Barbara Wheeler, former President of Auburn Theological Seminary has written an article in response to overture (11-05) coming before the General Assembly this summer in Portland. You can read the article, entitled “Breach of Faith: Why the Apology Overture is So Wrong” at these links: (http://albanypresbytery.org/breach-of-faith-why-the-apology-overture-is-so-wrong/) and (http://www.layman.org/breach-faith-apology-overture-wrong/). It was posted in both websites with an image that reads: “A measure is coming before General Assembly that breaks the promise of freedom of conscience.”
I thank her for her contributions to the conversation about this overture as those elected and called are to discern it’s content. There is much to commend in her thoughts, such as the preservation of the freedom of conscience we all hold so dear. While I agree with most of the impulses of this overture, I also find much to be addressed for this broad conversation for the church.
On my first reading, I noted that Wheeler makes no reference to the related apology to the Native Americans in overture (11-08). Recently, there has been an important recognition of the interconnectivity of oppressions experienced by communities who have experienced historic discrimination. Unlike that overture, 11-05 does not list and document where the systematic discrimination of LGBTQ people exists within the broader systems of the Church. Nothing is mentioned of those predatory heterosexual pastors who preyed on children of every gender in the Boarding School system among First Nation populations our church was complicit in. (I’ll let you all search out those systems and our complicity within them.)
She does give a nod at one point of the Recommendation of 11-08, as we read these words:
“Even worse, we arrogantly thought that Western European culture and cultural expressions were necessary parts of the Gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition for your accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you be like us and, in so doing, we helped to diminish the Sacred Vision that made you who you are. Thus, we demonstrated that we did not fully understand the Gospel we were trying to preach.”
In addition to not mentioning overture (11-08), Wheeler also attempts to make the recent conversation about the inclusion and ordination of LGBTQ persons a more recent phenomenon. Over the last 10,000 to 500 years, we now know that the Lakota people have recognized three genders and that the Navajo people have recognized four genders. Many other First Nations had their own cultural values that welcomed all of their children. Today, most First Nation peoples call such people Two-Spirit people, and have recognized many of them as spiritual leaders in their communities.
Furthermore, if we as Presbyterians had been reading the Jewish Talmud, we would have recognized that our Jewish brothers and sister have recognized up to six genders for hundreds of years reading the First Testament. If we cannot make the connections to those in other cultures whom we have been presently oppressing, we have no right to ask others for time to make amends. There are eight forms of marriage in the Hebrew scriptures. With just one example, why would we go back to enforcing the marriage of those women won as a war bride?
I’m glad that Wheeler makes passing mention of the changes in church polity over the ages. I would have rather that she addressed the changes in society since the last General Assembly, including the Supreme Court’s decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) which has shown that there has been a sea shift in the legal understanding of the rightful place of LGBTQ people in American civil society. Since the last GA, there is a growing scientific knowledge that the oppression of sexual and gender minorities has led to significant social repercussions. The psychological research of Dr. Caitlyn Ryan at SFSU who has pointed out the mental health disparities for those who are not accepted by their families of origin or congregations (http://familyproject.sfsu.edu).
Apologies can never come too early. An apology, even in one voice, need not be contorted into only a theological apology. Must we not also recognize that there have been decades of abuse against LGBTQ people by ordinary Presbyterians borne out by those individual notions of heterosexist superiority since the original report on human sexuality was submitted to the 1978 GA? The landmark report suggested that there was no reason why LGBTQ people should not continue to be recognized as fully baptized and welcomed members of the community, but it was heartily rejected by the GA which made the exact opposite policy. How many seminarians have been blocked from even continuing their studies at our PCUSA seminaries? How many faithful Presbyterians were barred from serving as Deacons or Ruling Elders because of the prejudices of perhaps only a minority number of members in their local congregations?
Local congregations and Teaching Elders need not fear a reformation of the freedom of conscience from such an apology, but it may challenge them in how they are treating former Presbyterians who seek to return to the church of their birth or past. This is the most efficacious aspect of this overture. If we apologize to those we have spiritually abused in the past, it could mean that many former Presbyterians – even staunch Evangelicals who happen to be LGBTQ – may wish to return to the churches that previously excluded them. Many think that this is an opportunity for every congregation in the church to welcome back those who have been “church hurt” over the years. Who knows, perhaps we could also welcome back those of other traditions who could only find a full welcome within our diversity as Presbyterians.
The most important parts of this overture, to many of us who didn’t write it, includes an opportunity to hear the abuses of those over the last 75 years who are still living who have remained within the church or who have felt forced out of the church – either through session actions or seminary actions. Perhaps this overture can be transformed into an invitation for Presbyteries, Sessions, Seminaries and Synods to explore and hear those stories that have been hidden for many years – in search of some way forward. Those who left for other denominations before our change in policy may also give us wisdom for the future of what it means for us to be Presbyterian into the next century.
This overture doesn’t scapegoat only one part of the church. It also reminds those Presbyterians whose consciences were pricked, but did nothing with their silence since 1978 has been deafening. It is a statement on behalf of all of us, that those who were sent to reparative therapy operations and have been physically and spiritually abused by a so-called therapeutic system that attempts to transform their God-given psyche as a person toward that of the most accepted form in our society is not honoring of their being created in the image of God. This overture reclaims the human dignity of those whom we ignored for the last half century.
I do not find this overture to be a breach of faith. I find it to be an easily edited form of beginning a process of truth and reconciliation that might begin to heal the rift between those who have been abused by the church with those congregations willing and able to welcome them. This is as a first step towards healing the relationship of our beloved church with those who have been the most abused class of persons over the last few decades, and those deprived of their spiritual ministry among the First Nations we so badly abused in attempting to convert them first to our culture – and then to our religion. Delaying such an apology would show that the church isn’t able to own up to our own abuses in any age.
Blaming the victim is never pretty, but unfortunately it is something we have become accustomed to. Like those who have been oppress before us, I say “Never Again.”
Rev. Will McGarvey
Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg, CA
Presbytery of San Francisco