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Organizing for Change at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

I am thrilled to belong to Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, a warm and welcoming beacon of light in the very conservative Shenandoah Presbytery. I knew that SPC supported LGBTQ rights when I joined. My pastor, Randy Tremba, is the author of The Tremba Letter, which was used in an ad to help achieve ordination for LGBTQ people in 2012. I knew that SPC had spent many hours prayerfully discussing equality for LBTQ members and that the process was respectful and educational for all. Plus, we sing a lot! It is my kind of church!

As an advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in all aspects of the PCUSA for the past ten years, I had left my work in the Baltimore Presbytery and was ready to start working for equality in Shenandoah. I was told that Shenandoah Presbytery had never voted to support LGBTQ rights and that it would be shocking if they ever did. I was also told it would not happen in my lifetime.

When the session at SPC appointed me the designated commissioner to attend the stated meetings, I was thrilled. I contacted the Interim Executive Presbyter in ShenPres, Roy Martin, and was delighted to find that he was a respectful and interested listener as we discussed Amendment 14F. His plan was to have two people on either side of the issue have a discussion about the amendment at the stated meeting that would occur before the meeting where we would actually vote on the amendment.

He found two teaching elders who were friends and who share a meal together once a week. They enjoy and respect each other’s company but they were on completely opposite sides of the issue of LGBTQ equality. As I watched these two men discuss and share their views and then answer questions at the meeting, I noted many heads nodding in agreement to a lot of what the minister who supported equal rights was saying. I also talked with many members of the presbytery who were supportive. I was told that many of them were afraid to share their support because they did not want to lose their jobs.

On the day that Shenandoah Presbytery was scheduled to vote on Amendment 14 F, I was sick with the flu. I called my pastor and suggested a fellow parishioner who I knew was supportive and a thoughtful speaker to go in my place. She was able to attend along with my pastor and an honorably retired minister. She was moved to speak at the gathering and here is what she said:

Judy York (Fellow Parishioner)
On Tuesday, my partner of 20 years, Sheila, and I have our first meeting with a wedding planner. No one is more excited about this than our three children.

We have been recognized as a family three times by the State of WV through second parent adoptions. And we have been recognized as a family before God and our community three times through the Sacrament of Baptism. But Sheila and I have waited to get married until we could do it in our State, in our church, with our pastor and the support and blessing of our church community.

Our uncle’s Caucasian grandfather fell in love with an African-American woman over 150 years ago. After the Civil War they slinked off to the northern tip of New York State to get married and live out their days amongst strangers. Sheila and I never wanted this for our life and our marriage.

On the way to school yesterday I told my kids why I would be missing my Valentine’s Day plans with the family to come here. My nine-year old lit up. “Momma,” he said, “Can I come? I want to vote too!” I smiled and patted his leg.   But my eye was drawn to the rear view mirror, where I caught my seven-year-

old daughter in the back seat, head bowed and lip out. Her sadness began to get mixed into a sort of confused rage. “Why is this happening? Does this mean you are not going to have a wedding? I don’t understand.”

I am grateful for this event because it helped me open a deeper discussion with my kids over discrimination, why it happens, and what we can do about it. We had to cut the conversation short because they needed to get to school. Before she shut the car door, my daughter turned to me and said, “Can we talk about this more later? I would really like that.”

In December she saw her beloved Sunday school teacher marry his partner of over 30 years. She wants this for her two moms and for our family .I assured her our wedding would go on as planned. Our local church has spent the past decade

challenging ourselves to become more welcoming. The growth of our congregation, including young families, shows this.

This vote is not about our wedding, but about helping ensure that the people we commune with throughout the national church are afforded the same opportunity as us for years to come – to marry the person they love. To marry each other by exchanging mutual promises, witnessed by a teaching elder

who pronounces God’s blessing upon their union, in front of their community of faith who pledges to support the couple in upholding these promises.

I can tell you this… after twenty years in faithful relationship with Sheila I know we could not be as strong as a couple without our church community. This support makes our family stronger, our community stronger, and our world stronger.

I am so grateful to Judy for attending the meeting in my place and for being brave enough to stand up and share her personal story. There were many commissioners, including my pastor and the honorably retired pastor from our church, who spoke in support of equality. While there were some people who spoke against the amendment, when the vote was taken, the amendment was approved 99-79!

