Saturday, October 18, 2014
So, one day last week I went down to the Arlington County Courthouse, raised my right hand, and solemnly swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Never mind that, with respect to the one “authority” vested in me by the commonwealth, the two documents appear to be in subtle disagreement if not downright sharp conflict, I am now an agent of the state, part and parcel of the reign of Caesar.
“Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar; render unto God that which belongs to God.”
So much of life gets lived out in the tension captured in that deceptively simple-sounding phrase.
For example – a timely one, to be sure – take the whole question of marriage. As the late Will Campbell put it,
What is a marriage license but a legal contract? And what does any legal contract promise and offer except the right to sue one another at another time and place before another of Caesar’s agents? Perhaps such contracts are socially necessary but what does that have to do with us?
What does that have to do with the church, with the community of faith, Campbell wants to know.
Back in 2005, when I renounced the authority to sign marriage licenses for any couple so long as same-gender couples were denied the opportunity to marry, the decision received an outsized amount of media attention. One reporter asked the local presbytery executive what he made of my decision, and he answered quite simply, “we’re in the Jesus business, not the wedding business.”
It was a pretty good summation, and I hope we stay in the same business even when doing a few weddings on the side, because if comes down to it, I’m more interested in the reign of God than I am in upholding constitutions.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
While many of us would prefer a Virginia reel, marriage equality dances in waltz time in these parts: two steps forward, one step back. In January we celebrated when a federal district judge struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, and, last month, we danced with joy as the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district judge’s ruling. This week the dance got put on hold when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay of the appeals court order and blocked Virginia officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples.
The session of the congregation I serve signed an amicus brief filed with the appeals court by People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, and we’ll continue our faithful witness in the public square in the days to come. We trust that, ultimately, love and justice will prevail, but just now that’s of little comfort.
Though the Supreme Court’s order was widely expected, its timing came as a painful personal reminder that so much more is at stake than wedding dances delayed. The single paragraph of legalese staying the appeals court decision was handed down in the midst of days still raw with grieving the sudden and unexpected death of a friend whose husband and partner of 34 years has been a parish associate at our church for almost 20 years.
Robert* was just beginning his pastoral work in the late 1970s when he met William, and faced the choice: follow his heart or follow his vocation. He chose love, and while he has no regrets those of us in the church certainly should. Robert has done significant work in the nonprofit world over the years. He has also preached, led study groups, and planned worship often for our small congregation. The larger church needs the erudite, thoughtful, compassionate leadership he would have offered in abundance had he been able to serve openly. William, who was smart, funny, and creative, would have been a great preacher’s spouse, though I imagine he’d howl in laughter at the thought.
When it comes time for National Capital Presbytery to vote on marriage equality, I’ll be thinking of so many folks who have waited far too long for simple justice, and I’ll be thinking, in particular, of William and Robert.
The two of them loved to dance. They just preferred something a whole lot faster than a waltz.
* I’ve used pseudonyms to protect privacy.
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
I’ve been on the road most of the past two weeks. The final weekend of June we spent at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, N.C. If you’re a progressive Christian who doesn’t mind mud and heat you ought to experience Wild Goose at least once. For us, once may well turn out to be enough, but I’m glad I went.
The Goose provides its own interesting lens through which to see the bending of the rainbow arc. Though the festival is a youngster (born in 2011), it has clearly seen its own evolution. When Religion Dispatches covered the inaugural festival its article was headlined “Wild Goose Festival’s (Mostly) Welcoming Spirit for LGBT Christians.”
No qualifier would be necessary in writing about the fifth Goose. Though the event attracted at least one lonesome “ex-gay” evangelical demonstrator who stood outside the gate to the festival grounds using a bullhorn to denounce us, inside the festival felt broadly inclusive, safe and at least a little bit queer.
I don’t know where the few long-time progressive evangelicals are in their personal journeys on GLBT concerns, but they seem publically to have moved. For example, Jim Wallis, Sojourners editor, who spoke Sunday morning about racism, seems to have come a ways since I first met him a decade ago. I spoke at Sojourners’ offices several times years ago when they held a monthly worship, and I recall more than one person thanking me for saying what I said about GLBT justice because they felt Jim needed to hear it.
His wife told me once that he still had an evangelical’s perspective on biblical authority. That comment underscores for me why this struggle has been the central one of my years in ministry, the central one of our time in history. Over the years I’ve heard lots of folks, from across the range of the church, bemoan the amount of time and energy spent on ordination and now on marriage. “We have so many more important issues that we could be working on,” they’ll say.
