WASHINGTON, March 19 (RNS) -- It's back to the drawing board for the Presbyterian Church (USA). When the 2.5 million-member church met last summer in Long Beach, Calif., delegates approved a ban on same-sex unions by only 17 votes and sent it to 173 regional presbyteries for approval to be added to the church's constitution.

At the time, conservatives said the presbyteries were far less divided on the issue than the voting delegates and promised the measure would pass by a large margin. Liberals said they would aggressively lobby to defeat it.

When the 87th presbytery voted against the so-called ``Amendment O'' on March 14, the measure was effectively killed and the church now finds itself in exactly the same place it was a year ago, with the issue still unresolved.

In this round, the liberals have come out on top.

``We were really on a roll, and this is a defeat, but we have to see this as one defeat in a very large war,'' said the Rev. Parker Williamson, a leader of the church's conservative wing.

In many ways, the Presbyterian Church has become a barometer of how gay issues are playing out in U.S. churches. The back-and-forth decisions reveal a seeming inability to find a permanent resolution.

Because Presbyterians meet annually, the issue never quite seems to go away. Issues left unresolved at one meeting inevitably return the next year. So when the church meets in June in Louisville, Ky., the gay issue will dominate the agenda - again.

Both conservatives and liberals concede the ban failed because it was so vague that presbyteries were unsure what it would ultimately mean. It did not explicitly ban same-sex unions, but rather ``any ceremony or event'' which blesses a relationship other than heterosexual marriage.

Opponents said it could keep ministers from officiating at a gay person's funeral, or giving communion to gay church members, and ultimately would tie the hands of local clergy in ministering to their flock.

This is the second time Presbyterians have rejected a ban on same-sex unions; a similar vote failed in the presbyteries in 1995. After a church court ruling last year, ministers are free to conduct services joining gays in same-sex ``unions'' as long as they are not explicitly equated with ``marriage.''

Time is running out for a similar ban proposal to emerge from the presbyteries to be considered by the next General Assembly meeting. Most expect the June 9-16 meeting to revolve instead around the issue of gay ordination, with progressives hoping to remove a five-year-old ban on gay clergy.

It is unclear how the defeat of the same-sex union ban will affect the debate on gay ordination. Some say the church is so tired of wrestling with the issue that delegates may be reluctant to try to deal with it legislatively.

But what is crystal clear is that the nation's largest Presbyterian body is deadlocked on how - of if - they can move beyond the debate. ``From a human perspective, there is no solution on the horizon, and I don't think either side is willing to say, `Let's agree to disagree,''' said the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, director of the conservative Presbyterians for Renewal. ``We're in need of divine intervention. No human solutions have been offered that would bridge the impasse over this issue.''

If anything, the defeat of Amendment O shows that the gay issue is not solely about gays. Conservatives maintain the issue is really about biblical authority, and say ignoring biblical prohibitions against homosexuality would downplay the importance of Scripture.

Liberals, meanwhile, say the issue is about human relationships and God's care for all his creation, gay and straight. They also say whatever the church ultimately decides will speak volumes about the Presbyterian tradition of allowing churches and pastors to make their own decisions on ministry.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a liberal group which opposed Amendment O, says attempts to legislate the issue on the national level will never work.

``My hope is that moderate conservatives and moderate liberals are going to stand up and say, both to the left and the right, that we're tired of this war,'' said the Rev. Laird Stuart, pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco and co-moderator of the Covenant Network. ``This is not an essential, this prohibition does not belong in our life together, so let's leave it up to the (churches) and presbyteries and move on.''

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