Shenandoah is now one of the presbyteries that have “flipped” from no to yes! I am very happy to be a part of this presbytery.

jeananneWritten by Jeananne Stine, one of MLP’s Regional Coordinators for Ratifying 14f.

Update on 14f

What a few months it has been towards the ratification of Amendment 14F! When February began, 30 Presbyteries had affirmed ratification and 11 had voted against it. In just 27 short days, 70 Presbyteries have now voted yes, and 32 have voted no. This weekend, 13 more presbyteries have held sacred conversations about marriage and vote on whether to affirm a description of marriage in our Book of Order that includes all loving and committed couples. Since 86 yes votes are required for adoption of 14F, we are well on our way to achieving it. However, ratification of amendment 14F isn’t the total sum of our goal. More Light Presbyterians embarked on a journey in our preparations for and following General Assembly to hold each of the conversations we entered with our Presbyterian family as sacred. We knew that if we started a journey that was focussed on sacred conversations, we could begin to reframe the marriage discussion to focus on the lasting covenants that many of our community members share. Ratification of 14F isn’t the end of the conversation around marriage, rather it is an opportunity to reaffirm as a denomination the values of the sacred covenant of marriage that we share.

In February we continued to see Presbyteries that have historically voted against amendments on changing ordination standards, now affirming the language change on marriage in the Book of Order. The Presbytery of the Pines, Lake Eerie Presbytery, Shenandoah Presbytery, Mid-South Presbytery, Pueblo Presbytery, Stockton Presbytery, and Glacier Presbytery have all voted for the first time to affirm an amendment seeking greater inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the PC(USA).

One of the ways More Light committed to the ratification of 14F was to gracefully engage Presbyterians across multiple differences and mobilize a strategic organizing team that helped get every presbytery engaged in conversation. I don’t believe as many Presbyteries would have felt called to vote yes on 14F without the dedication of the MLP Regional Coordinators. They have spent countless hours equipping local teams in Presbyteries to host sacred conversations about marriage. We are so grateful for the work that they have done and will continue to do throughout the voting period on 14F. They are all dedicated Presbyterian teaching or ruling elders who believe in building a church that reflects God’s heart. Our MLP 14F Regional Coordinators are:

Maggie Blankers—Southern Coordinatormaggie
Molly McGinnis—Midwest and Western Coordinatormolly
 Jeananne Stein—Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern Coordinator
jeananne
 Gusti Newquist—Southwestern Coordinator
gusti
 Beth Greaves—Southeastern Coordinator
beth

I Praise, Others Lament: Living Into Amendment 14-f

On Valentine’s Day, Ruling and Teaching Elders from throughout the Presbytery of the Miami Valley (Ohio) ventured out into the freezing weather to gather at Sugar Creek Church in Kettering. The sanctuary, built in 1806, radiates history, with richly colored stained glass and thickly padded wooden pews. Weighed down with printed materials each Stated Meeting of the Presbytery produces, Elder Dennis and I found our seats and began making our way through the agenda. Each of us understood the import of the day: amendment 14-f was on the docket.

The process for this Presbytery has been quite deliberate, with discussion groups at Presbytery meetings and ongoing dialogue within congregations. As a pastor within the only More Light congregation in the Presbytery, I have spoken forthrightly at meetings and encouraged my colleagues to pray deeply and reflect upon the issue. For most Elders, though, the decision had been made long ago and going into the meeting, I was almost certain that we would vote to affirm the amendment to the Constitution.

I am ordained through the United Church of Christ; my parent denomination dealt with the issue of sanctifying same-gender unions decades ago, but the reality of living into has not been easy. In the UCC, roughly 20% of congregations are Open and Affirming (ONA); a great number of UCC members do not identify as “liberal” or “progressive,” and do not necessarily support marriage equality. It is simplistic to break this into a “liberal” and “conservative” issue, or to assume that every congregation within a denomination (or non-denominational churches) will have the same opinions regarding the blessing of same gender marriages. 

In the past year of serving a PC (USA) congregation, I have come to love the Presbyterian Church. I am very proud to be a voting member within the Presbytery and Moderator of our Session; I sat in the Presbytery meeting knowing full well that I was living history. I was also acutely aware that for a number of persons in attendance, the vote was going to be painful. It was going to symbolize an assault to their understanding of the Gospel; it was going to represent a threat to their ability to keep members in the pews, and congregants in positions of leadership.

