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Building Gracious Space in the PCUSA: Forgiveness

God alone is Lord of the conscience,

and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men

which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.

(Book of Confessions, 6.109, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-3.0101a)

 I exclaimed, “Wow!” when I first heard that Marc Benton intended to travel from his home in York, PA to stand before the Hudson River Presbytery to ask forgiveness for bringing charges in 2000 against the presbytery when it allowed congregations to hold same-sex weddings (http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/9/10/seeking-forgiveness-hudson-river-presbytery/). There was no guarantee that he would receive it.

In what became known as the Benton case, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled that these unions “would not be sanctioned” and “would not be proper” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). What Marc Benton set in motion within the PCUSA sent ripples far beyond Hudson River Presbytery.

It led to a flood of accusations across the church against ministers like myself who were fulfilling the office of pastor by presiding at the weddings of LGBT members. As in my case in Pittsburgh Presbytery, these proceedings were a terrible drain of time and treasure. For many defendants, lives were permanently disrupted and presbyteries bore the cost of adjudicating the charges. My case dragged on for three years.

When Marc wrote to Hudson River that he “sought to apologize to you who were hurt by my actions,” I guess I am one of those Presbyterians he was addressing. Can I forgive him? What would that mean and how important is it?

Extremely important, I think.

There is an ocean of hurt roiling beneath the on-going life of the PCUSA. Anger is in the mix. It has been there a very long time. There are women among us who have never had the chance to fulfill their potential in ministry, and African-Americans who have persevered in the face of frustrating blindness to the challenges presented to them by both church and society. There are the pastors who, as seminarians, were vocal in their opposition to the war in Vietnam and the Presbyterians who would still accuse them of cowardice.

There are the LGBT Presbyterians who have endured biting judgments, and the evangelical Presbyterians who remain in the PCUSA as their life-long friends judge them by exiting for other Presbyterian folds. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will not flourish until the deep feelings sparked by these and so many other occasions are touched by forgiveness.

How we conceive of forgiveness is crucial here. How do you?

My sense of forgiveness was given to me many years ago by Marjorie Thompson, a wise spiritual director. She suggested, forgiveness is “to release the one who has harmed you from the sentence of your judgment.” This is what we desperately need in the PCUSA. This is one way to understand our essential reformed tenet of “freedom of conscience.” This is a building block of gracious space.

The grace I find in this understanding of forgiveness comes from its respect for my judgment, my sense of being harmed. I retain that. What I let go of is any infliction of punishment on the other; there will be no “sentence” in that sense. Nor will I harp on the matter, reminding the other of my grievance in words. There will be no more “sentence” in that sense either.

Perhaps this turning of punishment in word or deed over to God is what Jesus meant when He emphasized that judgment belongs to God and taught us to love our enemies.

Whatever your vision of forgiveness is, we all need to bring it now to the table in the PCUSA – and the wider world. The accumulated baggage of hurt and blame has become too heavy for any of us to bear. We cannot carry it into the 21st century. Forgiveness is the key to shedding it.

On September 23, 2014, Marc Benton met with Hudson River Presbytery. I heard emotions ran high in those from whom the GAPJC Benton decision exacted a very high price. As Truth and Reconciliation experiences across the globe tell us, forgiveness requires us to navigate difficult emotional waters. And Hudson River Presbytery had the faith and courage to do that. They created a gracious space.

Can we join them? Can I forgive Marc Benton? Can you forgive the one who hurt you?

 

Sacred Conversations

I was standing just in front of the More Light booth at General Assembly, a flurry of activity was all around me: blessings for scarves, reunions with friends, inquiries about the MLP mission, but he walked directly over to me. I noticed he wore a commissioners badge and an expression of concern. I asked how he was doing, and he immediately told me he was feeling deeply conflicted about how to vote on the two marriage overtures that were soon to come up on the floor of the plenary. I asked him what his concerns were, answered his questions as best I could, and shared with him why my spouse and I deeply desired for the PC(USA) to recognize the commitment we made to one another as marriage.

As our conversation unfolded, so did his look of concern. Slowly he began to smile, and got excited as we spoke about theology and our faith. When it was time for him to reassemble for plenary he smiled at me and said, “Thank you, Brother. I know exactly how to vote now.” He was able to walk away from our brief conversation feeling confident that those of us who are LGBTQ love and care for the Presbyterian Church, USA just as much as he does. His votes contributed to the historic number who voted to allow ministers to immediately marry same-sex couples, and recommend an amendment to our Book of Order to describe marriage as between two persons.

