Issue Number 19
The result of these complex yearnings would seem to be decisions that hold up equal and contradictory moral and constitutional premises: On the one hand, the assembly clung to its formula designed to exclude LGBT people from full membership and leadership. On the other hand, the assembly held up and reminded everyone of our traditional understanding of who has the responsibility to make ordination decisions and further reminded everyone about scrupling sections in the constitution. We are a denomination that seems to have decided to live by ambiguities and contradictions. That may indicate confusion, but it might also indicate a choice to muddle through somehow till we figure out how to translate love into law.
I watched this torturous process from the exhibit hall of the Birmingham Convention Center an-out-of the-way place that must have struck most commissioners as too distant to visit. I co-coordinated the That All May Freely Serve booth with Mardee Rightmeyer from Atlanta. We exhibitors had lots of time to talk with each other, and we all agreed that traffic was down from other years. Still, the exhibit hall had some advantages as a place to observe the priorities, proceedings, and character of the assembly.
I noted at least four booths concerned with the Middle East some emphasizing divestment issues, at least one focusing on development issues Palestinians face. I began to wonder if our denomination might be a powerful place to bring a prophetic and desperately needed examination of the issues that torment that region.
Closer to home, our TAMFS booth was a very short stone's throw from the Presbyterian Coalition booth, whose banner read "The Task Force Report: No Peace, No Purity, No Unity." Located across from the Coalition booth was the Lay Committee. Their most prominent display item was a four-foot placard replica of a book on church property law. The implied warning was hard to miss.
Because things were slow at the booth, I got a chance to talk long with some of the folks who stopped by, and the conversations could be surprising and wonderful. The most memorable ones for me were encounters with conservative folks, pastors mostly. A fellow from Washington state and I had an earnest chat for about an hour and a half. I remember how he would set his face, trying to phrase his questions, trying to be sure, I think, that they were respectful, and not too obvious: "Now what would your organization say to someone who has a drinking problem, but doesn't really recognize that he has a drinking problem?" We both actually enjoyed all this, I believe, though it wasn't a game as much as a real attempt to communicate. His face always lit up in greeting when we ran across each other as the week went on. Then there was the fellow from San Diego who told me how he didn't know how to talk to gays. And there was the GA volunteer from Birmingham who visited us once, and then again, and again. What was clear was his angst; what emerged as the week went on was not his being homosexual, but being a cross-dresser. He didn't ask for anything, really, but he seemed to want a chance to share that with someone and come visit us again.
I see in these interactions a microcosm of our complicated relationships as Presbyterians right now, an emblem of how our differences can sometimes be healed by relationship of how our ministry of just being there can be, as Janie Spahr put it in her magnificent and poignant retirement talk at the TAMFS luncheon, curriculum for people, a living breathing course in shared humanity.
But I may make it all sound too pat and easy. It is hard to summarize this General Assembly. We came individually and as organizations with different hopes for the body. More Light Presbyterians, TAMFS, and the Covenant Network clearly wanted the ordination ban erased from the Book of Order. The Committee on Church Orders' vote not to recommend the Heartlands Overture (which would have removed the ban) was heartbreaking, especially after the overture advocates' made such a comprehensive, deeply personal, and moving presentation to the committee. Heartlands dead, the Task Force Report on Peace Unity and Purity moved to consideration, and the Assembly was clearer than we allies were about its adoption. Recommendations calling us to discern new ways to relate and new ways to share our work and worship together passed with a huge majority, (91% - 9%). The seemingly contradictory recommendations #5 and #6 to leave ordination standards as they currently exist but also to reassert the authority of sessions and presbyteries to examine candidates and apply standards passed by a substantial majority (57% - 43%). Our disappointment at the ordination vote was confused by an invitation to live again in faithful ambiguity.
I think it is fair to say that no one really knows where we are as a denomination now. Some LGBT candidates told me that they believe they can probably be ordained in their presbyteries now. This would allow them to live out their call to serve Christ and change the power balance that has marginalized and silenced LGBT folks in this church. Other voices expressed despair that the church had reaffirmed its exclusion. Others asserted that the assembly's votes were the first affirmation in memory that LGBT people are wanted in the denomination, even in a backdoor sort of way. Some felt tired (well, maybe we all felt tired!), and some felt that a new landscape had opened full of ambiguous but real opportunities. Some conservatives claim that the covenant that held us together has been broken. They seem to want to study that book at the Lay Committee's booth on church property law so they can make a painless exit. Maybe that will begin to happen. Maybe not.
