Shuck and Jive

Monday, April 04, 2016

Why Barbara Wheeler is WRONG (Again)

Former President of Auburn Theological Seminary, Barbara Wheeler, has written an essay, entitled, "BREACH OF FAITH: Why the Apology Overture is So Wrong."   The LayMAN linked to it as well.

I will comment on her essay.  First, a word about the overture.

Overture 11-05 sent by the Presbytery of New York City with concurrence from the Chicago and Genesee Valley presbyteries recommends that the PC(U.S.A.)
"Admit that the PC(USA) has been wrong in the way it has treated the LGBTQ/Q community" 
"Apologize for the teachings and actions that have created marginalization of our sisters and brothers, adding to the erroneous belief that people who identify as LGBTQ/Q should be considered unworthy to serve fully or be honored as family within and without the church."
I think it is long past time for such an overture.   Let us recall what has happened in our denomination.   Until just a few years ago, LGBTQ/Q people were prevented from being ordained as officers in the church due to provisions in our constitution.  Their relationships and marriages were not recognized.  They and their allies were taken to church court for challenging these unjust provisions.  I participated in more than one presbytery meeting in which awful things were said about fellow Presbyterians who are LGBTQ/Q.

Actions, attitudes, and theological opinions against LGBTQ/Q people have damaged not only individuals but the entire PC(U.S.A.)  Those attitudes and actions and theological opinions were wrong.  After a long struggle, the denomination removed those beliefs from our official documents. That was a good thing.  Those beliefs did damage to human beings and continue to do damage.    I am amazed that LGBTQ/Q people show up for church at all.   They owe the church nothing.  The church owes them far more than a belated apology.

I could write pages on this.  But I think you get my point.

So what is up with Barbara Wheeler?   She writes in her essay that an apology to LGBTQ/Q people is a "breach of faith."
"After the ordination and same-gender marriage amendments and associated authoritative interpretations passed in quick succession, some Presbyterian evangelicals voiced their fear of being “Kenyonized”—denied ordination or punished by church courts for convictions at odds with those held by the majority. This measure, which would force many conservative evangelicals to participate in the condemnation of their own deeply-held beliefs, will be seen by many as a step in that direction."
This is the same argument we hear from evangelical Christians about how they are being persecuted and oppressed.  They will be forced to "marry the gays" and on and on.  I can see why they are afraid since they have been so skilled at actually persecuting gays for years.    But this overture is not about them.  It is about the marginalization that has been visited upon LGBTQ/Q people by the church.   It was wrong.   It is still wrong.  It still happens.

The phrase "deeply held beliefs" sounds so pious and sacred.  "These are my deeply held beliefs and no one must offend me for having them."  What are these "deeply held beliefs"?  Here is an example.  This is from the Authoritative Interpretation that darkened our denomination for 30 years:
"...homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity. This we affirm, despite the fact that some of its forms may be deeply rooted in an individual’s personality structure....”   
“Even where the homosexual orientation has not been consciously sought or chosen, it is neither a gift from God nor a state nor a condition like race; it is a result of our living in a fallen world....”  
“As we examine the whole framework of teaching bearing upon our sexuality from Genesis onward, we find that homosexuality is a contradiction of God’s wise and beautiful pattern for human sexual relationships revealed in Scripture and affirmed in God’s ongoing will for our life in the Spirit of Christ....” 
“…the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life....”
These are a few of the "deeply held beliefs" that were part of the official interpretation of our constitution.  These "deeply held beliefs" encouraged second-class status in church and in society for LGBTQ/Q people.  These "deeply held beliefs" provided theological justification for spiritual abuse and often violence against LGBTQ/Q people.

Those beliefs, "deeply held" as they might be, are wrong beliefs.   Believe it or not, some beliefs need to be challenged.   Even so, there are church officers who believe all kinds of wrong things.   No one is policing them.  An apology for wrong beliefs and subsequent actions based on those beliefs is not policing either.   People can still hold wrong beliefs, we are all about freedom of conscience, but that doesn't mean we as an institution will not move ahead and redress past wrongs.

She writes that the "Apology Overture
targets, scapegoats and demonizes one group, those who did not prevail in the ordination debate. It breaks our promises to respect their beliefs and actions. It violates the freedom of conscience of the minority. It is a breach of faith."
This is where she fundamentally misses the point.   People can still believe wrong things.  They still will.   It isn't about them.  This overture is about apologizing for the pain caused to LGBTQ/Q people because of wrong beliefs that had been written into our authoritative documents and wrong behavior that came from those beliefs.   The faith was "breached" long ago when this targeting, scapegoating, and demonizing of LGBTQ/Q people was the order of the day.  Now that many in the PC(U.S.A.) are changing their beliefs, those who still hold them want to cry foul and pretend they are being oppressed when they are not.    

