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An Honest Letter to Those Who Are Looking at Leaving the PCUSA

Ken Cuthbertson

Just recently I had a conversation with a friend who is in deep distress over what is going on at their church. An outspoken group of their congregation’s leadership is talking of leaving the PCUSA if the church allows ministers and sessions to choose for themselves whether they will perform or host same-sex weddings. At the minimum the leaders of my friend’s church want to change their by-laws to make it clear that they will never allow same-sex marriages, just like they already did concerning ordination after the “fidelity and chastity” language was removed in 2011.

As my friend talked it was clear that those who are pushing for this in that congregation are deeply angry, but (I think) even more deeply fearful. They are terrified that they will be forced to do something that goes deeply against their belief and understanding. And, they are horrified that the larger church is even considering allowing same-sex marriages to happen in other congregations. They just can’t abide it.

What my friend shared was not “news” to me. That congregation’s concern is well known, and simply echoes what is being heard from so many other congregations. As a graduate of a conservative evangelical seminary (Gordon-Conwell), I already have a variety of friends and even relations whose churches have left the PCUSA in favor of ECO or the EPC, and I know others will inevitably follow. It is painful. It hurts. And, I do take it personally. But, I don’t know how I or we can do anything about it, except to give up my / our efforts to get the church to allow same-sex marriages. And that is something that I can’t and won’t do.

As a gay man, a married gay man, a married gay man who also happens to be a minister, and a married gay man who happens to be a minister who is married to a ruling elder, this struggle touches the very core of my life and being. We have been deeply and personally engaged in the struggle for over thirty years. It touches the very core of my faith, and my discernment of where God is calling our church. I cannot and will not turn aside from the effort. Nor can / will the multitude of others who have been similarly called.

What breaks my heart is what I can only see as the willful misunderstanding and fear of those who think that those of us who are working to allow same-sex marriage in the PCUSA are somehow working to “impose” same-sex marriage on them and their congregations. Among all the many points of disagreement between us, that is the one piece that I regard as simple, stubborn, and sinful wrong-headedness. It is exactly the same set of fears and misunderstandings that were appealed to in the long years of ordination debates. How is permission the same as forcing? It is not, and the experience of the last three years vis a vis ordination seems to bear that out.

I find myself wanting to challenge those in opposition to look me right in the eye and give me one good reason why my being able to be married in my church really and actually effects them? I want to ask them why they will not believe what everyone that I know of who supports allowing same-sex marriage in the PCUSA is saying… that we DO respect their conscience, that we are NOT trying to force their conscience, and that we are NOT trying to force them to do anything that they cannot in good conscience do?

Over the forty years of this struggle, those of us who have pushed and pressed for ordination and marriage have plenty of experience of being forced, against OUR consciences, to refrain from doing what we believed to be God’s will… or risk the disciplinary consequences. It was not pleasant. It was painful and costly. Why on earth would we now want to turn the tables and impose such nastiness on others?

I will admit that I am wary of those who now feel called elsewhere. The departures feel like a final slap on the face, a final rejection and judgment, by those with whom we have only asked to dwell in peace and unity. And, to add insult to injury, it too often happens that those who leave do so wrapping themselves in the language of principle, and even victimhood. I find myself wondering how much of a guilty conscience may be involved, and the fear that we will do to others as has been done to us?

I can only say this to my sisters and brothers who are thinking of leaving: I really do understand the deep and visceral issues, both of faith and human sexuality that our mere existence confronts you with. I was there before I was where I am now, and it was hard and painful to get from the one place to another. If God calls you to that transition, I am glad to journey with you. But, those of us who are advocating for the permission to do same-sex marriages in the PCUSA are not even really asking you to change. (That is happening around us, whatever we do.) We are simply asking you to stay with us and live with us in awkward disagreement. We promise to respect you. We will speak our truth in love. You will speak your truth in love. We will minister side by side, each according to our understanding. And, ultimately, we will see where the Spirit leads us in our onward journey.

“For if this counsel or this work is of human origin, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it – and in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” – Acts 5: 38-39

— Ken Cuthbertson
May 14, 2014

Ken Cuthbertson is a member-at-large in Santa Fe Presbytery, and a Parish Associate at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church. His book The Last Presbyterian? was published in May 2013.

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  1. Eric #

    You pose an interesting dilemma and yes, the visceral nature of faith and human sexuality will naturally polarize people. Rather than ask people with opposing views to change, maybe the more fundamental question is whether it’s the shared institution you want to change. At the risk of oversimplifying and presenting a naïve example, it sounds like you’re asking to allow smoking in cinemas. In today’s society, that’s not something we expect in a movie house and introducing this behavior will cause a reaction from everyone. Some may start smoking, others will be offended and stop attending, and still others won’t care. It seems that the only way everyone can still attend the same cinema is to have some separation of the group (a glass partition?) that keeps the smoke from affecting those who can’t abide it. Unfortunately we have not yet reconciled the distaste or lack of understanding for a behavior with the need to be accepting of others who see the world differently. Where’s Solomon when you need him?

