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.

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