Today, Sunday, July 10th, is a landmark day in the PC (USA) for many reasons.
What has received the most attention in the press and the social media outlets is the passing and implementation of Amendment 10-A, which returns the church to our historic pattern of recognizing the gifts officers bring to the church. Since 1997, with the imposition of an unclear, and seemingly discriminatory paragraph into the church constitution, there has been an official excuse to discriminate against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer and Questioning candidates for ministry as Ministers, Elders, and Deacons. What some saw as a clear reading of scripture that such officers in the church should be chaste in singleness (read celibate, despite the Confession’s multiple polemics against clerical celibacy), or defining covenant fidelity as only within a marriage between one man and a woman. The way this paragraph was worded, it included defining anything which the confessions call sin as barring one from service in the church (such as usury, gluttony, avarice, etc.) though the intention was to bar the LGBTQQ community from open service in the church. Of course, LGBTQQ people have always served the church, but they just couldn’t be honest about who they are and who they loved without putting themselves at risk of being censured or removed from office by the church courts if someone found out. As you can imagine, this paragraph has kept many from keeping the 9th of the 10 commandments – not only for those who bear false witness against others – but also for those who have not felt safe to be honest about oneself.
Also approved at our last General Assembly was a hotly contested new Form of Government, or the governance portion of our church constitution. Such changes to the constitution include a few legal changes, such as a change to preclude double jeopardy in our church courts. But these changes also include a reclaiming of terms for our officers once used in the past as well. The United Presbyterian Church (USA) used the terms Teaching Elders for pastors and Ruling Elders for those elected from the congregation to serve on the church Session (now a Council). Deacons continue to be those officers in the church that serve the community through hospitality, support, and nurture. Every member is a minister or servant of God’s purposes in the world. At the reunion of the northern and southern strands of Presbyterianism in 1983, pastors were given the title of Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Perhaps this title was used to emphasize their role in leading in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as being the primary teachers in their community. Or perhaps, this title was used to bring the terminology of Pastoral leadership closer to those of our ecumenical partners whose clergy served in more sacerdotal (priestly) roles. Whatever the case, I believe that the return to the historic terms of Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders is an important corrective to the “Clergy-Laity divide” to which many pastors have contributed, and so I as a Teaching Elder will celebrate this change.
But today also gives us a more important movement within the Spirit of God among us. As one of the Gay Ruling Elders at the church in which I serve has noted on his Facebook page this morning, “Let the healing continue.” Today also offers us the opportunity toward healing the church. Over the years, I have seen over a dozen wonderful, creative, trained, Candidates for pastoral ministry in the PC (USA) (and more orthodox than I am) give up on their call among us not only because of the perceived constitutional barriers, but also because of the culture of fear and disdain which that part of the constitution has created among us. By returning to our historical principles local congregations and presbyteries (regional bodies) – those governing bodies that know the candidates best – will now be able consider candidates based on their life and faith, their calling and discipleship, and their promise to live into the constitutional questions to which they vow. It has always been a principle among us that congregations and presbyteries have the freedom to call those whom they feel called to serve them. But by removing those discriminatory words noted above, we have allowed those congregations and presbyteries who choose to ordain and install an LGBTQQ Elder (Ruling or Teaching) or Deacon. This moves the decision making back to the community in which the ministry of the person will be received. This allows each of us to live out our freedom of conscience, so carefully preserved for individuals and congregations in our constitution.
But all of this context brings me back to my own experience of this last weekend. From Thursday to Sunday, I was honored to be invited to meet and support a group of around 25 of our Presbyterian LGBTQQ Inquirers and Candidates for ministry at a rural retreat center in Colorado. I am a member of the National Board of the More Light Presbyterians, a movement working for the full inclusion of all people in the church since Rev. David Sindt stood up at the General Assembly in 1974 with a sign that said “Is anyone else out there Gay?” We at More Light Presbyterians have always worked with Presbyterian Welcome (NY City Area welcome ministry), That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS – begun with the ministry of Rev. Janie Spahr, Lesbian Evangelist and continuing under that apt leadership of Lisa Larges), and The Covenant Network of Presbyterians (organized to overturn G-6.0106b and work for equality for all in the church). In this special weekend held each year (organized by Presbyterian Welcome), members of all of these groups together support those Inquirers and Candidates that have been most at risk of being ignored or excluded from leadership in the church. We come together to hear each other’s stories, to support one another in whatever context we find ourselves, and to worship together. As you can imagine, because not every congregation or presbytery is as supportive as another, strict confidence is kept about where each gathering occurs and those in attendance.