Debate ensued by the Moderator of the Presbytery separating into two lines; those who wished to speak were each allotted two minutes and offered the microphone in alternating fashion. One minute for follow-up would be provided when everyone had an opportunity to have their say. I hopped right up and was the first person to speak. I said, in part, “Regardless of today’s vote, we remain members of this Presbytery. We belong to the same Body of Christ. For those of you who feel that sanctifying a same-gender marriage is an affront to your religiosity and piety, and you are approached by such a couple, send them to us. We will love them and will speak lovingly of you; we will affirm your stance as in line with our polity, and thank you for being in relationship with us.” Satisfied that I had properly represented my Session and congregation’s position, I sat down.

The discussion that unfolded was heated and passionate, yet civil. However, the emotions were palpable. One man grasped his Bible, reminding me of Billy Graham in the old-time revivals, and said, “Jesus Christ changed my life. I don’t hear people talking about a personal relationship with Jesus anymore. And the churches that are heading down this path are shutting their doors; they are losing people, and so will we. I know Jesus and the cross, and that’s all you need.” I admit, it was my instinct to jump up and talk about how the church I pastor is growing; how our open doors policy is helping people return to the Church on their own terms, feeling the love of God through Christ while affirming who they are made to be in God’s image. But I didn’t. I told myself to listen, to inhabit this person’s perspective as best I was able. It is unsettling to feel that one is losing a spiritual home, to sense that one’s voice does not matter. This is how people within the GLBT community have felt for years: Our voices have often been silenced or pushed to the side; we’ve been told that we will corrupt the Church, that we don’t know the Gospel. Perhaps this is an inexact comparison, but in the meeting I attended, I heard the fear in person’s voices as they quoted Scripture to support their position. What they said was from the Bible, what I heard was, I’m not homophobic. I’m not calling for the stoning of gay people. But my faith leads me to oppose the Christian blessing of marriage.

So my praise for the final vote, which passed 54-19, with two blank ballots and an abstention, was tempered by the lament of others. A number of persons left the meeting before the tally was announced, largely because they–rightly or wrongly–believe that the General Assembly has foisted the issue on congregations, leading to the perception that the individual votes of Presbyteries are meaningless. In other words, with the GA indicating that Teaching Elders and/or Sessions have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they will bless unions the perception is that the GA has taken a stance in favor of equality. I feel palpably the pain of these persons; while I believe that the wording of the amendment allows for each congregation to make its own decision, some see this as equivocation of the Scriptures. They feel that the denomination is veering too far afield. I strongly disagree, and regard the amendment as one that allows for the PC (USA) to remain a “big tent” denomination that respects hermeneutical and exegetical diversity, but the fact remains that there are fissures throughout Presbyteries. For those of us who support the amendment, I think the call is clear: let us reach out to those congregations with whom we have disagreement on this issue, and express our understanding of their position and see how we might be of service to help them live their stance on same-gender marriage but not do harm to couples who approach them. 

The amendment, for all its strengths, has a major weakness: people outside of Presbyterian polity may not understand that individual congregations get to make their own decisions. I am approached several times a month by persons who do not attend church but who wish to be married within a sanctuary and with the blessing of an ordained member of clergy. Within the GLBT community, this task can be quite daunting and intimidating; it can be a risk to approach a church if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. That is why it is so important for those of us who serve or worship within congregations to reach out and establish relationships with communities that hold different views.

As I left the meeting, a very large man hustled up to me. I admit, his size—6’6”, built like a linebacker—intimidated me. I am a sizable guy myself, but the handshake made my hand look like that of a toddler. He looked down at me and said, “Thank you for providing us an option. I will be calling upon you.” It seems clear to me that most of our Presbyterian brothers and sisters are not looking to do harm to members of the GLBT community, but they remain steadfast in their conviction that the Gospel does not allow for same gender marriage. Most likely, we will never convince them otherwise. And that’s fine. What we can do, though, is offer our love, our support, and our services so that as a denomination we can make this amendment work. We also must accept that some congregations will not take the offer; they will have no interest in supporting same gender marriage in any way, shape, or form. Again, this is why communicating clearly on our websites, promotional materials, and within the GLBT community which churches are affirming. 

In the end, Jesus is clear. We are to love one another. If we can’t do this within the Body of Christ, how can we ask others to join us?  