We know from the long history of the work for LGBTQ inclusion and welcome, that conversations such as the one I had, and the thousands of other conversations that took place at GA, are pivotal to building a church that reflects God’s heart. In the upcoming months all 171 Presbyteries will be voting on amendment 14F. As Rev. Janet Edwards aptly put in her recent blog post, “Some say the future of the PCUSA rests on the “what” of this vote. I propose that our future together depends more on “how” we conduct this vote.” While marriage for all loving and committed couples is the what of this vote, I believe, sacred conversations are the how.  Over the next year, MLP invites you to participate in sacred conversations about the gift of marriage for all loving and committed couples.

Our goal is to prepare you for these conversations, if you are speaking informally over coffee hour with people in your congregation, holding an intentional meeting with a voting member of your presbytery, formally volunteering http://bit.ly/14Fvolunteer with MLP to host many conversations in presbyteries across the country. Whether you are speaking to one person, or hundreds, each conversation is sacred and an opportunity for the holy to move among us. Over the coming months MLP will share experiences of sacred conversations with you on our blog and on our Facebook page.  If you have an experience you want to share with us, send us an email at info@mlp.org.

So if anyone asks you, “how the PC(USA) will adopt a description of marriage that affirms the loving commitment of two people?” You can reply, one sacred conversation at a time.

P.S. there is still time to apply to be a regional coordinator. The application is here http://bit.ly/14Fcoordinator.

Building Gracious Space in the PCUSA: Shared Feelings

God alone is Lord of the conscience,
and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men
which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship.
(Book of Confessions, 6.109, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-3.0101a)

An important vote is coming for all of us in the Presbyterian Church. Known as 14-F, it is the recommendation from the 221st General Assembly to adopt a section on marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Directory for Worship that reflects the diverse mind of our church in the 21st century.

Some say the future of the PCUSA rests on the “what” of this vote. I propose that our future together depends more on “how” we conduct this vote.

As befits our “presbyterian church,” politics is, in many ways, our spirituality. The coming voting season is a test: are we ready to be the church of Jesus Christ? Can we listen prayerfully to every speaker? Can we choose not to fight among ourselves any more? Can we create together common ground, not so much as compromise, rather, as something else, something new, something that will blossom as the Body of Christ into the future God has in store for us?

There are presbyteries and congregations that have already found this gracious space. It was a feature of the General Assembly in June that astounded long time observers.

The GA recommendation offers freedom of conscience on marriage between two men or two women in the section on marriage for the Directory for Worship. The assembly arrived at this proposal after unprecedented small group discussion among commissioners and long, respectful debate. It reflected what some presbyteries already are and modeled the way we all can be. It was not easy.

I was a commissioner in Detroit. I did hear frustration, sadness, fear and anger in my small group and in the lengthy debate on marriage at GA. I think one reason these feelings did not direct the assembly is this: everyone there has had these feelings through the decades of considering the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in God’s eyes and in the church. We have all known frustration, sadness, fear and anger somewhere along the line.

Please ponder with me for a moment what this means.

Up until now, we have taken freedom of conscience to mean going off into our corners, having little to do with those who think differently from us. This assembly showed us all there is a more excellent way. Freedom of conscience opened for us a gracious space, a place of shared feelings that held us together even with our different conclusions about LGBT people.

There were some very disgruntled commissioners around me at GA. Their views were losing their place as the dominant perspective and they exuded what Paul Detterman captured in his July reflection on the assembly in The Presbyterian Outlook as feeling in “exile.”

And yet, what gives me some hope is the fact that we who are in the emerging majority have known that feeling of exile—all those feelings that go with losing—too. We have known frustration, sadness, fear and anger in church, too. Recognizing this invites us to sit together in that space of shared feelings.

This is what my friend, Pastor Doug Dunderdale (known affectionately as Fundy Dundy to some) and I would do at lunch over many, many years. Doug’s views on most matters prevailed in the PCUSA at that time. Mine did not. We ate together. We shared our best thoughts. We listened carefully. Doug always told me that he loved me and teased me when, in my “Frozen Chosen” manner, I struggled to take that in and to express my care for him.