This year’s retreat was a special experience for us all, where hope, peace, and love were celebrated because of the possibility that Amendment 10-A (now G-2.0104b in the new Form of Government) will make a difference in the way we Presbyterians treat each other. I heard that many of those who were close to giving up on the church, or thinking about continuing their ministry in the church as academics rather than in pastoral ministry, now find themselves reconsidering God’s calling on their lives given the new openness within the church. While everyone’s story was different, a significant number shared the experience that the congregation in which they were born and baptized rejected them when they were honest about who they are or whom they love. These are Seminarians who have studied our scriptures, and have a Reformed understanding of the theology of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the covenants that a congregation makes to welcome, accept, and nurture those who have come to maturity in the Sunday Schools and Youth Groups of our churches. They have been to Triennium and they have served as Young Adult Volunteers around the world, and seek to give back the grace they have received to those around them. The church at large needs to hear that these future ministers, who have read section G-4 on the Church and it’s unity and G-5 about Membership and Ministry in the church in our former Book of Order, have been rejected by their own church families – and biological families – for religious reasons. While some of the Candidates have found the courage to find another congregation or presbytery in which start over (which can mean an additional 3 years or more of delay to one’s ordination process), others are fearful of trying again. One only has to consider how many years Lisa Larges has been a Candidate in my own presbytery (since 1983) to conjecture about the number of baptismal covenants we as Presbyterians have not kept to our own children.
I trust that I understand many of the reasons and rationales of my colleagues who grieve at the passage of Amendment 10-A. They have been articulated in my home Presbytery, as well as the Layman and Presbyterian Outlook. Many of their views are ones I too have held at one time. I grew up as a Son of the Utah Pioneers, and was an active member of the LDS Church until a year after my two-year mission in New England came to a close. I grew up with the strict gender norms of our U.S. culture, though women weren’t included in the formal leadership of the LDS faith. I heard the biblical arguments against same-gender-loving people, but I also knew of a member of my Young Men’s group who had taken his own life because of the lack of options for his life. After marrying Becky, two of our LDS nephews came out of the closet, and we found ourselves among their only supportive family members. After our conversion to Protestantism, we swam in the waters of Radical Evangelicalism and eventually found a wonderful Welcoming and Affirming American Baptist Church where I felt the call to volunteer Youth Ministry. A Youth Minister friend compelled me to consider a full-time position in Youth Ministry at FPC Salt Lake City. While considering the position, I read the whole book of Confessions, and as I admitted to the group this weekend, when I got to the Confession of 67, I finally realized that I could be a Presbyterian. I thought, “If this was a group centered about living out its faith in peace, justice, anti-racism, gender equality and love, then I was all for joining up.” Of course, there are times since that initial reading of C67 that I feel as if there was a “bait and switch” based on my experience in the church, but this is still my church, and I will continue to live C67 out, despite the protestations of others in my presbytery, synod, or those throughout the church, for I find the ways and actions of Jesus of Nazareth expressed within that Confession like no other.
So, I understand those who see 10-A in the context of desiring to preserve biblical authority, but after this weekend I have to wonder if my colleagues understand the level of pain, oppression, grief, and even PTSD that members of the LGBTQQ experience when what is most natural about the way they love another child of God is described in terms of sin or abuse, rather than the ways that the ancients described the idolatry of worshipping foreign gods through temple prostitution in a Canaanite or Greco-Roman temple. What was most interesting for me, as a now self-avowed “off the charts liberal” pastor in the church, was the high level of orthodoxy and connection to Presbyterian tradition that I found within these candidates for ministry. I found men, women, and transgender siblings of every generation whose only goal is to live out their Reformed faith. I found a community that is ready to live up to its own theology – and living faithfully together as colleagues with their straight siblings of every theological stripe.
While I hope my presence and support wash helpful to them, the blessing was all mine for the time I was able to spend with them. Based on our larger group conversations, the plethora of ideas for new ministries shared over meals, and the depth of worship lead by these siblings in Christ, I have great hope for the future of our church, if we live into this considerable moment in our history together.
thank you, Will, for this thoughtful post about the retreat. your sharing of it and your encounters with these seminarians and candidates give me nothing but a deep sense of gratitude and hope.
Thanks brother Michael.