I wish I had started this on Saturday, because I’m already losing some of the detail to the corners of my mind that memory has abandoned. Demands of a full Sunday and sick toddlers, though, trump blogging.
On Saturday, Heartland Presbytery met in a called meeting to consider proposed amendments to the shared polity that structures how we are church together, the Book of Order, as well as to ratify ecumenical agreements for our denomination. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the General Assembly receives recommendations for such amendments through an overture process, and if it deems the amendments commendable, they are sent to the Presbyteries for consideration. If a majority of the Presbyteries agree to the changes, they become part of the Book of Order.
Collectively, Heartland Presbytery voted on 10 amendments Saturday, and four ecumenical agreements (a collective agreement on the Sacrament of Baptism with the Roman Catholic Church, some shared ministry with the Episcopal Church, and full covenantal relationship with the Moravian Church and the Korean Presbyterian Church in America). A summary of our presbytery’s meeting was helpfully prepared by our stated clerk (pdf).
For the most part, there was little debate over most of the business before us. The ecumenical agreements were discussed with only one person rising to the floor–to mention that she was baptized in the Moravian church and was well pleased we were moving to recognize our common ministry. We had some discussion about the potential ramifications of two different amendments pertaining to Certified Christian Educators. A proposal to clarify Book of Discipline language so that accusers cannot veto Alternative Forms of Resolution was challenged, and there was some discussion about the suggestion to require a public profession of faith for new members in the context of worship. Generally, though, all of this was amicable, and as expected. (For Presbygeeks out there, at the end of the day, and not including the matter below, Heartland Presbytery voted to ratify all of the proposed amendments except 08A, 08F and 08I. You can see all the proposed amendments at the special page on the PCUSA website.)
The real debate, as expected perhaps, when we turned to the amendment that would modify that portion of the Book of Order that contains the so-called “fidelity and chasity” clause in G-6.0106b:
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
The new language proposed by amendment 08-B would replace all of the above with the following:
Those who are called to ordained office in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.”
Heartland voted to pass this change by a vote of 127-90, and if a majority of Presbyteries (87) vote likewise, it will become the new standard. I strongly favor this new language, for a number of reasons. Had I had the opportunity to speak in debate on the floor (I was in line, but the vote was brought before I could speak), here’s roughly what I would have said on the floor:
I want to share three of the reasons, among others, that I support this amendment. The first is theological. When I was a teenager, involved in youth ministry in my Presbytery and becoming familiar with how the church engages in all sorts of controversies, I could hear from every quarter “theology matters!” And it really, truly does. The current G-6.0106 advances bad theology, and particularly a theology that fails to articulate that our obedience is to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church. It is bad theology to pledge to live our lives in obedience to Scripture. We pledge ourselves to God, to Christ Jesus the living Word as testified to us through Holy Scripture. This amendment corrects that mistake, and in itself makes this section of our Constitution much stronger.
The second is personal. Two fellow friends of mine as a teenager, likewise engaged in youth ministry, had the same call to ministry I had. They had more gifts for it, and both are lesbian. One endured much pain and suffering and somehow, by the grace of God, is now a PCUSA minister, working for Presbyterian Welcome to advance the cause of inclusion in the church. The other, the sister of an esteemed, former minister member of this Presbytery, has abandoned the church and the faith that she sensed abandoned her. These capable, called women make me think of my own daughters, now two-and-a-half years old. Should, as they grow older and find their faith nurtured in the church, they hear the call of God and the church to ordained leadership someday, and should God have made one or both of them a lesbian, I would find it unjust for there to be a formal bar for an ordanining body to consider their gifts for leadership. So I think of my more capable peers; I think of my daughters; I think of the sons and daughters of those in this sanctuary. This singling out of a single class of ostensible sins as a bar to ordained office makes little theological sense to those of us who claim the Protestant and Reformed mantle.
Which leads to my third reason: I believe that God is working in our church and that, if we listen to the Holy Spirit, that now is the time for us to end this practice, and to consider that our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters might well be just the people God is calling to lead us and our congregations.
That would have been, more or less, what I would have said in my allotted two minutes. Nothing particularly novel or groundbreaking, and in some ways characteristic of much of what was said by proponents of the amendment. Many who lined up to speak did so by appealing to personal stories. The reason for this, I believe, is that it is the personal relationships that often cause those who strongly argue for the sinfulness of homosexuality and/or homosexual activity to rethink their position. And accordingly those who rise to debate for their two minutes often talk about their brother, or their cousin, or their friends, or their children. This is not to say that there aren’t solid theological, biblical, ecclesiastical, and missional reasons for holding a more inclusive view on this matter, but for many who are opposed, it is the fact that one’s loved ones are gay that gets them rethinking the whole “homosexuality is mainly a choice” meme.
But what struck me on Saturday, and what I wanted to blog about, was the tenor of the voices opposing the amendment. I’m not really interested in the one or two particularly vile remarks (such as the one painting Kansas City’s First Friday celebrations as a locus of homosexual debauchery), and concentrate on the rest, because I think these other remarks have more merit to them, and I empathize with all who are wrestling with this, even if we do not agree on these positions we passionately hold.
When these other voices spoke against the amendment, it seemed to me that they revealed more about what they thought we on the other side assumed about them. Their arguments often started with apology for their position. So, for instance, many started with a claim that their position was not about hating Gays and Lesbians, that they all felt that Gays and Lesbians were welcome in their churches, that this was about a higher standard for ordained officers.
Perhaps this was in reaction to the opposition’s first speaker, but this litany of apology struck me. I’ve never thought, for most who hold a view similar to those who resist broadening the rights of ordained office to GLBT folk, that hatred or flat denial of basic Christian love and charity for them was involved. Perhaps in some instances fear (or more to the point revulsion of the idea of the particular sexual acts involved). But not hatred. So, I wanted to just state that for the record. I know that many conservative Presbyterians are more motivated by their understanding of what they think Scripture lays out for human sexuality and church leadership (even though, after long study, much prayer, and I would argue an equal reverence for God, I come to a strongly different conclusion). I mourn that they don’t believe that we, on this side, think that they are motivated by the best impulses of Christian faith. I think they are; I just think they are wrong, and that their error has hurt scores of people in the process.
This goes both ways, of course: I also mourn that their side too often cannot call my view a biblical one, or a faithful one, or a Christian one, or somehow diminish the notion that I am coming to it with all the effort to listen to God’s desire for me, for the church, for the world that I can muster.
There were other highlights of the opposition arguments that I could highlight. For instance: the claim that a biblical sexual ethic brings one to wholeness of life in a way a secular sexual ethic cannot (which assumes, falsely, that those who support GLBT rights have loose sexual ethics simply because we think that GLBT’s are being ontologically discriminated against in many so called “biblical sexual ethics,” and also assumes, again falsely, that our sexual ethics are not biblically based). Or the argument that this is about breaking down all rules, all guidelines, and that the passage of this might as well mean no ethics at all (which is just hyperbolic on its face).
In general, I respected the debate and was proud of many of the participants, on both sides of the matter. I am glad that Heartland Presbytery voted for better theological standards and the removal of this barrier to Gays and Lesbians holding ordained office. May the rest of the Church continue to listen for the will of Christ as it deliberates..