Doug knew a time of exile in the 1970’s when his views on the ordination of women did not prevail. Perhaps that made him sensitive to my feelings of exile. We found blessed common ground in our shared feelings of exile and wanting refuge. We both wanted to connect–to love one another, as Jesus wants us to do–even when our perspectives differed.

This dynamic of shared feelings is common already in many congregations and some presbyteries. Cultivating it in every presbytery is the work of this coming season. It starts with the recognition that we all yearn to be loved.

Shared feelings may seem gossamer-thin but cobwebs are mighty strong.

Is acknowledgement of shared feelings present or growing in our presbyteries? If so, I am hopeful for it offers a foundation for the gracious space in which we will be, together, the PCUSA into the 21st century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bullied

Bullying is never a fun experience–it’s almost always humiliating and difficult.  Here’s but one of my stories of when I’ve been bullied for looking the way I look–for being who I am called to be!

It was a nice morning.  The sun was shining and the sky was blue with few clouds.  I walked to the nearest bus stop and was eager to get to campus to teach my class.  When I arrived at the bus stop, I sat down on the bench as I was unsure when the next bus was coming.  Not long after I sat down, a middle-aged white man sat down next to me.  I became nervous, but unsure why I was nervous.  Folks sit down on the bus bench all the time.

After sitting there for a few minutes, he looked at me (I saw him do this from my peripheral vision), stood up, stood directly in front of me and began yelling insults at me.  He called me a faggot, a dyke, and yelled that I had snakes in my genitals (he used a different word, of course)!  I felt trapped with no where to go.  He had me cornered while I sat there, vulnerable and deeply frightened, on the bench at the bus stop.  He continued to yell insults and blaming the government for my existence.  This reminded me of all the political changes that were taking place that affect (for the good) LGBTIQ communities.  The man who hurled insults at me finally walked off.  I guess he decided he didn’t want to ride the bus with me!  When the bus came, I was relieved.  I sat near the front of the bus, and, as it took me closer to campus, I thought to myself: Was that just harassment?  Was I just verbally accosted?  Was I bullied?

I am 38 years-old, a light skin Mexican, and genderqueer and gender non-conforming queer person who exists along the Trans* spectrum.  I am Trans*gressive in my dress, and yet I was victim of a 5 minutes verbal harassment–of bullying.  I felt so vulnerable siting there at the bus stop.

What had I done to this man?  I could think of nothing!  Was I targeted?  Was my gender performance too queer for this man?  I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I do know that I was left with a deep sense of frustration that we live in a world of violence, and this violence continues to be perpetuated against LGBTIQ persons of all colors, genders, races, and ages.

Any type of violence against LGBTQ communities (or ANY other human person) is unacceptable.  We have to keep fighting for radical inclusion for all persons.  I have to continue doing this work so that my neighbor, whoever they are, does not face what I faced at the bus stop, regardless of their race, class, sexual orientation, or gender expression.

We have more work to do, friends!

We have to do this work together by bridging with one another across radical differences to create a world of radical inclusion full of possibilities for all.

I want to do this work with you!  Will you join me?  Our first step toward the bridge is to welcome the stranger into our lives, and invite all persons to be who they are called to be.

Take Action

A a version of this post was originally published on RMN’s blog and can be found at this link.

A Dream Fulfilled

I thought after 28 years together and two previous occasions where Michael and I stood before a group of our friends, publicly declaring our love and commitment to each other, that the third time would be old hat.

Everything was under control. Tuxes – check. Catering – check. Music – check. Programs printed – check. Even word 3 hours before the ceremony that one of our soloists was in the emergency room with possible appendicitis, didn’t freak me out. I was mister cool, I was mister calm, and I was mister in control.

As the guests arrived, the wedding party gathered in another part of the church to wait. We sat, Michael and me, with my brother Scott, the Mormon bishop, and his wife Ruth, Rev. Bertram Johnson, associate pastor of Madrona Grace Presbyterian, and some of our closest friends. We laughed and joked and made each other feel at home. We stood in a circle and prayed. I was mister cool, I was mister calm and I was mister in control.

