Yesterday was a historic day in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A majority of presbyteries have voted to ratify the decision by General Assembly last July, which changes the language of our Book of Order (text below). The language replaces a paragraph known as “Fidelity and Chastity clause” which had been inserted to keep gay people out of church leadership. That’s not the official story, of course, it’s the behind-the-scenes true story. The language was put in to keep gays out. Last night the language was taken out and now we can let gays in. Shorthand perhaps, but true.
Yes, the Presbyterian Church will let gays in, not because some Bishop said so, but because a MAJORITY of Presbyterians have voted, through a series of careful processes, that it shall be so. In case you didn’t realize it, let me remind you that our American form of representative democracy is based on the Presbyterian form of government. This beast called democracy is really the Presbyterian genius — a beast because it is beautiful on paper, unwieldy in practice, and powerful in results!
The entire time that I have been a Presbyterian –28 years– we have been fighting over “ordination standards.” When I joined the PCUSA in 1983 the argument was hot and fresh. The first time I voted by ballot at a presbytery meeting, was on this subject, back in Twin Cities Area Presbytery. I remember feeling awed that I could vote. This month I voted again in National Capital Presbytery. In between I have voted in Genesee Valley Presbytery and in Great Rivers Presbytery. This issue has been present my entire professional life.
All of these years, congregations have threatened to leave if the language changed. We will hear much more about this in the months ahead.
I understand how real that is. All I can say is: Do what you need to do. God alone is Lord of the conscience.
Like anyone, I have a backstory that shapes my attitude. Do you know how I joined the Presbyterian Church? I had to leave the Christian Reformed Church, the church I had been shaped by, because they repeatedly voted to keep women out of ordination. At the time I didn’t even know God had called ME. But I felt that certainly God had called SOME women, and I was protesting their exclusion. It wasn’t until I left that I could hear God’s call to me, and I ended up being ordained in the PC(USA) in 1990. I had no problem with the ordination process, because after all, God made me a heterosexual.
But I understand the pain of exclusion.
I remember a particular summer day in the late nineties, sitting in a swing chair on the front porch of the manse (church-owned home) next to the clapboard church I served in rural Illinois. I had just gotten a letter from my mother. The leadership of the Christian Reformed Church met every other year, and she had had high hopes for this year’s meeting. At long last women would be allowed to be ministers!
I read her letter with eagerness. (yes my children, there was a day before the Internet and instant communication). In one sentence I knew that the news was not good. Further, she had enclosed a newspaper clipping announcing the decision. The article included a picture, which happened to be of her and two of her “womens’ libber” friends, weeping in the front row as the results were announced. Even though I had given up and left the denomination, I knew that my mother still had much investment. I also knew what it was like to watch men vote on whether or not you, a woman, had a place at the table. I cried as I read the letter, for my mother and her disappointment, for myself, for the other women who had left, who would surely leave now, and for the intransigency of a body that had once been the pivot point of my life.
My daughters heard my crying and joined me on the porch, the screen door slamming. They were 9 and 6 at the time.
“What’s wrong?” They were distressed and tried to hug me, which was awkward in the swing chair.
“Because I got some news from your Grandma. There are some people who say women can’t be ministers.” I said, clutching the letter.
“Well they’re stupidheads,” said the older daughter.
“Yeah,” said the younger daughter. “You already are one. And a good one!”
We had quite a discussion that day as I explained my faith journey to them.
I will never forget the light in my daughters’ eyes that day. There are some battles that will never be over, even if they must spill from one generation to the next.
Did anybody really think that gay people would quit fighting for admittance to the table?
If you believe that sexual orientation is not a choice, but a gift from birth, why would you expect them to quit fighting?
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.