10A – Relief, Joy and Fear

May 11, 2011 by
Filed under: Religion 

Last summer, the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) passed a change to the Book of Order, section G-6.0106b (or G-2.0104 in the New Form of Government).  It was sent to the presbyteries for their concurrence, requiring 87 presbyteries to approve before it would take effect.  That was labeled amendment “10A”.  This amendment changes the standards for ordination, reversing the addition in 1996 of a specific “sin” (I reject that definition) that became an absolute bar to ordination.  This change returns the Book of Order to the historic standard that ordaining bodies (Session for [Ruling] Elders and Deacons, Presbytery for Ministers [Teaching Elders]) would look at the whole character of the ordinand, judging whether or not their individual nature (which we believe to be unavoidably sinful in some manner) was good enough to lead the church.

In 1996, the Book of Order was amended to prevent ordination of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.  That version reads:

b. Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The new version that will take effect on July 10, 2011 reads:

b. 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.

This returns the church to its traditional polity – having local ordaining bodies make individual decisions on individual candidates.  It should also be noted that a recent GA Permanent Judicial Commission case established a bar on the creation of lists of ordination standards to be applied to all candidates – each candidate must be considered individually.

I applaud this change.  I have felt for years and years that the discrimination and injustice and outright hostility shown by the denomination towards LGBT people has done serious harm, both to those LGBT people AND to the rest of us in the denomination.  While it wasn’t the primary trigger, this discrimination (in other forms prior to 1996) was a reason for my departure from the church in 1987.  I worked for PLGC (Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns – now knows as More Light Presbyterians) for 6 years after that as their volunteer coordinator for Presbynet, a church computer network.  The continued discrimination against LGBT people delayed my return to the church until 2006 – for a number of years I considered a return occasionally, found the discrimination still present, and set aside the impulse.  Ultimately I decided that returning was the right thing to do and that I should work as best I can to rectify the situation.  I hope that I had at least an itty-bitty tiny part in making this happen.

I have also seen the pain and anguish that the injustice has caused in the hearts of friends who turned away from their call from God, or pushed through with their call while having to hide an important part of themselves.  It’s my earnest hope that they will experience some healing.  I also hope that those who turned away from the church will come back now.

Those of us who have worked to some degree for this change experienced a number of emotions last night.  One friend tweeted that she was weeping in a room full of strangers.  Others yelled and screamed their joy.  Some were able to gather to celebrate in community.  I experienced this joy too, though I was unable to express it openly as I was in another presbytery meeting and we were considering the sad need to dissolve a dying congregation.  I am glad to hear of the joy, and I applaud the joy.  I’m glad to see it expressed – particularly by those who are most directly affected by the change.  Emotions are an important part of healing.  And I believe that this is truly a wonderful working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.

Those who fought this change – who fought for the 1996 change – are understandably upset.  Some are talking about the increased departure of members from our churches.  That’s a complex issue – some have certainly departed because they felt that the church was too progressive, but I believe that the majority of those who have left did so through apathy, disinterest, or death.  Our church is aging through the failure to retain our youngest members, and I believe that the discrimination against LGBT folks has caused our young adults to turn elsewhere.  Some of these upset folks are threatening to leave, or to carve out a corner in the denomination friendly to their beliefs alone.  Folks who are opposed to gay ordination are upset, angry and hurting.  They are children of God as much as the LGBT community that was hurt by past actions.  I believe that it’s important to remember that.  Our polity is based on communal discernment with the aid of the Spirit, and as a result will almost always have people on the “losing” side who felt quite correctly that their words and acts are guided by the Spirit.  I believe that there is power in the process of discernment itself, though it is messy and painful at times.  I am praying for those who can now be ordained as they should have been in the past, AND for those who felt that they should not be ordained.  This anger should also be expressed, but I hope that it is done in a manner that does not harm others and remembers that our “enemies” are children of God.

There is also a lot of fear.  I had a conversation with a fellow church member yesterday who calls himself “conservative”.  He expressed not a desire to leave, but the fear that others would act on their desire to leave as a result of this change.  I countered (in my reflexive style on these issues) that others had already left because of the discrimination, and others had failed to join us for that reason.  (I’m a bit sorry about that now.)  This is a very real fear.  Some will do so in a knee-jerk reaction – in many cases inflamed by those who have already said that the church has turned away from biblical standards (posted online minutes after the vote last night).

Others will leave because they believe that their presence with others who hold a different belief constitutes endorsement of that belief.  I find this to be generally true of conservatives, and generally not true for progressives.  As a friend tweeted yesterday (on a related issue):  “I think it points to the idea that conservatives see inclusion as acceptance and affirmation. libs can separate inclusion from acceptance.”  I reject the notion that inclusion implies acceptance, but then I am progressive.  Additionally, I feel very strongly called to stand between the opposing sides and communicate with both – and hopefully get them to communicate with each other.  Part of that comes from my project management training and experience (the IT vs. line-of-business divide is every bit as severe as the conservative/liberal split).  But part of that comes from a very real call that I feel to help others reconcile.  (Getting myself to reconcile with others …. let’s just say that I’m working on that.)

In the youth ministry world we are talking about a change in how people become engaged in Christian community.  The old model was “Believe -> Behave -> Belong” – that we first had to have the right beliefs, then act appropriately, and then were acceptable for full membership.  The new model is “Belong -> Behave -> Believe”.  We learn and change and grow by the process of being in community first, followed by adopting the behaviors of the community, which helps cause our belief.  It’s this process of communal shaping by rubbing against each other (stop snickering!) that is at the heart of our polity of communal, in-person discernment of God’s will for the Church.  We only see God’s will fully in community with each other.  I have said that I see God in others more often than I see God in other ways.

We will only grope our way to the Truth by staying together and working together and praying together.  And so it is my hope that we will do just that – remain together.  If it turns out that this change is wrong, God will make a correction happen.  If it turns out to be right (as I believe), then we will all see it as life unfolds.  Those who are hurting so much that they cannot remain should be allowed to depart with dignity and love.  But I truly hope that we will all stay.  It’s time for the end result of a fight during a hockey game – sharing a beer together after the game and laughing about it.

To conclude, I believe that this new day is a good day.   And I pray for all whose lives have changed in this process, for perceived good and perceived bad.  We are all part of the Church.


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