Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Bending the Rainbow Slowly, V

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

Bending the Rainbow Arc, Part IV

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

Bending the Rainbow Arc, Part III

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.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Bending the Rainbow, Part 2

As pastor of Virginia’s only More Light Presbyterians congregation I became active with the Open Doors/MLP chapter in National Capital Presbytery almost immediately upon arriving in late 2003. Our session passed an overture to delete “b,” and when NCP endorsed it I was invited to be the advocate for the overture at the 2004 assembly, which met in Richmond.
That assembly elected Rich Ufford-Chase as moderator, and his election seemed to many of us a sign that the body was choosing hope for the future over fear of change. Hope, as Harvey Milk told us, is not sufficient but you can’t live without it.
Two moments from a decade ago remain indelible in my memory. As overture advocate I sat through all of the testimony for and against changes in ordination standards. Among the opponents to change at every assembly are always representatives of the so-called “ex-gay movement.” These men – and it seems they are almost always men – share their stories of change that amount to, “I was lost but now am found – and so can you.”
Travis Reindl, a remarkably gifted and faith young (at that point!) gay man, served then as Clarendon’s clerk of session. He came down to Richmond for the day of testimony, and in the hallway outside the room during a break he said to me, “I’m happy for them if they’re happy with themselves, but I’m just fine just as I am, thank you very much, and I don’t need anyone else to tell me how to feel about myself. God loves me. End of story.”
The ex-gay testimony was regularly a part of the opposition strategy, and there were other tropes as well. It never took long, in those days, before you heard some variation on, “but what if they want to teach Sunday School?” Such fear mongering was always aimed at gay men and never at lesbian women, and that divide always laid bare for me the underlying fearfulness, shame and general confusion about sexuality at the root of homophobia.
Sometimes the word “homophobia” get thrown around as an epithet and a synonym for “bigotry,” but over the years I’ve come to appreciate it as fear much more than as hatred. Its effects are hurtful and it can lead to hate-filled expressions, but I don’t blame people who feel that fear any more than I blame myself for claustrophobia. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath or two on a crowded elevator. Sometimes I think a breath or two is what folks need to take before opening their mouths in committee rooms, or in pulpits.
I gave my testimony at the committee hearing. I don’t recall anything I said, and I’m sure it was nothing new or particularly profound, but during a break later that day one of the committee members, a colleague from National Capital, offered a generous and, I thought at the time, a more-exuberant-than-merited “thank you” for my words.
A few years later, upon his honorable retirement, he came out to me and other friends in the presbytery. He faithfully served his church for decades, and was a beloved pastor for many families, all while having to keep a significant part of his life hidden and closeted away. In the years since his retirement I have come to know his partner of many years. Seeing them together reminds me of the untold pain of so many individuals, and of the profound loss to the church that comes from having to bury the compassion, joy and love at the heart of true marriages.
The committee on church orders voted to recommend the deletion of “b” but the assembly as a whole answered all ordination-related overtures with a minority report that said, “wait.” We say such thing elegantly, and so all of the work to change ordination standards was answered thusly:
“We the 216th General Assembly (2004), recognizing the church’s commitment to a churchwide process of discernment with the leadership of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, call upon the church to pray for the task force and to engage faithfully in the process of discernment as led by the task force.”
Having moved to biennial assemblies for the first time in more than two centuries, there was no regularly scheduled assembly in 2005. While to many of us it felt as if the church was progressing slowly toward a more inclusive stance, the broader political climate felt like a large, late gasp of hate. In Virginia, the state’s lawmakers had approved a constitutional amendment that read:
Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth and its political subdivisions. This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.
Virginia law requires that the state’s voters approve constitutional changes, and 2005-6 saw statewide political campaigns develop around same-sex marriage as the November, 2006, election approached. The voters would eventually endorse Marshall-Newman, making Virginia one of more than 20 states that adopted similar measures between 2000 and 2006, and creating a political climate hostile to GLBT rights across the country.

The 217th GA met in Birmingham in that context in the summer of 2006, and I felt a strong sense of call to serve at that particular assembly. I was elected by NCP to serve as one of our commissioners that year, so I would travel back down the road (OK, I flew) to my native land to hear the final report of the PUP task force.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bending the Rainbow Slowly. Part 1