A View of Marriage: Overture Advocate Tim Heart-Anderson

I’m Tim Hart-Andersen, Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area.

As a pastor in a marriage equality state, our present interpretation of the Book of Order prevents my treating all members alike.
Don and Kent. An elder and a deacon. Together for over a decade.
Rick and Terry. Choir member and usher. In worship every Sunday. Together for thirty years.
Sara and Carrie. Young adults, new members with a daughter just baptized. Together for five years.

I serve a growing 3,000 member church in downtown Minneapolis. These are my people, and there are many, many more. They worship. They teach Sunday School. They give generously. They visit the sick and pray with the grieving.
And they love one another.

Nothing in scripture or in our reformed understanding of the wide-open grace of God stands in the way of their lifelong commitment being recognized by the church as marriage, except the way the church interprets the Book of Order.

When I do weddings I always talk about the Presbyterian emphasis on the covenantal nature of marriage. I talk about the gift of love enjoyed by the two being wed, and the Giver of that gift.

It breaks my heart as their pastor that our church will not allow me to use that language, rooted in our tradition, in a service of worship uniting parishioners in marriage. It’s time for us to catch up to the gift God has given them, to name it, and to bless it.

Marriage: My Story

Here we go:

I am one of those women who has been planning her wedding since before she started dating. My Pinterest board can attest to this. I wanted a long, lace,appropriately modest dress and calla lillies. Since I am a product of the church, I have also dreamed about having the pastor that I grew up with and my current pastor doing the ceremony. I would walk into the church accompanied by one of the hymns the resonates in my soul. It would be a full church service complete with confession of sin and a sermon. My new spouse and I would serve communion to all of our guests.

I eventually met my person, the person I chose to share my life with. One morning in Febuary after we returned home from church, she gave me a ring and asked me to be a permanent part of her family. The immediate answer was yes, although we weren’t sure what it meant to be engaged in a state and in a church that would not marry us. For about a year, I wore a ring and didn’t plan a wedding. Eventually, we decided that we wanted the growing number of legal protections that a legal marriage offers. We had a small service with just our families in the city hall of Cambridge, Massachuesetts. The city clerk said her magic words and we were married. There was no communion, no prayers, no benediction. It was as if the church chose not to attend my wedding. Even with all my theological training, I had to be reminded, more than once, that God can was there, even if the church was not.

It was always our intention to have two separate ceremonies, one legal and one religious. Most couples go through two parellel processes. Just there tends to be 30 minutes between signing the papers and the blessing of the church. We are at two years and counting. I still hope to get my beautiful wedding with a long lace dress and an enormous cake. I want to walk down the aisle surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. We have been waiting for the church to affirm same-gender marriages for two years. It seems like our time may be getting close.

Folks have asked me why I am waiting for this church that does not have room for my family. There are several denominations that would welcome us in without a second thought; I could have my two bride wedding next week. It is true, other denominations would welcome me in and I wouldn’t have to wait for and struggle with the PCUSA. However, the PCUSA raised me and taught me my faith. I see her like a mother. If my mother needed me to wait so that she could joyfully and fully attend my wedding, I like to think I would wait for her. I am committed to this family, come good or bad. Although the call may change, for now I feel called to stick it out with this group. To walk together through the struggle.

In many ways, I am one of the lucky ones. I have been half-married for two years. There are couples I know who have been together for decades and have longed year after year for their church to officially recognize their covenant. Hopefully, I will never have to explain to my future children that our church that we love does not recognize our family that same way it recognizes Aunt Amber and Uncle Aaron’s family. There are people in our churches who do have that conversation with their kids.

I am working to help pass amendment 14F so it is clear in our polity that families like mine belong. I’m working so couples can have a church wedding, regardless of what state they live in. I am working because I have hope for this church and I can’t wait to have my love recognized by the folks who raised me in the faith. And I want a long lace dress.

 

Beth Greaves is a regional organizer for marriage with More Light Presbyterians. Beth has her M.Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. 

A View of Marriage: Overture Advocate Scott Clark

I’m Scott Clark, Teaching Elder from Redwoods Presbytery and chaplain of San Francisco Theological Seminary. I’m also an attorney who has done hours pro-bono work defending cases like John’s, in which the only offense committed was love.

While Scripture and the confessions guide our lives as Christians, as Presbyterians we order our life according to the Book of Order and the constitutional process of interpreting it. Since states began recognizing the marriage of same-gender couples in 2004, the relationship between civil contract and covenant has come into question.

