Nine years ago, I wrote an essay for Presbyterian Voices for Justice (then Witherspoon Society) that was also posted on Presbyweb about Amendment 01-A. (01 refers to the year 2001 as 10 refers to 2010).
The 213th General Assembly that met in the summer of 2001 had sent an amendment to remove prohibitions against gays in the ministry. The change since 2001 is that the Authoritative Interpretation was voided in 2008 by an action of the General Assembly. Also, instead of removing G-6.0106b (as was the amendment in 2001), this year it is a rewrite of that section.
Essentially, the current proposal is the same as it was in 2001.
You can read the essay in its entirety on the Presbyterian Voices for Justice website. After nine years, the solution to our problem has not changed. Delaying the inevitable has only served further division within the church. The arguments I made then are the same that advocates are making today.
Amendment 10 A isWe weren’t ready to embrace it in 2001. This year perhaps?
- faithful to Scripture,
- respectful of differing opinions among us, and
- in harmony with the meaning of ordination in our church.
If not, I'll pull this essay out again in 2020.
Here is the middle section as I wrote it in December 2001.
I highly value scripture. On the whole I hear it as God's Word of boundless love and enduring hope for creation. I preach from scripture week by week. I believe that our church should be ordered from the message of scripture. This message is ultimately embodied in the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. I take scripture so seriously that I cannot take it literally. I always wrestle with what my beloved New Testament Professor, the late J. Christian Beker, called coherence vs. contingency. What is the coherent, central and timeless message of scripture and what aspects of scripture are contingent upon context, culture and ideology?
As fallible interpreters, we will often mistake the contingent details of the Story for the coherent Message of the Story. No one is immune from this tension. That is why we need each other. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a diverse community to interpret God's Word. It is even trickier to apply our interpretations of various texts to current situations, issues and people. It seems to me that we must have a clear, fair and intelligent understanding of contemporary problems in order for the Message of Scripture to speak with any authority to them.
The contemporary problem we have had before us for 25 years or so is whether or not openly gay persons (my shorthand for "self-affirming practicing homosexuals"--which I find to be laborious and dehumanizing) may serve the church as Deacons, Elders, and Ministers of Word and Sacrament. The actions by various General Assemblies ("definitive guidance", "authoritative interpretation"), PJC decisions, and G-6.0106b (and the litigation that has followed in its wake) seem to suggest that the majority of presbyters have so far said "no." Are these actions backed by the coherent message of scripture? Many agree. Many do not.
Prior to the last General Assembly over half of the biblical studies faculty at PC(USA) seminaries called the scriptural evidence of denying full participation of gay and lesbian people in the church into question. They saw that the contemporary problem (the denial to ordained leadership of openly gay persons) was not sufficiently addressed by the selected biblical texts often used to support this position. To them, some of these texts are contingent to a larger narrative.
For example, Romans 1:26-27 is a culturally contingent example of Paul's larger coherent assertion of humankind's inability to comprehend and obey God's will. The Levitical prohibitions (i.e. Leviticus 20:13) are ancient tribal contingents of the larger coherent Holiness Code which instructs Israel to be Holy as God is Holy. It is also true that the coherent biblical drama is couched in the contingent patriarchy from which Israel was embedded. The contingency/coherence model reminds us not to miss the forest for the trees in biblical interpretation.
Some passages, such as the Sodom and Gomorrah incident, refer to the sin of inhospitality and gang rape, and the much disputed word in I Corinthians 6:9 seems to come under the rubric of what we might now call "sexual misconduct." Neither would be acceptable then or now. Certainly much of what was acceptable then in regards to sexual behavior and relationships we would no longer find acceptable. Much of what was unacceptable then, we do find acceptable now. (Rather than go into detail on that point, I refer you to Walter Wink's article, "Homosexuality and the Bible.")
None of these passages speak directly to contemporary human beings who live in loving, ethical, mutually affirming, and community enhancing relationships that happen to be of the same gender. In fact, I might go as far as to say that no contemporary social issue is addressed directly by scripture. That is why we need the Holy Spirit. You cannot simply go to the Bible and "look it up."
In my opinion, a more appropriate text to illuminate this issue would be Acts 10:9ff where Peter beholds a vision of unclean animals being lowered to him on a sheet. He is commanded to "kill and eat." The message is not about food, but people, namely, the Gentiles. What was formerly unclean is now clean. That is certainly a recurring and coherent message of scripture. God chooses the unexpected to do God's work. Many of the parables of Jesus as well as the actions of Jesus were told to counter the prevailing notions of his time in regards to people who were considered unacceptable, untouchable sinners. Jesus partied with them.