In 1996, at its General Assembly in Albuquerque, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) inserted a clause into its Book of Order requiring ordained officers in the church to “lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standard 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, 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.”
I was in seminary when the Presbyteries ratified G-6.0106.b, as that clause came to be known, and effectively barred gay and lesbian candidates for ordination. It was church law when I was ordained in 1999. To a great degree, the struggle over the place of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer Presbyterians has been the defining context of my entire ministry. The occasion of a General Assembly vote today that will allow me to perform same-sex weddings without fear of church sanction prompts some recollections.
My own “trials of ordination,” as we medievally call our process, included about 45 minutes of questioning on the floor of Pittsburgh Presbytery. There were lots of reasons for the contentious nature of that evening, but a colleague who became one of my few friends in that presbytery told me months later that she felt the mood of that room shift when I mentioned my wife and children.
“With your quiet manor, long hair, and the earring, they were terrified that they were about to ordain a gay man,” she told me.
I have no idea if that was the case for any of the commissioners. My own sense was that they were terrified that they were about to ordain a liberal.
Given what unfolded over the next couple of years there, I’ve often wondered if I’d have been better off tucking my tail between my legs and running away from Pittsburgh as fast as possible. My stubborn streak prevailed, and I will not blame any of it on the grace of God.
But less than 30 months later I was, indeed, fleeing.
About eight months before the flight, however, we took a vacation to the Gulf Coast. I chose the destination – Destin – primarily because I wanted to drive down through Alabama, state of my birth, and visit some of the Civil Rights historical sites in Birmingham and Montgomery. We walked through Kelly Ingram Park, where the fire hoses were turned on nonviolent protesters in 1963. We stood on the sidewalk outside the 16th Street Baptist Church where four little black girls where killed by a Klansman’s bomb on a Sunday morning that same year. I stood in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church pulpit where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached during the days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, just a few years before I was born in Tuscaloosa.
Somewhere along the line on that trip I asked myself, “what will I tell my children someday when they ask where I stood on the Civil Rights question of my age?”
By that point, the 212th General Assembly, which met in Long Beach, California, in June, 2000, had passed what became known as Amendment O, an effort to place in the church’s constitution a prohibition on pastors performing any same-sex weddings or holy union services, and prohibiting church property being used for any such service.
I knew that Pittsburgh Presbytery would be voting on that amendment in early 2001. I knew that I would vote against it, but I also knew that the measure would be affirmed in that conservative presbytery. I decided, somewhere on the road between Montgomery and Birmingham, that I wouldn’t simply cast a quiet, anonymous vote, but that I would speak out from the pulpit of the church where I was an associate pastor.
As it turned out, our vote was scheduled for January, 2001, and on the Sunday of the Martin Luther King Holiday I preached a sermon suggesting that, were Dr. King alive, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children of God would be part of the Dream, and the rights of same-sex couples would be in the circle of his concerns. I announced my intention to oppose Amendment O.
Less than two weeks later I was asked to resign.
We don’t do anything quickly in Presbyterian churches, so it took a while for the dissolution of that call. As it turned out, my last Sunday was March 11. On March 13, with the votes of several other presbyteries, Amendment O was defeated.
That summer, as I searched intently for the next call, I went to GA in Louisville. It was the first assembly I attended, I was in the audience when commissioners voted to delete G-6.0106b from the Book of Order and rescind a 1978 “authoritative interpretation” of the church’s constitution that declared homosexual behavior incompatible with ordained ministry.
Though the majority of presbyteries would vote against the assembly’s decision, thus leaving “b” in the constitution, I carried from Louisville renewed commitment and hope. During the days of that GA I met a circle of powerful witnesses involved with More Light Presbyterians.
At that point in my life, I had friends who were gay and friends who were in church, but those were not circles with a lot of overlap. Within the More Light circle I met some of the most faithful, thoughtful and joyous Presbyterians I’ve ever known. They’d been in the struggle to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice for GLBT Presbyterians for a long time, and welcomed me with open hearts.
Looking back across 13 years, I realize that those connections kept me in the church. Understandably wounded and angry by what had happened in Pittsburgh, I gave serious consideration to chucking the church altogether. But the joy, even in the midst of often hatefully expressed opposition, showed me clearly that there was a way of being the body of Christ that was creative, faithful, committed, just and joyous.
My wife told me that I wasn’t finished with what I’d been called to, and her support was crucial, as well. By the end of that summer we wound up in a healthy, moderately progressive congregation in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where I served for two good years as an interim associate pastor. My first Sunday in that church was the Sunday after September 11, 2001, and much of my work for the next two years was dedicated to peacemaking efforts.
In 2002, the 214th General Assembly met in Columbus, Ohio, where commissioners called for a year of prayer. The assembly did not endorse an attempt to impose a moratorium on issues involving human sexuality until the final report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity in the Church, which was not to be delivered until 2005. Whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, it was clear at the time that the one thing the PUP task force process would do would be delay any changes to ordination standards, and the 215th General Assembly, in Denver, voted to keep on praying.
Justice delayed is justice denied, and it’s impossible to know how many faithful Presbyterians lost patience with the church and left during these years. I asked myself often what I would do if I had a gay child and my church would not ordain my child. The key for me was that it was my church, the church I was baptized, confirmed and then ordained in, and I was simply not ready to give up on it.
In the summer of 2003, while the assembly was praying, we were preparing to move to Arlington, Virginia, where I had accepted the call to lead a small, More Light congregation. While my time in Cleveland Heights had been much more focused on peacemaking and reconciliation work, I had grown completely clear that I did not want to serve a church that was struggling over ordination issues. Instead, I wanted to lead a congregation that was committed to the struggle and supportive of my increasingly outspoken advocacy work.
Clarendon was then and remains today the only MLP congregation in the Commonwealth of Virginia, so I suppose that my predecessor, the Rev. Madeline Jervis, and I are the only Virginia pastors who have ever moderated a presbytery’s More Light board. I’m fairly sure that ruling elder Ron Bookbinder, who was ordained in 1995, was the first openly gay elder ordained in the commonwealth, though Clarendon has ordained many in the subsequent years, including, after years of asking, Ron’s husband, James Fisher.
It’s hard to grasp just how different the atmosphere was in the early 2000s. For one thing, the overwhelmingly militarized security apparatus in metro DC was an omnipresent fact of life here at that point. Oppressive is not to harsh a description, and the pervasive fearfulness that marked American culture certainly influenced the church.
Change is never easy, and it’s almost impossible in a context of fear.