Because previous General Assemblies have failed to act, resolution of the question has fallen to the sixteen members of General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). This is the least representative process for addressing constitutional questions.

On the question of marriage, the church’s inaction has forced the GAPJC not merely to interpret the constitution, but to create policy. In February 2012, a sharply-divided GAPJC held, by an 8 to 6 vote, that PCUSA ministers are prohibited from celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples, thus creating prohibition of these marriages by judicial decision.

The six dissenting members the GAPJC wrote passionately about the injustice of the narrow majority decision. AND SEVEN of the members of that Court, including one who voted with the majority, implored this General Assembly to amend the Book of Order to correct this injustice.

Even one member of the majority opinion wrote, “By retaining that definition of marriage excluding same-gender couples despite the increasing number of jurisdictions recognizing same-sex marriage, the church creates a form of second class citizenship for faithful Christians, despite all the other places in the Book of Order where the full equality of persons regardless of sexual orientation is affirmed.” A member of the majority wrote that. (Spahr v. PCUSA, GAPJC, No. 220-08. Feb. 20, 2013, pp. 5-6)

The current policy forbidding the marriage of same-gender couples in the PC(USA) is contrary to the expansive and inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ, and to important principles of non-discrimination in our Book of Order. In its “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” section, the Book of Order affirms that the church is to reflect the rich diversity of all people, specifically stating “there is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person” (F-1.0403). Rather, the church is to become:

in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit. (F-1.0404)

The church’s current policies excluding same-gender couples from the church’s pastoral care in marriage are contrary to these fundamental, constitutional principles of inclusion and non-discrimination.

You—on this committee and as General Assembly Commissioners— have the constitutional authority to correct these harmful policies. An Authoritative Interpretation affirming the Book of Order principle of pastoral discretion will bring immediate relief by reducing the threat of judicial action. Ultimately, however, the Book of Order needs to be amended. The process of amendment ratification by each presbytery’s vote is lengthy, so the General Assembly needs to begin now. Accordingly, with half the members of the GAPJC we ask you to recommend an amendment to the Book of Order that will clarify that the marriage of same-gender couples is not prohibited, and that pastors may – but are not required to — extend the church’s pastoral care in marriage to all people.

 

 

Testimony from Rev. Wally Landrum – Missouri Union Presbytery

In honor of the 14f campaign, More Light Presbyterians shares the following testimony from Rev. Wally Landrum — Missouri Union Presbytery.

Since 1788 our Presbyterian historic principals read: “we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which ‘men’ of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

In 1865 as we neared the end of 600,000 deaths partly over how we differed about what the Bible says about American slavery, Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”
We here of good character differ about what is God’s will.  We all read and love the same Bible and we pray to the same God; both of our prayers could not be answered; neither has been answered fully.
Some have held consistent Biblical views on each side for 30 years. Some, like my friend Mark Achtemeier, have repented.
In 1996 Dr. Achtemeier was brought into this presbytery to speak against practicing homosexuals being ordained in the church.  In 2014 he wrote an inspiring book entitled: “The Bible’s YES to same-sex marriage – an evangelical’s change of heart.”   I know of many who have changed their minds and hearts from exclusion to inclusion; I know of no one who has moved the other way. (I guess I just live a sheltered life).
For those of you who believe this is a moral issue and the church must take a stand to support six fragments of the Bible interpreted in a specific way, voting yes will not limit the freedom you have as teaching or ruling elders to not participate in a same-gender marriage of disciples of Jesus.  You do not have to be afraid; you are free to stay traditional.
For those of you, who believe this is a love and justice issue and seek to follow over 1000 Biblical verses on love and justice, voting yes allows you to follow your understanding of scripture, your experience, and your faith in what God is calling you to believe and do.
While giving freedom of conscience for some to not participate in a same-gender marriage, your yes vote will give freedom to people of good character who disagree with them, to remain faithful to their ordination vows while they follow God’s Spirit that calls many of us to bless a legal marriage for a Christian couple’s fidelity, commitment, and love.

