Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ordination Standards in the PCUSA and Thinking Back on the 2004 G.A.

“Thinking Back on PCUSA General Assembly in 2004”*

Five years ago at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, I was on the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, which is the committee which deals with the issue of ordination standards, and the issue at the center of the storm of our committee was whether a gay man or woman could be ordained as pastor, elder or deacon. Our Book of Order has a requirement that those who are to be ordained must practice “fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness.”

I remember listening to witnesses who spoke from their experience from either side of the issue. I think we listened to about five hours of this testimony. It was emotionally very tiring. Our denomination was clearly and sincerely split over this issue. Hardly anybody tried to speak from a theological perspective or to suggest a model of interpreting the Bible regarding this matter. But, we heard impassioned speeches against ordaining gay persons made by delegates from overseas. I remember one particularly strong statement made by an Egyptian man who pleaded with the committee to uphold the ban on ordination of gay persons. We were aware that the head of the East African Presbytery had taken the same position. The Korean churches seemed to also oppose ordination of gay men and women. I have never had the chance to hear Christians from Seattle and New York and New Mexico and Kenya and Egypt at the same time. But, I did at that Assembly. I heard parents of gay men speak of the painful experience their sons had had being marginalized by their churches. I heard gay men and women speak of their desire to serve in the ministry, and their deep sense of calling, and how they had waited. I heard some young adults who said they had experimented with homosexuality, but had experienced it as sinful and not their natural desire. They said that if the church does not take a clear position on this it leaves young people to fall into confusion over their sexual identity, as they had done.

The procedural issues about how the proponents of gay ordination had chosen to raise the issue – well, that was a very complex strategy. And, there was a more radical and a more moderate approach. I was invited to an insiders meeting on these issues, and was very impressed with the depth of preparation and conviction, especially of the more radical group: The More Light Presbyterians. Although the moderate position was strategically clever, the radical More Light leader said very plainly: “we want to win the hearts of the people.” He said they didn’t want simply a power shift that gave them some access, but reconciliation and true understanding in the denomination as a whole.

This all sent me into a process of thinking and praying, and looking for a way to communicate about this. I kept thinking of Bible passages, of friends who were Christian and gay, of ministers in my Presbytery who felt one way or another over the issue, about my own family, and about my own church at home.

But, one thing that kept occurring to me: these More Light Presbyterians: why do they continue to stay in our denomination when they could easily go to a theologically similar denomination, the United Church of Christ, and be accepted without all this struggle? I guess the real answer to that was what that “More Light” leader said at that insiders meeting I went to: “we want reconciliation and true understanding.” Having experienced the good news of God’s grace for themselves, they had the sense that those that refused to accept them really hadn’t experienced the good news of God fully – and, they wanted that. Thinking back on that, I can’t help but think of Philippians 2:4-5: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . . “ It also occurs to me as I think on this that we often find it so hard to stretch our minds and hearts to accept those who are really “our betters.”

This reflection was written in 2009.

*In 2010, the “fidelity and chastity in singleness” clause was removed from the Book of Order opening the way for local Presbyters to determine the fitness of candidates for ministry without this specific limiting rule.