The only thing that seems clear is that everyone is entering a period of reflection and discernment. As we've learned this year in the Presbytery of Southern New England in our Reconciling Dialogue Project, crisis is composed of danger and opportunity. Our duty in Christ seems to be to live into the opportunity. TAMFS has started a process of discernment to try to listen to what the spirit is calling it to do now. Presbyterian Promise has scheduled a discernment meeting on September 9. Maybe we can say that the 216th General Assembly presented us not with a moment to decide, but a moment to listen. We will need to still our own beating hearts and be silent in faith, listening for what the spirit might be whispering softly. If we can do this, the bitterness of justice deferred may become the anticipation of the way forward.
Monday, June 12, 2006Twenty two Presbyteries have sent the same overture to the General Assembly to eliminate the following paragraph from our Book Of Order.
b. 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.Each Presbytery has appointed an Overture Advocate [OA] to represent their Presbytery. All 22 of us have been collaborating to make the most convincing presentation to the committee considering our overture.
Thursday, June 15, 2006The General Assembly has a new moderator. On the third ballot with four candidates running, after 10 PM Thursday evening the Assembly elected Joan Gray as moderator. The good news is that the two very conservative candidates lost support on the second and third ballots. The bad news is that most of us favoring action to open up ordination at this assembly supported Deborah Block who openly supports our position. Joan will be a fine moderator, but believes we need to continue to wait before changing the constitution.
It has been a long day, as all of them promise to be. We did get started this morning at 7:45 AM revising the 16 page joint presentation. At 10 AM we went to a briefing for overture advocates, followed by a meeting between the OA's and the Church Order Committee leadership. Besides our overture there is one overture friendly to our cause, eight overtures with the opposite intention and three dealing with marriage, all before the Church Orders Committee, each with its own advocates.
We continued to work together until we had a draft we were pretty satisfied with about 4 PM. After a half an hour break we came back together to read it through. It is a wonderful and moving presentation, by the time we read it over with each person speaking the part they will speak before the committee many of us were in tears. It deals with both head and heart, the Bible and Theology and personal stories of the pain of exclusion and threatened exclusion.
Friday, June 16, 2006The group of us presenting spent the day between working with one another, rehearsing and perfecting our presentation, and observing what was going on in the committee. Almost all of us listened during the public hearing time as alternatively friendly and unfriendly speeches were made about the ordination of Gays and Lesbians. The committee spent much of the earlier part of the day considering three overtures with the intention of defining even more clearly that marriage is only between a man and a woman. After open hearings, hearing from the advocates for the overtures, debating each in the committee, and in one case working on a substitute motion that would have affirmed gays and lesbians the committee voted to recommend that the Assembly answer both of these overtures in the negative.
Then after an all-Assembly worship which was very well done with the former moderator preaching and the commissioning of mission personnel, they began to hear the advocates for our overture. Eight of us presented on behalf of 19 Presbyteries. We presented a mixture of rationality, scripture, theology, and moving stories. I told a little about Keith and asked if we should have approved his ordination. (my text is below I may have taken a wee liberty with detail, but think the story gets his call and gifts across.)
We believe it was an awesome and stirring presentation. We took only 50 of our 57 minutes and no one asked us any questions. I think because we answered them all, but it was pushing toward 10 PM and that may have made questions less likely also. The committee got up and stretched, had silent prayer and the chair requested that we all hold hands and we sang "Be Thou My Vision," then dismissed with prayer.
Here is my small part in our joint presentation:
Reflecting the love of God in Jesus Christ is the fundamental ethic out of which Jesus calls us to live. For a gay man named Keith, that ethic was real. He grew up in our denomination and loved it, but the Church did not fully welcome him, so he eventually dropped out of organized religion for years. When at last he reached out for spiritual help, he found a welcome at First Presbyterian Church. Each Sunday he sat in the same part of the sanctuary and met the people around him, including several elderly ladies. When one of those women fell and was in the hospital, Keith went to visit her and discovered her greater problem she was dying of cancer. For the next year he visited Olga almost every day, in the hospital, back at home, in a nursing home. He was with her when she died. They were as unalike as they could be, an elderly white widow and an African-American gay man, but he ministered to her on behalf of the Church, on behalf of Christ. When the nominating committee was looking for people whom God had called and gifted for the ministry of deacon it was little wonder that they asked Keith. The congregation elected him unanimously. The question before you is should the session have approved his ordination.Continue to pray for me and our cause, but also for the whole Assembly that God's will for the Presbyterian Church will be done this week.
