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.