A Cheektowaga pastor has become the first Presbyterian minister in the United States to formally go on record, contrary to the consensus of his congregation, in favor of the ordination of gays and lesbians.
The Rev. Philip Siddons, pastor of Maryvale Drive Presbyterian Church, declared to his congregation during a one-hour and 15-minute presentation Sunday that he is a "More Light" minister.
The stance puts him at odds with church law on ordination and with about two-thirds of the members of his congregation.
The term "More Light," based on a Scripture passage, means supporting the election, ordination and installation as a church officer of any individual, regardless of sexual orientation. Such ordinations currently are prohibited by the Book of Order, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but that rule may be changed within the next year.
Ordinarily, the "More Light" stand, often seen as an act of defiance, is taken by an entire congregation or the church Session, its governing body. But only 120 churches nationwide have declared themselves to be "More Light."
"This is the first minister I've heard of" who has taken the position without the support of his congregation, observed Jerry Van Marter, news director for the Presbyterian News Service in Louisville, Ky.
But the denomination's General Assembly, its national ruling body, voted earlier this month to abolish the ban on the ordination of homosexuals. To become church law, the change must be ratified by a majority of the church's 173 presbyteries over the next year.
Siddons, who has been pastor of the Maryvale Drive church for four years, said he made the statement "as a continuing education work" to stimulate discussion of homosexuality within the congregation.
"I feel that, as a leader, I have an obligation to state my own personal understanding on this issue," said the minister, who also teaches Scripture classes at the University at Buffalo.
"My studies of the Scriptures and the cultures in which they were written and my study of society's current research on sexual orientation (have) led me to agree with those who have taken this "More Light' position," he said.
Siddons, who is heterosexual, acknowledged that "the elders of the Session which employs me are fiercely against those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered persons."
Despite the controversial nature of his declaration, the Rev. David W. McKee, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Western New York, said he views Siddons' remarks as nothing more than "a personal statement by a pastor.
The Rev. D. Dean Weaver, pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Kenmore, vehemently disagrees.
"It is not a personal remark. It is a professional remark. He is a member of the Presbytery of Western New York, and, as such, he is obliged to uphold the constitutional standards of the church," he said.
"He can think what he wants as long as he doesn't try to push his thoughts down our throats," said Larry Burroughs, one of several church members who objected to their pastor's statement.
Burroughs, who serves as church treasurer, pointed out that Siddons was aware when he was hired as pastor that "we are a very conservative congregation."
"He looks at (the homosexuality issue) one way, and we look at it another way. How this is going to end up, I don't know," Burroughs said.
On the other hand, Joan McKinley, who has been a member of Maryvale Presbyterian for about 30 years, supports Siddons.
"The main point in all of his sermons is relationships. His take on this issue is that everyone is God's people and that God loves us all," she said.
McKinley agrees with Burroughs that the 200-member congregation is "extremely conservative" and estimated that "probably less than one-third" agree with Siddons' statement or his decision to make it.
"The congregation is very unwilling to change. I think there will be a lot of meetings and a lot of conversations," she said.
Regardless of how many church members disagree with Siddons, McKee said they are powerless to get rid of him.
"The Session does not hire and fire pastors and certainly not over theological disagreements," McKee said, explaining that Siddons was hired by the Presbytery at the request of the congregation.
Weaver contends that Siddons could be removed as a pastor if someone lodged a complaint about him with the denomination's Permanent Judicial Commission, the church court.
"By publicly proclaiming that he is advocating a position that is contrary to the constitution, it puts him in a position of disobedience to the church's standards and makes him liable for judicial action," he said.
McKee, however, compares the situation to the early days of the civil rights movement, when pastors of all-white churches in the South proposed opening their doors to blacks over the objections of their congregations.
"I'm hoping it will start a dialogue within the Maryvale congregation," said McKee.
The Rev. Thomas H. Yorty, pastor of Buffalo's Westminster Church, said Siddons' public stand "will undoubtedly strain his pastoral relationship with members of that congregation."
"My hope is that it does not disqualify or negate his relationship with them," said Yorty, whose church is the only "More Light" congregation in the Presbytery of Western New York.
Yorty said he considers Siddons "a very creative, thoughtful, innovative person" who is "passionate about the great issues of the day."
"I think he is trying to demonstrate a path that other clergy could take if they wanted to," he said.
"Will this start a movement? I sort of doubt it because it is not easy to be a prophet," Yorty added.
Burroughs, the church treasurer, wonders if his pastor's statement might start a movement out the door of the Maryvale Drive church.
"If attendance drops off dramatically, it will show that people are unhappy. The Session would have to come to grips with it," he said.