Saturday, June 17, 2006I was up at the crack of dawn this morning to get to the Peace Breakfast. It was a great event, and an opportunity to meet with people I know and have known of for years. The former moderator of the General Assembly announced that he had agreed to work with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship for the next year. He had been elected as Co-Moderator of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship just before being elected moderator of the Assembly and admitted to not being able to fulfill many of the duties of the Peace Fellowship in the past two years. Chris Caton, from our Presbytery, was commissioned to participate in the Colombian Accompaniment program, along with another woman from the PPF.
Much of the rest of the day was spent as an observer at the Church Orders Committee. There were many negative and narrow minded things said, but people on the committee also gave testimony to their own experience with friends and relatives who were gay or lesbian. Others spoke about the inadequacy of the understanding of scripture that is used to justify the exclusion of GLBT people. Many of the things that we said in our presentation last night were repeated again by commissioners. One man talked about our presentation and the testimony in the public hearing from gays and lesbians and how it had changed this thinking on the matter. When at last the vote was taken in the committee the motion to recommend to the General Assembly that this overture be disapproved passed by the narrowest of votes, 30 to 28. I was thinking that we lost by two votes and someone pointed out that a motion fails on a tie vote, so if one more person voted no on disapproval.... So this recommendation goes to the assembly, but the vote totals are reported to the Assembly as well as the recommendation, so the matter has about as much of a chance in the Assembly as it ever has. At least that is my thinking right now.
Earlier this afternoon I was feeling pretty low, alternately being tearful and on the verge of tears, and most of the advocates were feeling the same. Many of us went to the evening worship sponsored jointly by More Light Presbyterians and That All May Freely Serve, the two national organizations to which Presbyterian Promise is related. There, among friends, I was able to cry openly and found release, encouragement and affirmation.
Eight of us went from that service to pile into an SUV and go eat ribs at Dreamland Barbecue. The ribs were great, the sauce had quite a bite to it, and the beer was cold. I came home feeling much better.
Sunday, June 18, 2006Pilgrim Congregational Church (UCC) opened their doors to host a Welcoming Churches Worship planned (and carried out) by leadership from TAMFS and MLP. It was a marvelous service, full of enthusiastic singing, wildly inclusive welcome and message, communion, and an opportunity for individual prayer and anointing by the chaplains of the two organizations. One of these, Beth Wheeler was one of the overture advocates and a wonderful human being. Actually all of the group were quite extraordinary individuals.
Our presentation will be available in the future. Stephen is still working on a final text that reflects all the changes that individual speakers made between the final written draft and what was actually spoken before the committee. Several people ended up making substantial changes on their copies which they marked up. It may be impossible to capture all the spontaneous changes that were made as people spoke as they departed the text.
Monday, June 19, 2006Last night before the formal Ecumenical Worship a joyful group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight folks gathered with signs and voices to celebrate the welcoming Church which we claim as God's will for the Church. For me, and I am sure the other participants, it was more fun and God honoring than the wonderful service in the Sports Arena. Many of the people on their way into the service took a little time to join us.
Today our minister commissioner needed to leave the Assembly and I took his place. For the most part the business was routine, except for a commissioner's resolution on Columbia that called for study, prayer, and continuation of the accompaniment program, plus a fifth action item recommending that individual members and Churches advocate with congressional representatives and senators to take specific actions to cease US support for the oppressive Colombian government. By a fairly small margin the Assembly referred the action item for study and report at the Assembly. This despite pleas by many familiar with the Colombian situation that the action is needed NOW. The pleas for action included one by the ecumenical delegates representing the Presbyterian Church in Columbia. Disappointing!
Tonight was: the celebration of the Ordination of Women, report on Katrina Recovery, Joining Hearts and Hands capital campaign, and a few other similar reports. Lucimarion Roberts was there for the Joining.... presentation and honored for her three years of service as co-chair of the campaign.
