Yesterday was a historic day in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A majority of presbyteries have voted to ratify the decision by General Assembly last July, which changes the language of our Book of Order (text below). The language replaces a paragraph known as “Fidelity and Chastity clause” which had been inserted to keep gay people out of church leadership. That’s not the official story, of course, it’s the behind-the-scenes true story. The language was put in to keep gays out. Last night the language was taken out and now we can let gays in. Shorthand perhaps, but true.
Yes, the Presbyterian Church will let gays in, not because some Bishop said so, but because a MAJORITY of Presbyterians have voted, through a series of careful processes, that it shall be so. In case you didn’t realize it, let me remind you that our American form of representative democracy is based on the Presbyterian form of government. This beast called democracy is really the Presbyterian genius — a beast because it is beautiful on paper, unwieldy in practice, and powerful in results!
The entire time that I have been a Presbyterian –28 years– we have been fighting over “ordination standards.” When I joined the PCUSA in 1983 the argument was hot and fresh. The first time I voted by ballot at a presbytery meeting, was on this subject, back in Twin Cities Area Presbytery. I remember feeling awed that I could vote. This month I voted again in National Capital Presbytery. In between I have voted in Genesee Valley Presbytery and in Great Rivers Presbytery. This issue has been present my entire professional life.
All of these years, congregations have threatened to leave if the language changed. We will hear much more about this in the months ahead.
I understand how real that is. All I can say is: Do what you need to do. God alone is Lord of the conscience.
Like anyone, I have a backstory that shapes my attitude. Do you know how I joined the Presbyterian Church? I had to leave the Christian Reformed Church, the church I had been shaped by, because they repeatedly voted to keep women out of ordination. At the time I didn’t even know God had called ME. But I felt that certainly God had called SOME women, and I was protesting their exclusion. It wasn’t until I left that I could hear God’s call to me, and I ended up being ordained in the PC(USA) in 1990. I had no problem with the ordination process, because after all, God made me a heterosexual.
But I understand the pain of exclusion.
I remember a particular summer day in the late nineties, sitting in a swing chair on the front porch of the manse (church-owned home) next to the clapboard church I served in rural Illinois. I had just gotten a letter from my mother. The leadership of the Christian Reformed Church met every other year, and she had had high hopes for this year’s meeting. At long last women would be allowed to be ministers!
I read her letter with eagerness. (yes my children, there was a day before the Internet and instant communication). In one sentence I knew that the news was not good. Further, she had enclosed a newspaper clipping announcing the decision. The article included a picture, which happened to be of her and two of her “womens’ libber” friends, weeping in the front row as the results were announced. Even though I had given up and left the denomination, I knew that my mother still had much investment. I also knew what it was like to watch men vote on whether or not you, a woman, had a place at the table. I cried as I read the letter, for my mother and her disappointment, for myself, for the other women who had left, who would surely leave now, and for the intransigency of a body that had once been the pivot point of my life.
My daughters heard my crying and joined me on the porch, the screen door slamming. They were 9 and 6 at the time.
“What’s wrong?” They were distressed and tried to hug me, which was awkward in the swing chair.
“Because I got some news from your Grandma. There are some people who say women can’t be ministers.” I said, clutching the letter.
“Well they’re stupidheads,” said the older daughter.
“Yeah,” said the younger daughter. “You already are one. And a good one!”
We had quite a discussion that day as I explained my faith journey to them.
I will never forget the light in my daughters’ eyes that day. There are some battles that will never be over, even if they must spill from one generation to the next.
Did anybody really think that gay people would quit fighting for admittance to the table?
If you believe that sexual orientation is not a choice, but a gift from birth, why would you expect them to quit fighting?
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
Robert McClelland says
As a current Presbyterian Pastor and before that member for years, I am discouraged that this kind of misinformation is being published. The PC(USA) has not “kept those” of differing sexual orientation out of the church nor closed the “table” to them. One only needs to look at the Book of Order to see that we have been inclusive with regards to sexual orientation for quite a while.
The ordination standard which has been in our book of order since 1996, but affirmed since long before that did not use sexual orientation as a deciding factor, but sexual practice. Those are very different. As Grace Presbytery published in its frequently asked questions dealing with amendment 10-A, “The acknowledgment of being sexually active outside of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman does not automatically disqualify a person from being ordained.” This deals with practices much more universal than just those who are of a homosexual orientation. It now says that infidelity is not a disqualifier for ordination. Neither is it inappropriate for an active elder who is single to be sleeping around. This ceases to be a reason for a candidate to be disqualified from service.
Whether one is born with a heterosexual or homosexual orientation or just chooses one is not an issue. It is whether or not sexual practice is a reflection of the life God calls leaders within the church to live – one that is held by God to a higher standard.
I am saddened by the move of the Presbyterian denomination.
Thanks for stopping by, Bob. I wonder if you’re checking out lots of blogs today and posting these same comments. But you are welcome here and I hope you come back. Where we differ is in what it means to be inclusive. Are you saying that if a same gender couple were legally married you would be okay with having them serve as elder or minister? I doubt that is true. I hope some day they CAN be married and all people desiring it can be within the covenant of marriage. Until that is true, we are going to have to allow people to act “as if” they are married. And we are going to have to bless that union because God blesses it. I believe that.
Ralph Hitchens says
Congratulations! The last time this sort of issue came up before the United Methodist General Conference gay rights lost, roughly 60-40. (I think the language of the resolution adopted said something like homosexuality was incompatible with Christian beliefs.) What you (and the American Episcopal Church) have done is put limits around scripture, something long overdue. The notion that all scripture is the Word of God is a millstone around the church’s neck.
Beth Huizenga says
thanks for the poignant update!