Rev. Dr. Wallis Landrum
Missouri Union Presbytery
Feb. 10, 2015

“Yes” Feels Like Hope

While our denomination has certainly made great strides (with help from many dedicated people), it is still an uncertain place to be a queer person. I face that uncertainty, myself. Several months before Amendment 10A passed, I committed myself to the MDIV program at Austin Seminary. At that time I was also coming to the realization that I was a lesbian. I didn’t know if I could ever be out and be ordained at the same time, but I knew that I couldn’t not follow God’s call on my life. I face uncertainty even now, as I search for a call and experience the fear and discrimination that is still so prevalent among our churches.

Over the past few years, my seminary and PC (USA) family have helped me grow into my identity as a queer person. Organizations like More Light, Parity, and Covenant Network have been guiding beacons of hope as I’ve engaged in advocacy for LGBTQ persons. I was at General Assembly, frantically tweeting as 14F was debated and amended. When the voting results were revealed, I burst into tears and threw my hands up in prayers of thanksgiving to God and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

I signed up to be a Regional Coordinator because I want to actively participate in leading the PC (USA) to becoming a church that better reflects God’s heart. 10A would not have passed without the grassroots organizing of the very people with whom I’m now working. I am uncovering skills and connections that were previously untapped. A meaningful moment for me so far was when the first presbytery I worked with voted to ratify 14F. It was the first time that this presbytery voted in favor of any pro-LGBTQ legislation. Since then, more and more positive decisions have rolled in. Each YES vote feels like hope.

One of the main reasons I’m Presbyterian is that I admire our commitment to the participation of all members in careful discernment about our theological convictions, actions, and witness in the world. I believe in Amendment 14F because I believe in the PC (USA). I attended my first presbytery meeting when I was 15. I was a young adult advisory delegate for the Presbytery of Arkansas. I remember geeking out about polity, but what I most treasured was the realization that my voice–some teenage kid from Hot Springs–mattered. No one’s sexual or gender identity should exclude them from God’s house. We are called now to recommit ourselves to the conviction that there is a place for all of God’s people, in service, in leadership, and in covenant.

 

Molly McGinnis is one of MLP’s Regional Organizers for the 14F ratification campaign. Having recently received her M.Div. from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Molly is certified ready for ordination as a Teaching Elder. She currently resides in Utah, with her beloved corgi, Culpepper. 

A View of Marriage: An Overture Advocate’s Words

I’m Will McGarvey, Teaching Elder from San Francisco Presbytery, serving a Presbyterian-UCC union congregation.

The Word is fundamental to our faith, so we must consider what Scripture says about marriage. Biblical marriages come in many different forms. But there are three consistent, underlying principles throughout the Biblical record that inform the theology and practice of Christian Marriage.

First, in the Creation stories, we’re told that God wants people to live together rather than in isolation.
Next, God’s commandments enjoin us to live in community where we can mutually care for each other.
Last, emerging with the story of Ruth and culminating with Jesus, God invites all people to participate in the inclusive fellowship built on God’s boundless love.

Putting these principles into practice in particular cultural settings, the people of God developed several different patterns of marriage. Many of the original rules governing marriage were meant to ensure the survival of God’s people and to protect against outsiders, or “others,” who might subvert the faith of the people of Israel. Today, many of those ancient Biblical practices are forbidden, unnecessary or understood as outmoded. Broadly and Biblically stated, scripture bears witness that all who trust in Christ stand in the circle of God’s grace and scripture charges us as believers to do justice, act with kindness, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6.8)

In light of these enduring principles, the concept and practice of Christian marriage has been redefined often in response to changing cultural norms. People of faith have interpreted the institution of marriage and adapted to the prevailing customs as they discerned God speaking to their time. Yet we have not wavered from the Biblical principles of fellowship, community, family, and inclusiveness, summed up in Jesus’ command to “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13: 34).

The meaning of marriage was at the heart of the Reformation. Martin Luther declared that priests could marry: a group to whom marriage was previously forbidden and now authorized – indeed, encouraged – to marry. John Calvin held that the regulation of marriage was not the province of the church, but of the state, with guidance from the church, of course, where the actual marriage ceremony was performed, and a minister acted as an agent of the state.