I went to multicultural breakfast, That All May Freely Serve lunch, and Peacemaking dinner. 7 AM until 10:30 PM. It is now 11:30 PM.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006Today we are scheduled to vote on the Peace Unity and Purity report and on the Church orders Committee report, both of which deal with opening the doors to ordination to GLBT people.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006I have discovered that the Assembly is a very political gathering, and that organizations on each side of various issues gather commissioners for "briefings" which are really strategy sessions on how to achieve desired goals. I attended the Covenant Network briefing at noon and the Witherspoon briefing at dinner. All of the organizations dedicated to justice and inclusiveness agreed that given conversations with commissioners and votes already taken that it would be impossible to get this assembly to change the constitution to eliminate the fidelity (between a married man and woman) or chastity language from the constitution. Instead we were advised to work hard to support the Peace Unity and Purity task force in its entirety, especially preserving a new authoritative interpretation that gives more latitude to sessions and Presbyteries in their decisions on Ordination and Installation. (Recommendation 5) This strategy was successful.
One of the joys at this Assembly is the presence of a choir from the
Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are here because the local Sheppards
and Lapsley Presbytery is honoring two pioneer missionaries to the Congo.
(After leaving the Congo, William Sheppard became the first installed pastor
of the church I served in Louisville). Because of this connection this
presbytery has developed a partnership relationship with the Presbyterian
Church in the Congo. The choir has been part of several services of worship,
and is pictured here performing in the convention center entry at the dinner
We have miles to go and many more committees to deal with tomorrow, and the Assembly could be in session until midnight or beyond. The adjournment deadline of noon on Thursday is absolute, so all business scheduled except what is docketed for Thursday must be completed before recess on Wednesday.
Issues still to be dealt with include efforts to allow Churches to leave the denomination and take their property with them; issues relating to Israel and Palestine and using our vast stock holdings as leverage to negotiate with transnational corporations that are contributing to the conflict (and making millions); and preserving our traditional Presbyterian position in favor of reproductive freedom.
Saturday, June 24, 2006There is obviously much confusion about the meaning and impact of Assembly action in regard to ordination. I have seen a half a dozen different news reports, some of which see the Assembly as a great victory for gays and lesbians, while others understand it as a defeat.
The goal of the Heartland Overture was to remove from the Constitution one offensive paragraph which states that the qualifications for ministers, elders and deacons include chastity in singleness or fidelity within a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. It also called for rescinding an Authoritative Interpretation dating back to 1978 which states that homosexuals should not be ordained. As Heartland was defeated, there was no clear victory for GLBT people. There will not be full justice and equality in our church until these two provisions are defeated.
However, the passage of recommendation 5 of the Peace, Unity and Purity (PUP) report earlier in the Assembly does give sessions greater flexibility in examining newly elected elders and deacons, and presbyteries in examining candidates for the ministry. The text of the recommendation is below. The key paragraph is c. (2) where it says that it is up to the ordaining body to determine whether a person's departure from the standards for ordination constitutes failure to adhere to the essentials of reformed faith and polity. The mischief is in the following paragraph which originally said that the process of examining was subject to review. After first the committee made some changes and then this paragraph was amended on the floor, it now states that both the process and results of the examination may be reviewed by higher Church courts. I was the only person who spoke against this change on the floor of the Assembly (my one speech during the whole Assembly). No one else spoke up. The leadership of the progressive organizations were committed to getting this section passed as the best that could be achieved in this particular Assembly. While they do not think the change makes much difference, others agree with me that this may be an invitation to litigation in Church courts, which is exactly what the last paragraph of this recommendation asks governing bodies not to do, but instead to honor the decisions of the ordaining bodies.
Here is the text of the key recommendation as amended and approved (approved amendment underlined):
5. The Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church recommends that the 217th General Assembly (2006) approve the following authoritative interpretation of section G-6.0108 of the Book of Order:a. The Book of Confessions and the Form of Government of the Book of Order set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination and installation.
Rev. Terry Davis is alternate minister commissioner from this presbytery. He wrote (and continues to write) a blog about his experiences at: http://pastor-terry-davis.blogspot.com.