Then it was time. As we gathered at the back of a packed sanctuary, I was humbled to see so many people gathered to celebrate our love. Even as we walked down the aisle, to the sounds of Cole Porter’s “Do I Love You”, I was mister cool, I was mister calm and I was mister in control.

As we took our places, and listened to Pastor Bertram’s beautiful welcome, I was still mister cool, still mister calm and still mister in control.

Then, without warning, as the organist launched into the introduction of the opening hymn, “Love Divine, All Love Excelling”, I lost it. Totally and completely lost it. There was absolutely nothing graceful or pretty about it. It was as if someone had turned on the tear and snot spigot, not just a trickle, but full blast. The weight of the emotions I felt at that moment was almost too much to bear. All I could do was lean into the shoulder of my beautiful husband and weep.

I get that crying at a wedding is normal. Who doesn’t cry at weddings, right? But for me, the tears were more than just an expression of joy for the moment. My tears were, at once, tears of sadness for all of the years that my dream, and the dreams of so many of our brothers and sisters, of a church wedding had been deferred as well as tears of joy that, in our case, the dream was finally, FINALLY, being realized.

You see I had always wanted my to be married in the church, but more importantly, my Presbyterian Church.

Twice, over the years, I had approached pastors of my congregation, arguably one of the most liberal congregations in our Presbytery, and asked them if they would be willing to offer the church’s blessing to our legal marriage. Both times these pastors, who would so eloquently preach from the pulpit against the sins of racism, sexism and homophobia, said no. Oh they hemmed and hawed and danced around it, they both were very quick to affirm their love of Michael, and me, but in the end the answer was no. They practically tied themselves in knots trying to explain why they couldn’t, or why the time wasn’t right, or why the congregation wasn’t ready. They tried so desperately to square their private rejection with their public position. What a joke.

I was devastated. Not once, but twice, I was again relegated to second-class citizenship in the church I had loved and faithfully served for decades. Honestly? I almost left. But my love for the congregation, my admiration for the work they were doing, the friendships that Michael and I had built up over the years; all of these things compelled me to stay.

Still, after the “no’s”, it was very painful playing the organ for other peoples weddings and it was very painful to hear these pastors preach social justice, when I knew they couldn’t bring themselves to include me and those like me.

To me, the reasons for no sounded like a bunch of hypocritical BS. Looking back, I realize now that no really meant, “I’m afraid.” I realized that both of these otherwise fine pastors were afraid of losing their ordinations, they were afraid of losing their jobs and they were afraid that Presbytery would swoop in and close the church. All of which, granted, were real possibilities until this past summer.

I was at General Assembly this past June, when they passed the Authoritative Interpretation to the Book of Order, allowing Teaching Elders freedom of conscience to preform or not preform same gender marriages in jurisdictions where it is legal. Unlike previous GA’s, the debate was civil and polite. The hateful speech we had been subjected to in past Assemblies was absent; the accusations of pedophilia, polygamy and bestiality (yes, bestiality) were missing, thank God. Still, when the vote was called, we didn’t know which way the commissioners would land. When the Stated Clerk announced that the AI had passed with more than 70% of the vote, you could have heard a pin drop.

Much has been written about that vote and the subsequent vote to approve Amendment 14-F, which will, if approved, expand Presbyterians definition of marriage and allow Teaching Elders to offer the church’s blessing on all marriages, opposite gender and same gender, regardless of location.

For me, and the hundreds of other LGBTQ and allied folk sitting in that hall, those votes were a holy and sacred moment. It was the moment that the church; our church, the church we loved and served, often in spite of itself; began to publicly acknowledge that Love is Love.

So on a beautiful October Saturday afternoon, 11 years to the day since I had legally married my husband, Michael and I stood before God, family of origin and family of choice, to bear witness to the power of love. It was, truly, a dream fulfilled.

Amendment 14F needs your help!

Dear friend,

In the past year we have hoped, prayed, and dreamt that the Presbyterian Church, USA would recognize the commitments of all loving couples who have covenanted to life together as married. Now that the General Assembly has voted to recommend that we update the Book of Order to describe marriage as a unique commitment between two persons, it is time to begin our work to ratify 14F, and we need you!

Whether you have only an hour or two between now and next June, or are ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work organizing  – we have a place for you!

