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.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mercy, Mercy Me

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is gathering this week in Detroit, and I'm sporadically following the show via Facebook and Twitter feeds. I'm a hit-and-miss GA participant, and this time around it's a miss. I'm not particularly broken up about that, but following the social media conversation does remind me of the one thing I genuinely miss when I'm a virtual attendee: the people.
Sure, it's the oldest, corniest thing in the book:
Here's the church,
here's the steeple,
open the doors,
and see all the people.
But it really is a matter of the people. The community of faith, however widely or narrowly drawn, is nothing more, but nothing less, than a web of human relationships.
We are bound to one another by a shared commitment to one another, or we are rent asunder by the fraying of that commitment.
The two most prominent business items before this assembly are the ones most bound to fray that commitment. That should come as no surprise. Items that demand outsized attention are invariable controversial and divisive. As has been the case at most assemblies for the past generation, the hot-button issues are sex and Israel.
Curiously enough, the revised common lectionary this week shares those same fascinations with sex and Israel, as we read through the strange saga of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar ... and Isaac and Ishmael.
I don't have any particular wisdom on any of this. If I did, I would have felt called to be in Detroit. What I take from Genesis is the conviction that God wants us to live in community, and that God will work to redeem the worst that we do to one another. Trusting that second truth, my hope for the assembly is that they manage to live into that first one.
Of course, as those foundational myths of Israel underscore again and again, not only do we have an almost limitless capacity for creatively screwing up human relationships, we almost inevitably do so at the expense of the powerless and those "othered" by human society and tribal bonds. And again I don't think this is any great insight, but it does strike me that both marriage equality concerns and Israel-Palestine ones rest on the question of how the powerful treat the powerless, and how society -- and the church -- choose to define "us" and "them."
The extent to which we respond to these pressing concerns well or poorly, creatively or fearfully, may well be the measure by which we find any people left when we open the doors. I trust that people of good faith from every perspective on the questions of the day would agree that something of profound and immeasurable worth would be lost if no one was left.
That is not a cry for unity at the expense of making bold choices. Far from it. I will celebrate if this assembly embraces marriage equality, and I will think it a bold and prophetic action if we choose divestment. At the same time, I want us to embrace rather than flee from the notion that we are all bound together, and that what binds us is, itself, important enough to cling to.
I wonder what we would make of the foundational myths if Isaac and Ishmael had wound up bound together on that altar while Abraham searched desperately for another way to follow God's call.