Not that long ago, it was considered consistent to be a Christian, and yet, hold slaves. The day came when slavery was understood as an affront to the gospel itself. I want to suggest that the day has come when Christians must declare that gay bashing is an attack on the gospel and that real Christians do not participate in any form of discrimination.
Several years ago, I was asked to do the funeral of a gay man who had been beaten to death in a hate crime. At that time, I had never thought deeply about the danger many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face in this culture. That week as I worked on the service, I kept hearing a local "Christian" radio station blaming gay and lesbian people for everything wrong in America. By the end of the week, I understood the link between religious hate speech and the funeral I was performing.
I know that critics of homosexuality do not consider themselves to be hateful. They would say they "love the sinner but hate the sin." If the shoe were on the other foot, however, and someone were attacking their families, trying to take their children away, and constantly working to pass legislation to deprive them of basic civil rights, at some point they would understand that "homophobia" is too mild a word for such harassment. "Hatred" is the only proper term.
I was raised in Dallas, Texas and had classmates who were in the Klan. I remember that they did not consider themselves to be attacking other people. They perceived themselves to be defenders of Christian America. Their "religion" consisted of an unrelenting attack on people who were black, Jewish, or homosexual. If anyone challenged these views, these Klan members considered themselves under attack and believed that their right to free exercise of religion was being threatened. In other words, they felt that harassing other people was a protected expression of their own religious faith.
In the Gospels, biblical literalists and judgmental people were the negative example in many of the stories. The point of those stories was to teach us the hypocrisy of judgmental religion. When a woman was caught in adultery, the Biblical literalists lined up to protect family values. They pointed out that the Bible literally says that adulterers are to be stoned. If Jesus took the Bible seriously, they claimed, he would have to participate in the mandated biblical punishment of an adulteress.
Instead of following scripture, Jesus tells the woman to get her life together and tells everyone else to drop their stones of judgment. The only way to take this story seriously is to conclude that real Christians don't use the Bible to condemn other people.
It violates the teaching of Christ to say that God will get angry if America does not confront homosexuality as a sin. Jesus did not mention homosexuality and it is a lie to say he did. Furthermore, Jesus said "judge not or you will be judged." These false prophets are saying "judge or else you will be judged."
Jesus was kind and understanding, but he was not silent about those who abused the vulnerable. He called them "wolves in sheep's clothing." Christians must follow the example of Jesus and confront those vicious predators who use the Christian religion as a camouflage for bullying. We must be as understanding and kind as we can be, but to be tolerant of the oppression of others is not true tolerance.
I believe the time has come to say that genuine followers of Jesus Christ do not participate in discrimination against gay and lesbian persons. Is it intolerant to challenge intolerance? Are we doing the same thing as those we are challenging?
Gay-bashing is not just an opinion, it is an assault. Just as the Klan did, religious fundamentalists have a right to believe that homosexuality is a sin. They even have a right to preach a message of hate. But when they harass people in public, it is time for Christians to rise to challenge their intolerance. We have an obligation to protect our neighbors from harassment and slander, especially when it is done in our name.
It is time to say that gay-bashing is not only wrong, it is unchristian. If Christianity is grace, then judgment is the ultimate apostasy. If Christianity is love, then cruelty is the ultimate heresy.
The Rev. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, and a longtime activist in movements concerned with gender, racial, and economic justice. This summer he is finishing a book on principles for a New Reformation. Email to: email@example.com. First published on Friday, July 14, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
In Connecticut, Love Makes a Family is holding three community forums to share the latest about Marriage Equality: East Norwalk, August 23rd; Hamden, August 30th; Hartford, September 6th. For more information: http://www.lmfct.org. They do ask for an RSVP.
MassEquality is also hard at work with election season, lobbying and
rallies around the state. See: http://www.massequality.org
for more information.
Saturday, September 9 at 9 AM at First Presbyterian Church in Hartford. We will reflect on our year with the Reconciling Dialogue Project and begin to clarify our priorities and the roles we can and want to play. Does our vision and mission respond to the current situation? Is our focus too broad or too narrow? Do we need organizational adjustment to make us more effective? We need your insight! Contact us: PresbyPromise@att.net. Optional lunch follows.Hartford Pride
Saturday, September 9 3 to 11 PM. Main Street in front of City Hall.
"Most miracles are accompanied by a great deal of hard work." Archbishop Desmond Tutu
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