    May 18, 2014
    • Claudia Wiggins #

      I followed your letter right up until you described it as similar to smoking in a theater. Smoking effects everyone within that air space, and can cause cancer and COPD. Homosexuality is a private matter and harms no one within the vacinity. My outlook is, if you don’t like homosexuality, just don’t do it. People have the right to be unique, different, and homosexual if that is their path and it harms no one. Religion and politics need to stay out of other people’s lives and especially out of their bedrooms.

      May 20, 2014
      • John #

        Claudia,
        Hi. Your letter is a good argument until the last statement. If religion is not in a person’s life, how is it religion? Is God off limits to our personal life?

        Logically Claudia, I agree with you that homosexuality is a private matter and people can be involved in the church and be best friends with many without sexuality being brought up. I really, really, REALLY, do not want to know what my pastor does in the bedroom. So Eric, there are homosexuals in the church. Well, there is at least one in my church. I do NOT want to discuss my private life with my church family (maybe the pastor if I am having problems). But I do want to find a home where I am loved and accepted. The problem is that I do not want to force acceptance on anyone or my church. I can see that there are people who will not accept me. I do not see where that is smoking in a cinema.

        But God is involved in the private matters and in the bedroom. He invented us, our minds, and our sexuality. And I do discuss my sexuality, my hopes, dreams, failures, doubts, and conflicts with him. He saved me. And I have a peace from that.

        May 22, 2014
  2. John #

    Dear Ken,
    I hate to see churches leaving the denomination too. There are several legitimate reasons for their concern as well as a number of non-legitimate reasons. I can will only write about the legitimate reasons.
    1. Are we redefining grace?
    2. When does tolerance become “you will accept or else”?
    3, Are we redefining how the Bible is read?
    4. Can pastors be allowed to view homosexuality as wrong? If so for how long?
    5. Are we saying ” We will allow your church to slowly change into what we want.”?
    Those could be legitimate reasons.

    May 18, 2014
  3. Rob #

    Instead of quoting Acts, I think you would do well to read the principles written about in 1 Corinthians 8 in which Paul talks about not allowing your freedom to cause those who are of weaker faith to stumble.

    May 18, 2014
  4. Rodema Ashby #

    thank you for your faithful sharing and ministry.

    May 18, 2014
  5. David A. Fraser #

    I am also an ordained PCUSA clergy, though most of my time has been spent in University and Seminary Education. But I have a doctorate in theological ethics and have made this a matter of careful study.

    The problem for those of us who are not in agreement with the change in the meaning and structure of marriage to encompass same sex marriage or with the push to ordain practicing, self-affirming gays has to do with what we have taken as vows, one part of which is: “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?”

    The dilemma created for us is that we believe the purity of the church is at risk in this change. We cannot thereby further the peace of the church by sacrificing the purity in order to maintain unity. This change is a change of ethical standards, of hermeneutical construal of the Scripture and a break with the ecumenical unity of the larger Christian community worldwide (the overwhelming majority of denominations disagree with this change).

    I too have watched the determined, persistent, unrelenting pursuit of this change (as you put it: “I cannot and will not turn aside from the effort.”) For more than 30 years. The same persistence and determined continuance is equally true of those of us who believe this change to be damaging to the purity and the unity of the church and a clear violation of scriptural ethics. In my experience, the conscience of the traditionalists on this matter has not been respected by those who have pursued this change in standards and practice.

    It seems to me better not to pretend we are going to come to an amicable coexistence in the same Church. We work from very different notions of the authority of Scripture and the hermeneutical principles that govern understanding its texts. We should admit after 40 years: it is time to go our separate ways, amicably, orderly, generously. Dismiss congregations who simply find your case for legitimating same sex marriage within the Presbyterian polity a violation of scripture and tradition. Let them go. Or alternatively, let the congregations who see this matter as clear and wish to embrace same sex marriages and ordination to the ministry of word and sacrament go and form their own denomination. The very fact that we have had wave after wave of conflict over this matter for 40 years is testimony to the fact that this is never going to become a sort of live and let live matter. One side sees it as a matter of justice. The other a matter of biblical integrity. The two will not meet. The conflict will not end until we have a unified, single standard.

