operations manager David Cupps.

  • The Oasis

    The Oasis is a support ministry for gay Episcopalians. It has chapters in the dioceses of California, Missouri, Newark, Michigan, Rochester and New Jersey. Contact information can be found on each chapter’s website.

  • The Consultation

    The Consultation is an umbrella organization that gathers a number of Episcopal groups that support a progressive agenda, including gay ordination.

  • Claiming the Blessing

    Claiming the Blessing is a collaborative of organizations and individuals within the Episcopal Church advocating the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

Presbyterian Church (USA)

  • “The Layman”

    The Layman is a conservative journal published by the Presbyterian Lay Committee, a North Carolina-based action group. Contact through PLC president and executive director Carmen Fowler LaBerge.

  • Evangelical Presbyterian Church

    The Evangelical Presbyterian Church is a conservative Presbyterian denomination started in 1981 consisting of more than 400 churches and 135,000 members. Contact the EPC through director of communication and information systems Dana Cadman.

  • ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians

    ECO is a conservative Presbyterian denomination founded in January 2012.

  • The Presbyterian Coalition

    The Presbyterian Coalition is a conservative movement within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. formed largely in response to the question of ordination of gay clergy.

  • Presbyterians for Renewal

    Presbyterians for Renewal is a conservative renewal movement within the PCUSA formed in April 1989.

    Contact: 502-425-4630.
  • Covenant Network of Presbyterians

    The Covenant Network of Presbyterians is a progressive group within the PCUSA working towards a fully inclusive church. Contact executive director Brian Ellison.

  • More Light Presbyterians

    More Light Presbyterians is a progressive group of individuals and congregations within the PCUSA which describes itself as “a network of people seeking the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” Contact interim executive director Patrick Evans.

  • That All May Freely Serve

    That All May Freely Serve is a progressive group within the PCUSA which lobbies for a Presbyterian Church that is inclusive fully inclusive. Contact Ray Bagnuolo.

United Methodist Church

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Margaret A. Farley

    Margaret A. Farley is the Gilbert L. Stark professor emerita of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn. She is Catholic and has written widely about Christian sexual ethics.

  • Wendy Cadge

    Wendy Cadge is an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She has written widely about homosexuality and Christianity, especially as it pertains to mainline Protestantism.

  • Bernadette J. Brooten

    Bernadette J. Brooten is the Kraft-Hiatt professor of Christian studies, women’s and gender studies, classical studies, and religious studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She is also the founder and director of the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. She is an expert in the history of sexuality in the Bible and is author of Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (The University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  • Robert A.J. Gagnon

    Robert A.J. Gagnon is an associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. His expertise is in sexual teachings in the Bible, with a focus on homosexuality.

  • David F. McAllister-Wilson

    The Rev. David F. McAllister-Wilson is president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., a Methodist institution. Contact him through Amy Shelton, director of marketing and communications.

In the South

  • Lesley Armstrong Northup

    Lesley Armstrong Northup is an associate professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami. She wrote “Homosexuality in the Evolution of American Christianity,” a chapter in the volume Religion & Sexuality: Passionate Debates, edited by C.K. Robertson.

  • Charles Eric Mount Jr.

    Charles Eric Mount Jr. is a professor emeritus of religion at Centre College in Danville, Ky., and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His expertise is in community ethics and theology.

  • William B. Lawrence

    William B. Lawrence is a professor of American church history and dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and has expressed concern that the debates over homosexuality could lead to lasting schisms.

  • Dr. Mark Lowery

    Dr. Mark Lowery is a professor of theology at the University of Dallas, an independent Catholic school in Irving, Texas. Lowery has written extensively on the traditional Christian view of sexuality.

  • William K. McElvaney

    The Rev. William K. McElvaney is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and former president of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. McElvaney has been a leading voice on issues of social justice throughout his ministry and supports gay ordination. Contact him through the SMU office of news and communications.

  • Ben Witherington III

    Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”

    Witherington calls himself an evangelical and has pressed for a clearer stand by the UMC on gay issues.

In the Midwest

  • Stanton L. Jones

    Stanton L. Jones is provost and professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. He has written on homosexuality and Christianity from an evangelical perspective. Contact through the Wheaton College media relations office.

  • Mark Jordan

    Mark Jordan is a professor of Christian thought at Harvard University’s Divinity School and is an expert on issues of homosexuality in Catholic life, especially in the priesthood. He is the author of The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism, 2002) and Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality (2011). He calls on the church to recognize its many gay Catholics among the leadership and the faithful. He also posits that the culture of Catholicism and gay culture have much in common and that male desire has been a central fact of the priesthood. Contact via Michael Naughton in communications.

  • Roland D. Martinson

    Roland D. Martinson is a professor of children, youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. He has written books on parenting and youth ministry and has been involved with the Faith Factors project, a longitudinal study of the factors that lead young people who are Lutheran and Baptist to remain involved with their faith traditions.

    He is an expert in issues of human sexuality and church ethics.

In the West

  • Horace L. Griffin

    Horace L. Griffin is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He has written several scholarly articles on theology and homosexuality.

  • James K. Wellman Jr.

    James K. Wellman Jr. is a professor of American religion, culture and politics and chair of the comparative religion program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written on homosexuality in American churches and the question of gay ordination.

  • Melissa M. Wilcox

    Melissa M. Wilcox is an associate professor of religion at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and director of the Gender Studies Program. Her writing and research focus on the interplay of Christianity, homosexuality and identity. She is the author of Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity & Community.

  • Daniel Spencer

    Daniel Spencer is an associate professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Montana in Missoula. He has written widely about homosexuality and Christianity.

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