Status quo

Chico church won’t follow mother church’s gay-ordination policy

The hot-button issue of homosexuality landed front and center on the steps of Chico’s Bidwell Presbyterian Church after the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America voted in May to allow the ordination of openly gay clergy.

Nevertheless, the PCUSA-affiliated church’s Board of Elders will continue its policy of not ordaining practicing gays and lesbians as deacons, elders or ministers.

“My guess is that, at least initially, the ordination changes will not affect us at all,” said Steve Schibsted, the senior pastor who has led Bidwell Presbyterian’s flock for 13 years.

The PCUSA, which represents approximately 2 million members and more than 11,000 congregations nationwide, joins denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church in allowing gay church leaders.

Schibsted said he’s more interested in building his local congregation of 1,500 churchgoers than being involved in the “politics” of the national church. “We try to keep the mission of the church central and not get distracted by issues that can divide the church and sap a lot of energy,” he said.

Elsewhere, however, the news was greeted with a thud. The Sacramento Bee reported that Fair Oaks Presbyterian, the largest Sacramento-area Presbyterian Church at 1,300 members, became one of the first in California to leave the denomination since the national church’s decision.

A Sacramento minister called the ordination of gay clergy in the Presbyterian Church “the biggest upheaval I have ever seen.” Another called it “my worst nightmare.”

Schibsted won’t go that far. Instead he’s trying to walk a tightrope to keep his flock united, avoiding what’s taken place in churches that have adopted gay-affirming policies and consequently sent parishioners headed to the exits firm in their beliefs that biblical scripture says homosexual acts are sinful.

“Some Christians interpret scripture as saying that homosexual relations are sinful; other Christians interpret the scriptures differently,” he said.

In a May 5 CN&R cover story (“Tearing down a big wall”), some local gay-affirming church leaders reported their reluctance to share their beliefs, fearful that members would leave for churches that support the more orthodox belief that homosexual acts are sinful.

When pressed, Schibsted declined to share his personal opinion on the issue.

Calling it a “very emotional issue,” he added that “human sexuality is a complex and even mysterious subject.”

“In all fairness, it’s difficult to explain the issue thoughtfully in a newspaper article or even a 25-minute sermon,” Schibsted said. “So much can be misunderstood, especially because emotions can run so high.”

For now, Bidwell Presbyterian’s future with the PCUSA remains unchanged, but its board, congregation and pastors will discuss the issue in the coming months. Leaving the denomination is still a possibility but one that could take a long time due to the Presbyterian Church’s slow-moving democratic form of government.

It’s also one that could cause a lot of heartache.

“For many in our congregation, the PCUSA has been the only denomination they have known,” Schibsted said. “It would be a sad day for them if we were to leave the denomination.”

This sort of schism is nothing new for at least two other North State congregations, which had already broken off from the national Presbyterian Church.

Ridge Presbyterian Church left the PCUSA in the 1970s to join the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) because of disagreements about the nature of scripture, the meaning of salvation, and the life of Jesus. One of the Paradise church’s leaders isn’t surprised that Presbyterian churches like the one in Fair Oaks are cutting the cord with the mother church.

“What many of these churches are getting right is that our call is to stand up for the marginalized and be a voice for the oppressed and a friend to the friendless,” said Josh Lee, assistant pastor at Ridge Presbyterian. “But what they might be missing is that sometimes the church is also called to push back against the prevailing culture and challenge its assumptions, even if that is unpopular.”

Lee also acknowledged that the tide is running against his view. “I wouldn’t be surprised if many churches will seek to cater to [cultural change] rather than critique it,” he said.

More recently, the 100 members of the First Presbyterian Church of Gridley voted to leave the national church to join an evangelical branch of the Presbyterian Church. Clergy at First Presbyterian declined to be quoted for this story but said the split was not associated in any way with the issue of homosexuality, but rather differences in biblical principles.

The change, which occurred last year, wasn’t without cost. The church had to pay an undisclosed financial settlement to disassociate itself from the denomination.

Similarly, if members at Bidwell Presbyterian voted to break off from the PCUSA, the two sides would need to negotiate a settlement—one that could prove costly.

“Two churches in our presbytery … had to pay in excess of $1 million,” said Schibsted.

The Chico pastor estimates that the percentage of gay members at Bidwell Presbyterian mirrors that of the general public. For now, he’s managing the issue by focusing on areas of agreement instead of contention.

“We all agree that Christ is central and the church is for all people regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic class, education or sexual orientation,” he said. “I can say with great confidence that the members of our congregation see themselves as Christ-followers first and Presbyterians second.”