    May 18, 2014
    • David, I do agree that the two sides come at this issue from different hermeneutical perspectives. But you claim if those who disagree with you are successful their perspective will lead to ethical change. In my studies I have found that people who bring your perspective lean towards more Biblical literalists, but only when it fits their particular agenda. As demonstrated in the book “A Year Of Living Biblically” there is virtually no person who does that and I know of no Presbyterian coming close. But it is disingenuous to suggest that allowing loving couples to join together in the Church is somehow crushing the purity of the denomination. It goes to the point of the initial post of having others impose their version of purity on all others. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that prevents two people brought together in love, which is from God, from being married. One man and one woman is not the only type of Biblical marriage. Yes there is Leviticus and Romans etc but those are about wonton sex acts that separate is from God, not love that brings people close to God. David and Jonathan loved each other and that love was not an ethical challenge to God. I am not saying David was gay just that David loved Jonathan more than that of women. You have. Right to disagree and a right to leave the PCUSA. But be careful pretending to force your hermeneutical perspective of ethics on others who are LGBT and have developed a close relationship with a loving God.

      May 23, 2014
    • Jill McC. #

      David, Speaking as a PCUSA Ruling Elder who has spent many years working toward full inclusion for LGBT folk in our denomination, I have to say that I agree with you in many respects. I, too, feel that at this point in our history our differences in perspective are too great to allow us to live in “awkward disagreement” and still focus our minds and hearts on doing Christ’s work as we are called to do…and as I feel we both wish to do. I, too, feel “it is time to go our separate ways, amicably, orderly, generously”. (Generously? I’d even let those wishing to depart do so WITH their property!) The denomination is not going to reverse its direction at this point, and those “who simply find [our] case for legitimating same sex marriage within the Presbyterian polity a violation of scripture and tradition” are not going to go down a path which seems to them willfully contrary to God’s very word. And so, I agree. Let them go. With a sincere wish for God’s blessing.

      When I CANNOT agree with you however, is when you claim ownership of Biblical integrity. The scriptures, like the church, are meant for us ALL. This rich treasure, the Bible, is God’s gift to you, and to me, and to all who choose to read its wealth of wisdom: gay, straight, conservative, progressive, ALL. And you tell me only you are reading this gift with integrity? Are you really so sure of yourself that you feel that only you know what God and God’s people are telling us in these words of scripture? No, sir, I reject your apparent belief in the priesthood of conservative believers for the more inclusive priesthood promulgated by our Protestant forebears. I claim biblical integrity as a foundational piece of my work towards ensuring that God’s church is open to all.

      May 27, 2014
  6. Ken Cuthbertson #

    In response to John, I do believe you touch on the nub of the issue. For a long time I have thought that the “ghost” in this whole discussion has been the Kenyon case from the 70s, in which all UPCUSA ordinands were required to affirm women’s ordination. I was a student at Gordon-Conwell in the wake of Kenyon, and it was not until my Senior year that I became clear that I could affirm women’s ordination, biblically and theologically. So, I fully understand the “Kenyon fear” that runs deep in the conservative stream. And I have pledged to various conservative friends (and, here) that I would oppose and fight against ever imposing a similar ruling vis a vis LGBT issues. I really do believe Kenyon is something of another time and place, and that such institutional coerciveness is no longer appropriate… if it ever was. On the other hand, I also feel that those who are so concerned need to at least recognize that we feel that similar tactics were directed at us in the whole “Amendment B / fidelity and chastity” effort from 1996 to 2010.

    May 19, 2014
  7. Alan #

    It is ironic that Kenyon is brought up continually by those who now fear being forced to operate against their consciences, given that they’ve been gleefully forcing the rest of us to do so for decades, and have never seen it as anything but their God-given straight guy right. And why would they repent? You can see it in the comments above, these people actually believe that their side has cornered the market on “Biblical Integrity.” Notice how they frame it above: Biblical integrity vs. justice (as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive … telling comment, that), scriptural authority vs. …. what? Godless hedonism, I suppose.

    This is additional evidence for what I have always said: that these arguments are not about the authority of Scripture, but they are absolutely about the fear and anger that accompany the loss of authority by people who, by dint of their sexual orientation and gender, never imagined they might not be running the show forever.

    That said, I’m all for just letting them leave as easily, peacefully, and as quickly as possible. and treating them far, far better than they’ve ever treated any of us.

    I just wish they’d leave already and shut up about it, instead of lingering around forever, continuing to kvetch and criticize, encouraging and cheering PCUSA membership loss, and melodramatically playing the victim, even after they leave.

    And they better hurry because now that they have discovered our devious plan to use Kenyon to force them to get gay married, there isn’t much time left. Because, yes, that’s totally what we’re going to do.

    Sheesh. They really are so clueless.