I’m sympathetic to that statement, though I think it misses the point. Certainly, global climate change, persistent poverty, violence and war are social issues about which Christian faith and the church should and does have important things to say and do. But all of our actions, as people of faith and as the community of followers of Jesus, must be grounded in an understanding of our sacred story, of the person of Jesus, of the nature of truth and of Biblical authority. All of that is what’s truly at stake in this long struggle for GLBT justice.
While it is first and foremost about real people and their lives, it is also about the way we understand the faith, truth, scripture, and what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. It is what we have been called to grapple with in our time.
The first same-sex union service over which I presided, back in about 2004, included one young man who had grown up in a conservative, evangelical household. I clearly recall his tears as he asked me if I thought he was going to go to hell. He eventually left our church because he was looking for a place that proclaimed the old-time evangelical faith but somehow made room for him within it. I said to him more than once, “you can’t get here from there.” In other words, we have to think anew about the whole of the faith to understand how it can and does continue to speak its truth through our lives in our time.
That makes of church a community of the questions more than one of the answer. Was it Rilke who said we must “try to love the questions themselves”? Living into the answers is the work of more than a lifetime, and dwelling lovingly, joyously, compassionately in a community of the questions seems like faith to me.
When we learn how to do that well then we may have something important to offer the world on all of the urgent issues we face. I see some signs, in the actions of the just-concluded general assembly, that we may be learning it.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
I don’t know how “freedom of conscience” played out in other presbyteries, but in National Capital Presbytery for many often awkward and never enlightening months it mean “playing political football” with individual’s ordinations. Some members of the body, apparently feeling called to force a crisis, questioned every candidate for ordination or installation in the presbytery to endure pointed questioning about their personal compliance with G.6-0106b.
Every candidate became a pawn in a proxy fight between the opposing sides of the larger ordination question. Having endured my own inhospitable inquiry years earlier in Pittsburgh Presbytery, I vowed early on never to use someone else’s ordination or installation for my own purposes so I sat out the ugly proxy battle.
The only good thing to emerge from the ugliness of those days was a deeper, richer and entirely more positive process that NCP’s committee on ministry now uses to engage candidates in the presbytery. While we certainly don’t pretend to reach the depth of discernment that the PUP task force members did in their years of meetings, I believe we are honoring their recommendations for deeper discernment of gift and call in the process of determining whether or not individuals who come before the body should, in fact, become members of the presbytery. (Not that “full disclosure” matters much on a blog, but I’ll note that I have served for the past three years as a member of one of the COM exam teams, and it is far and away the richest service I’ve tendered to any presbytery.)
As we lived with less than grace into the post-PUP era, More Light Presbyterians remained unalterably committed to removing “b” from the Book of Order. Again the session at Clarendon sent an overture to presbytery, again NCP endorsed it, and again it joined a significant handful of other overtures to the 218th General Assembly that gathered in 2008 in San Jose, Calif.
That summer was certainly a watershed moment in American political life as the Democratic Party nominated Barack Obama for president. GA made a slightly less historic pick, electing the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow as moderator. Moderatorial elections often signal the mood of an entire assembly, and Bruce’s election was a decent predictor as the assembly endorsed the effort to delete “b.”
The overture approved by National Capital was answered by one from Boston Presbytery that deleted “b” and replaced it with language that called on those in ordained office to “live lives in obedience to Jesus Christ.”
However, though the vote was closer than previous ones, this effort to delete “b” also failed to pass in more than half of the presbyteries. Though more than half of the presbyteries voted against the change, those that voted for it represented more than half of the membership of the denomination, and that demographic fact underscored the rapidly shifting cultural terrain that is the broader context for the changes the church was living slowly through.
By the time the 219th assembly met in Minneapolis, public opinion on GLBT rights had shifted dramatically. For example, in polls taken in 2004, more than 60 percent of respondents opposed same-sex marriage. By 2010 opposition was less than 50 percent.
Once again, in 2009, the session at Clarendon endorsed a measure to delete “b” and National Capital passed it to GA. Months prior to the presbytery meeting, the local MLP board, of which I was co-moderator at that point, convened a drafting team that met several times to work on language for an overture and for its rationale. Though the assembly in Minneapolis ultimately chose one of the half dozen or so alternatives aiming at the same end, I am still quite proud of the language we used to describe why we believe God is calling forth something new.