  • Do you have 10 minutes to give?  Call your presbytery office and find out when your presbytery will votes on 14F and let us know.  We can’t organize, have strategic conversations, and get out the vote if we don’t know when it is happening.  This is step one.
  • Do you have 2 hours to give? Talk to the voting representatives from your congregation. Tell them why you support marriage equality and ask them to vote yes.
  • Do you have a few more hours to give? Talk to others in your presbytery that you know are supportive of the amendment and get them involved.
  • Join a MLP calling team and recruit volunteers in presbyteries across the country.
  • Join a MLP calling team and talk to voters, encouraging supporters to make sure to attend and vote yes.
  • Help keep our voting data up to date by managing our spreadsheets and database.
  • Join our training team to make sure volunteers have all the resources and information they need.
  • Apply to be a Regional Coordinator. MLP is hiring 6 regional coordinator positions, that come with a small stipend. The Regional Coordinators will be responsible for organizing teams in 5-7 presbyteries.  They will work with the national coordinators, recruit volunteers, and manage a volunteer team.  You’ll get a chance to learn how messaging is constructed, how to run a GOTV effort, and more.
  • Donate to support our organizing efforts! We need your financial gifts as well to sustain our work for the next year! Click here to give now: http://bit.ly/MLPdonate.

If you’d like to volunteer with More Light, whether you have an hour to give or more, please let us know here: http://bit.ly/14Fvolunteer. We want to make sure you have the resources and support you need every step of the way!

If you want to apply for a regional coordinator position, please do so here: http://bit.ly/14Fcoordinator. The applications are open through October 20.

Thank you for all that you have done already to bring us this far in the work for LGBTQ inclusion in the PC(USA)!

 Yours on the journey,

Alex Signature
Alex Patchin McNeill
Executive Director

Join the MLP Blogging Team

MLP is committed to bringing you personal commentary, inspiring news and social action that helps transform the church and society into a welcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. In January, 2014 we launched an Editorial Board, a team consisting of key staff/board members and a volunteer advisory team that will assist us with movement listening, blog content development, and promotion. Read more

What’s love got to do with Ratification, Ferguson, and Congregations?

The answer for me is, everything. Unlike the amazing Tina Turner, I’m not talking about protecting our hearts so we may reap all the benefits of platonic relationships.  I’m talking about the fact there will always be pain and sadness on this side of the Jordan.  It’s unavoidable, it’s tiring, and honestly, it sucks.

It seems this American summer was just as bitter as it was sweet.  A lot was happening in our national community.  I have to agree with those who don’t believe there was ever a simpler time.  They’re onto something.  I think that’s why Tina, calls love “A second hand emotion” and “sweet old fashioned notion”.  Nostalgia binds us from acknowledging the painful truths of the past by just focusing on a good experienced by a dominant group. Read more

UMC #BiblicalObedience in #Ferguson

Though I’d love to be able to always know precisely all the details of what the Lord calls me to do, many times all I know to do is to “get a move on” as my late father used to say. To get up and be led by the Spirit, which is how Jesus ended up in the wilderness to be tempted, is not at all comfortable. Monday morning I had a prophetic discomfort. Waking up seeing the continued events in Ferguson, Missouri, I knew I was being called by God to go to Ferguson to give my support to the protesters, as they are demanding justice in light of the killing of 18-year old Michael Brown.

Bishop Mel Talbert has urged us to practice “Biblical Obedience.” Though the context of his urging is specifically related to justice and full inclusion within The United Methodist Church for LGBTQ persons I hear his plea more broadly aim. Succinctly put, it requires us, according to Micah 6:8; “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I’m practicing Biblical Obedience in Ferguson. Read more

Presbyqueerian and the Three Churches

Once upon a time there was a Presbyqueerian who lived in the City of Magnificent Intentions with lots of Family.  Even her church was filled with Family. They marched together through magical streets lined with rainbows, telling everyone they were safe and welcome and loved by God.  And they were. Even and especially people who had been clobbered before by the Trolls of the Troubling Texts. Many Family members, including the Presbyqueerian, had long ago slain the Troubling Text Trolls and would just as soon have left them behind and forgotten about them. But the Church in the City of Magnificent Intentions decided one summer to take on troll after troll, text after text, week after week.  Presbyqueerian knew it was important to help take on the trolls, but was not enthusiastic about facing them again — not because they were so scary anymore, but because she was so tired of fighting them. Read more