Will McGarvey

 

photo: Rev. Will McGarvey; feature photo thanks to Rev. Janet Edwards

Realities of Reconciliation

As the PCUSA takes up ratification of two historic measures — the Belhar Confession (Amendment 14-1) and the recognition of marriage as a commitment between two persons (Amendment 14-F) — there will be talk of unity and reconciliation, two central themes of Belhar. While Belhar was written in the context of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, the timing of its consideration within the PCUSA causes us to reflect on unity and reconciliation not only around race and class, but also around sexual orientation and gender identity. Belhar was first sent to presbyteries for ratification in 2010, alongside the proposal to remove G-6.0106b from the Book of Order and allow ordination of LGBTQ+ folks. Now it is taken up alongside an amendment to the Book of Order recognizing marriage between two persons, rather than only between a man and a woman.

Reconciliation is not new to Presbyterians as it is a central theme of the Confession of 1967. What does the work of reconciliation demand? A closer look at both of these confessions provides important insight as we continue to move forward together in the struggle for justice.

Belhar notes that

“unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint….. we reject any doctrine which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation.”

This confession holds the mirror up to mainline protestant churches in the US, where more than 50 years after Martin Luther King remarked “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” still only 7.4% of mainline churches are multiracial (with at least 20 percent of members coming from racial groups different from the congregation’s majority race). This is more than double the abysmal 2-3% estimate from the late 1990s, but it is clear that much of our church continues in alienation and despairs of reconciliation.

Those of us who survived the years of “unity in diversity” dialogue in the mid-90s recall how, in the name of unity, many lesbian and gay ordained folks (and a few bi+ and trans* too) came out to tell our stories, only to find, as did the Rev. Martha Juillerat, that we were in fact not free to tell our stories and subsequently had to set aside our ordinations.  LGBTQ+ people were frequently rebuked for causing division in the church when we sought to remove the ban on LGBTQ+ ordination. We were told (even and especially by some of our professed allies) that we must wait, in the name of unity.  As we move forward, we must not pretend that we have unity just because being out no longer costs us our ordinations. Our church still despairs of reconciliation in the face of continuing homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in our congregations and in our constitution.

According to Belhar,

“the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice…. must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests …. Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

The work of reconciliation is not about making nicey nice with the oppressors, even though this is often what privilege expects. Rather to reconcile is to reject hegemonic ideologies and crucially, to reject doctrines that fail to resist injustice. If we consider, for example, neoliberalism as an ideology that legitimates economic injustice on a local and global scale, not only are we called to reject this ideology that exploits the poor to profit the rich, but we also must reject doctrines that do not resist neoliberalism.  We are called to get off the fence and stand for justice. As Abbie Hoffman put it, “If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.”

The Confession of 1967, like Belhar, seems fully aware of the work involved in reconciliation:

“The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge….labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen [sic], however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” [emphasis mine]

The Church is complicit in racism. It is one thing to know this, and an entirely different thing that it is acknowledged explicitly in our Book of Confessions. To patronize others is to bring contempt on the faith we profess. This is no hand wavy “yeah yeah we promise not to discriminate” kind of statement. This is a serious reckoning, calling white people and the Church in particular to account. And it continues:

“Enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation….. A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.”

There is no room for the church of noblesse oblige. Reconciliation demands repentance and reflexivity, a deep awareness of power that actively resists privilege. It is not enough for the relatively rich to give money to the poor, counting wealth as God’s blessing and a cause for self-congratulatory generosity. There can be no sense of superiority in giving, and no expected proper response.

And yet so many of our churches remain stratified by class and race, like our neighborhoods and communities. I once attended a downtown church that invited homeless people to receive a meal after worship on Sundays. However, as a visitor I was prohibited from attending this meal, and was instead shown the pew where a former US President once sat, and taken to the fellowship area where juice and coffee and cookies were provided, but not to the homeless, who were on another floor entirely.

We need desperately to revisit the Confession of 1967. We need to study, adopt, and internalize Belhar. We have much to learn from the experience of churches in the global South, resisting racism in another time and place, and working for unity and reconciliation there, then, and still.

What will reconciliation look like for LGBTQ+ people in the PCUSA? Churches and individuals must do more than tolerate us, more than look the other way while some congregations and presbyteries ordain us. We must do more than allow our ministers to marry same-gender couples while still declaring heterosexual marriages normative. Reconciliation requires we resist heterosexual and cis-gender privilege wherever we may find it.  And that is yet a long way off for the PCUSA. But the Belhar Confession reminds us we can be hopeful:

that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world.

Or in the words of the Confession of 1967

“Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in  [humankind] and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption.”

Amen.

 

By Donna Riley on August 15, 2014

Donna Riley