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.