    May 19, 2014
  8. David A. Fraser #

    One other observation. I realize that for some this produces deep anger and even deeper fear. But I suspect that is not true for the majority of us who wish to retain the “marriage is between one man and one woman” standard. For many of us we are not “terrified” that we will be required to do something that violates our conscience. We are sick at heart that the PCUSA has not been able to get beyond this controversy and focus on what is central to Christian faith. We don’t wish to have another round on this issue. It is not where we want to spend our time or energy. We can’t “all just get along.” Not with the polity we are in and not with the vows we take and not with the accountability we believe we must render to the Lord. It is time to recognize what has been apparent for several decades: we have an irreconcilable difference that leads to hurt, pain, conflict, bickering, political maneuvering, back-biting, accusation, judgmentalism — the very things Paul recognizes as grounds for divorce in a marriage. This is not a case of the weak and the strong. This is a fundamental difference of understanding of sexuality and spirituality as well as ethics and hermeneutics. One side appeals to experience. The other to scriptural authority. We are not talking the same theological language. Time to go our separate ways. You can take this as “personal” if you like. It is equally personal on our side of the aisle as in the case of any divorce, even institutional. Too bad we can’t have a “no fault” separation and divorce in the case of congregations.

    May 19, 2014
  9. todd #

    One thing I find disturbing in all of this is that a group of disenfranchised people feel the need to change an institution in order to achieve their goal and agenda. In response to these proposed changes, people that were within the original organization have been forced to form their own group in order to keep their conscience pure (ECO and Fellowship)

    WHY did the devoted LGBT community not split from the PCUSA themselves and create their own separate denomination, with their own standards, and definitions of biblical terms? Why did they feel it was necessary to practically destroy a denomination in order to impose their will on others in the group?

    I guess what I’m saying is…no matter the reason that I do not agree with the changes to ordination standards, or the redefinition of marriage, why to I have to leave so that you can be happy? Couldn’t the LGBT community be happy forming/creating their own denomination?

    May 20, 2014
  10. Madeleine Mysko #

    Dear Ken,
    First, thank you for the example you set here in acting upon your faith–your faith in the church, that is. Whenever I get discouraged (or angry) and consider packing it up and leaving organized religion behind, I end up here at More Light Presbyterians where those who write the posts are consistently strong and bolstered by the hope that Christ is really with us, still. MLP makes me feel better, and so I stay a little longer. But woe is me, when I read through the comments (especially on days when I am already discouraged.) It is all I can do right now (after reading some of these comments) to keep from sparring, too! But I’m just going to take a breath and say “Peace be with you, Ken.”

    May 20, 2014
    • Ken #

      Blessings, Madeline. We just keep going on… and on. God’s not done with us yet, eh? ;-)

      May 20, 2014
  11. Tom Hutchinson #

    I grew up Presbyterian in the US, and have been a member of the United Church of Canada for about 40 years now. The UCC had its big fight about homosexuality in the late 1980s, and came out approving gay clergy and gay marriage as a non-issue (at least officially). The result? Business as usual, we still have to staff the committees, play the organ, sing in the choir, teach sunday school. In the congregation I am presently a member of, about 25% of the congregation is gay, including the present and former Board chairs (both have spouses that are members as well). We have had gay clergy, and female at that! We describe god as Our Mother sometimes, our Mother-Father sometimes, and our Father sometimes. We have changed the words of some hymns to eliminate the patriarchal, militaristic, sexist (historic) bits, to make them more true to our belief.

    Really, we have so many more important things confronting us today than this. Why can’t we just move on? Gay people exist….get used to it! The challenge for this time may be transfolk…..quite a bit harder for some people to get around than simple gay. But again…..not really an issue and get used to it.

    It has seemed that the PC (US) has been wasting peoples lives with this 40 year struggle. But then, I know it took longer than that to get some people used to having a female minister. But it is time to move on, and spend our energy on something more important than sexuality or gender identification.

    All are welcome at God’s table. ALL.

    May 22, 2014
  12. Jeff Winter #

    I disagree with you Ken. You say we can live together in “awkward disagreement” and ” we promise to respect you.” I hosted a seminar at the church I pastor in FL on homosexuality. The presenters were former homosexuals. Another PCUSA church heard about the seminar and wrote a slanderous letter to the editor of a local paper. Ken, you may be a brother in the Lord I can fellowship with but not the elders of the PCUSA church that maligned the church I serve. Your goodwill is rare. Most persons who are pro homosexual in the life of our church are not nice toward those who believe otherwise

    May 24, 2014
  13. Ken –

    I SO appreciate what you’ve said which reflects my own views and experiences. I’m glad so many Presbyterians have come to recognize same-sex marriages as spiritual and holy relationships. I also appreciate the Biblical divide among people. However, it sure seems to me that folks continue to use scripture as a weapon against other ideas and people they fear. Isn’t faith supposed to replace fear – at least occasionally? Lastly, I appreciate (and smile) at the notion of “Priesthood of Conservative Believers.” I guess there are those who have set themselves up as having the only semblance of Biblical Integrity. To quote some words from an old hymn, “To the Work, To the Work” . . . . much work remains to be done.

    June 22, 2014

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