You can find our lengthy theological statement buried in the minutes of the 219th General Assembly (pages 472-475). It stands up well, and if you want to understand fully why I’ve worked so long on these issues, well it’s all in those words.
I attended the 2010 assembly as an overture advocate on both the ordination overture and a pair of overtures related to same-sex marriage. That assembly was the first that had a separate committee to address marriage and civil union issues, and it was a great privilege to work with fellow advocates from another half-dozen presbyteries on our presentation.
While sitting in the committee room in Minneapolis I heard an opponent of the measures I was advocating for complain that “GA has become one big gay party.” I thought, “how sad that he’s missing out on the joy.” I was struck while waiting to testify, perhaps the same day, in the church orders committee by how tired and dispirited the opponents of change seemed to be. All of the energy was clearly on the side of change, and the committees endorsed overtures to delete and replace “b” and to open space for Presbyterian clergy to perform same-gender weddings.
The assembly as a whole was not ready for that move, and Roberts Ruled it into submission. However, they did endorse the change in ordination standards, and thus launched another round of voting by the presbyteries.
I recall praying, watching and waiting as presbyteries voted, and feeling the ground shift as presbyteries in Alabama voted for the change. They were, indeed, harbingers, and late in the spring of 2011, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formally endorsed the change that allows all members of the denomination to serve freely as ordained officers if they are so called and qualified.
We organized a worship service of celebration and remembrance at Western Presbyterian Church that summer, and I can vividly recall long-time advocates of justice and change standing up in the sanctuary to speak the names of those now in the great cloud of witnesses who did not live long enough to see the change, but whose lives were lived faithfully working for it. Somewhere, over the rainbow, they celebrate in the church triumphant.
Monday, June 23, 2014
In the months prior to the 2006 assembly, the local MLP board endorsed an overture to delete “b” from the Book of Order. Such efforts have, for me, marked a key distinction between the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and MoreLight Presbyterians. It’s too simplistic to leave it a labels such as “MLP equals progressive” and “Cov Net equals moderate.”
As with many labels, there is some truth, but the distinctions between the two organizations have always struck me at a deeper level.
Cov Net has always struck me as an organization of church insiders whose primary concern is “the church” and the work of creating “a church as generous and just as God’s grace.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s different from working “for the full inclusion of GLBTQ people in the life of the church.” MLP has always struck me as a gathering of the marginalized seeking to speak from the margins to the center, whereas Cov Net is the broad center speaking to the whole church about those on its margins. I suppose I’ve always just been more comfortable at the margins than in the middle.
The Birmingham assembly was a celebration of the great middle, and it endorsed the final report and recommendations of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, including its controversial authoritative interpretation that gave local governing bodies – church sessions and presbyteries – greater leeway in interpreting Book of Order standards. The new interpretation specifically pointed back to an old tradition with the Presbyterian church of granting individuals the right to “declare a scruple” with regard to aspects of the church’s doctrine that their individual conscience led them to disagree with.
“God alone is Lord of the conscience,” has long been a particularly prominent aspect of Presbyterian thought and practice, and the PUP report leaned on it heavily in making its recommendations.
In embracing the report, the 2006 assembly rejected about 20 overtures that would have deleted or replaced “b,” including the one endorsed by MLP. At the same time, the assembly also rejected several efforts to codify antagonism to same-sex marriage.
In this blog space eight years ago I wrote:
This report does not do justice for queer folk, but it changes the terrain and, perhaps, opens a space in which we may stride toward that justice. I may be mistaken in that hope, but it is the only hope before the assembly right now.
(As an aside: it’s amazing to me that I’ve been posting stuff to a blog for ten years! And, looking back at the posts from the Birmingham assembly, it’s also amazing how much younger I looked then! Wow.)
On the bus from the assembly hall to the Birmingham airport following the close of business, I happened to find myself sitting next to Jack Rodgers, who had served as moderator of the General Assembly that created the PUP task force. Rodgers’ personal journey has taken him from the conservative evangelical wing of the Presbyterian church to his current elder statesman role as an outspoken advocate for GLBT justice. On the ride to the airport he expressed his hope that the action of the 217th General Assembly would be recalled as the turning point for the church on ordination issues.
Looking back, I’m not sure if the work we did in Birmingham changed the church, but I am certain that the church changed.