For me, the coherent message of scripture is one of radical inclusive grace and an invitation to discipleship to everyone, which entails living holy lives. If we are fortunate enough to share our lives in intimacy with another, our relationship should be based upon the Gospel ethic of love, fidelity, forgiveness, stewardship, unitivity and hospitality. I have been blessed to know gay and lesbian couples who have lived that ethic pretty darn well. They in turn, have been a blessing to the community and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Agreeing to Disagree
All of this said regarding scripture, I recognize that Presbyterians in good conscience may interpret the will of God differently on this and many other matters. With most other matters whether they be social issues such as abortion or capital punishment, or theological issues such as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement or eschatology, we agree to disagree and at best we even strengthen one another by pointing out facets of an issue or problem that the other may have missed. It seems strange to me that we can agree to disagree on so many more substantial issues and practices and allow freedom of conscience and mutual forbearance in that diversity, but this issue requires a categorical prohibition.
I am not (nor is Amendment 01-A) asking for agreement on homosexuality any more than I feel that we should agree on hundreds of other social and theological issues and approaches. I do not even claim that I am ultimately right on this. I simply feel that there is room for differing viewpoints. There is no consensus of biblical interpretation that would categorically prohibit Presbyterians in same-gender relationships to serve the church in an ordained capacity. No matter how certain we may feel about our interpretation of scripture regarding this issue, we must agree to the obvious fact that there is no consensus. Far from it. A significant and increasing minority within the Presbyterian Church (USA) faithfully interprets scripture to include those who have been excluded by our current policy.
Part of the beauty, the decency and the order of our Presbyterian system is not to allow the tyranny of a simple majority to overbear upon the minority on issues that are non-essential. All Amendment 01-A asks for is to let the church agree to disagree and to let the governing bodies determine who may serve particular ordained ministries based on their evaluation of the character, faith and gifts of a person guided by the governing body's interpretation of the coherence of Scripture, the Confessions, and The Book of Order (excepting of course the recent addition, G-6.0106b).
It is curious to me why the social issue of same gender relationships centers on the issue of ordination/installation within the Church. If same-sex relationships are so far removed from the will of God as to warrant policies specifically excluding these individuals from ordained service within the church, why stop there? Why not pass an amendment explicitly excluding these folks from singing in choir, teaching Sunday school, serving on staff as a youth minister, playing the organ, sweeping up the fellowship hall or doing the dishes after the church potluck?
Why stop there? Perhaps self-affirming practicing homosexuals (there is that dehumanizing phrase again) should be excluded from church membership and baptism. Those who seek to be baptized or to join the church on affirmation of faith or reaffirmation of faith are asked by me in front of the congregation: "Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?" Can a self-affirming practicing homosexual (let's call her Sandy in a relationship with her life partner, Joan) say: "I renounce them" knowing full well that she has no intention of changing her relationship with her partner? Is the Session not in violation if it is aware of this relationship as well and approves her for membership? Obviously, I am not advocating for more Draconian measures against our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. I am simply attempting to point out the inconsistencies of the policy to prohibit installation and ordination of these Presbyterians.
Besides baptism and membership, what of other Christian service? How does a congregation or Session prohibit an openly gay person from teaching Sunday School, serving communion, preaching on occasion, serving as a youth minister (or serving as a paid evangelist as in Janie Spahr's case), or any of the myriad ways in which Presbyterians can serve the church, without a direct prohibition in the Book of Order? The answer is quite simple. Congregations figure these things out for themselves.
If a Session does not want someone to teach Sunday School, lead the choir or run the youth program, it doesn't ask that individual to do so. The same is the case, whether or not a blanket prohibition is in the Book of Order, regarding ordained and/or installed service. If a Session does not want a certain Presbyterian serving in a particular capacity within its congregation, the Session is adept enough to keep him or her from serving. But is it really fair to force a congregation that disagrees with those principles of exclusion to do the same? We should not ordain (nor prohibit from ordination) people based on category.
We do not ordain (nor decide not to ordain) communists, cigarette smokers, abortion providers, men, women, divorced persons, biblical literalists, grumpy people, or those who have a good word to say about everyone. We evaluate for service Bob and Sue and Ahmad and Soon Li. That is how Presbyterians do things. A governing body is guided by scripture and the confessions (ultimately the Holy Spirit) to evaluate individuals for particular service. The problem for these past two and one-half decades is that a simple majority has instituted and enforced a binding policy of categorical prohibition on one class of individuals for the whole church. We will continue to have problems until we allow charity on non-essentials. To quote from Jesus (with gratitude to Walter Wink for lifting this one up):
Let us do what we should have done nine years ago and Vote Yes on 2010 A.