I titled this post "Why Barbara Wheeler is WRONG (Again)", because several years ago she wrote a similar post advising the PC(U.S.A.) not to change the constitution and remove barriers to ordination.  Even though she was for changing it in theory she was against it in practice.    I responded with Why Barbara Wheeler Is WRONG.    She was wrong.  She was wrong for the same reason then as she is now.  She doesn't understand privilege.   I wrote then:
It is hard to get a grasp on privilege. Here is a seminary president, a straight person, a well-meaning liberal, bright and articulate, who has been blessed with the privilege to earn the title, elder. I don't know if it is a matter of caving under pressure or fear of success, but it seems at the moment when significant change can happen, liberals get scared. They are scared of losing the institution. Scared that conservatives will leave. Scared that demands for justice do not sound nice. 
Here's the thing.  Just because the PC(U.S.A.) voted for marriage equality and ordination, that doesn't mean that justice is fully realized.   That was only the beginning.   We still have a long way to go.  Apologizing for the pain caused by our theological views is a start.


  1. Thanks, John. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Barbara Wheeler was also wrong at the 2014 G.A. when she, as a member of the committee that created the new hymnal, Glory to God, defended the heading over several pages of hymns entitled "God's Covenant with Israel" and said that the committee had discussed whether this was a valid phrase in light of the confusion around such language. She reported that the committee had decided to stay with this phrase. Yet another member of the committee told me it had never come up for discussion. I don't mind honest opinions about something, but to be devious and to lie is where she is wrong (for the third time).

  2. I wonder if Barbara thinks we should apologize to Kenyon.

  3. If we are into apologizing then the Stated Clerk and our denomination needs to apologize to every PCUSA pastor or staff person that was told by their presbytery that they can no longer minister in a church if they won't affirm women's ordination. I had friends in the 80s that were disciplined by their presbytery and told to either affirm women's ordination or leave the PCUSA. They left. I also had a pastor friend who had the locks changed at his church because he and his session wouldn't affirm women's ordination. The Denver Presbytery changed the locks in the middle of the night. When the pastor and staff came to work they found they couldn't get in. The entire congregation abandoned the building and met at the local high school. I want the Stated Clerk and our denomination to apologize to this pastor too. Thirty years ago a presbytery didn't hesitate to discipline a pastor or elder board if they wouldn't ordain a woman. Not so when it came to the ordination of gays and lesbians. For years individual Presbyterian churches and pastors did not get disciplined if they ordained men and women to be elders or deacons. The BoO was very clear. Only persons who were married or single people who were not having sex with another person could be ordained ("faithfulness in singleness"). A number of More Light churches and other PCUSA churches thumbed their noses at the BoO and got away with it. So, let's apologize to all those who left the denomination because they had scruples against women's ordination. I have their names and addresses. And by the way, I stand behind what Barbara Wheeler wrote.

  4. John, thank you for being a good ally. This is not a jab at you. I just want to point out that the most egregious sin of our church is all the "they" talk about we LGBTQ Presbyterians. We are out here. We are reading all this. We are not of one mind about how an apology comes about and when. It's high time that we be invited to speak in all our contrasting views and for the church to listen. And when I say we I don't just mean those who are still here. I also mean the diaspora of exiled children of this church who are long forgotten. Truth telling cannot happen while the microphone is only held by a select few and predominantly by well intentioned allies. Let the margins speak.

  5. And Kyle, if there is a way I can encourage or step aside so the margins can speak, I am all about that. Apologies for "they" language on my end as well.

  6. As a pantheistic Quaking Jewish ally of your denomination, I thank you, John, for your wording and witness and gifts of many kinds. Sending Love from Rhode Island~

  7. Naomi -- "A pantheistic Quaking Jewish Ally" -- fantastic! Thank you!

  8. I should add one thing. Regardless of what direction this overture takes, how an apology for wrongs and reconciliation may work itself out, or whether or not an institutional apology is a constructive thing or not, the larger thing for me as a minister, as a father, as a friend, as a human, is to acknowledge the harm the church has done, and then to change. I have written about this often over the years. Theological viewpoints and biblical interpretations have served to give cover, structure, and power to deep-seated prejudices including homophobia, sexism, racism, and so forth. I am part of this. I am not saying we need to apologize for someone else's sins. I am complicit. I usually am not aware of how I am complicit, until by that theological word, "grace" I get a glimpse of a truth I hadn't seen previously. From my experience, I have never been sorry for any advocating I may have done, only that I haven't done enough. This essay and that goes for anything I write speaks for no one but myself. I also see this overture as part of my own apology for my sins of omission and commission regarding my own failures in dismantling harmful power structures. The purpose of an apology is not to feel bad (who gives a crap about that?) The purpose of an apology is to change and to seek to bring a bit more justice and compassion into this world both personally and institutionally.

  9. I'm less involved these days in PCUSA stuff, now that ordination and marriage are done.

    While I'm not thrilled with this overture, I don't get the Covenant Network's response to it. I think there are reasons not to support it (I don't need an apology from people who hate me. I didn't ask their permission to be ordained; I just got ordained. I didn't ask their permission to be married in a PCUSA church; I just got married. They can take their apology and shove it.

    We have a number of LGBT+ advocacy groups in the PCUSA. I don't understand why that's the case now that the work of getting major BoO change is done, unless it is a vanity exercise or a hobby job for those involved. I could be wrong, and there might be real reasons for having these completely identical groups, but they've never made a real case for that. But if it is true that we need these different organizations, one would think they might spend a little time working on the message for GA. That one group would propose and support this overture while another refuses to support it just looks childish and inept. If I wanted to support childish and inept, I'd send money to the Presbyterian Coalitition. They're the experts.

    And appeasing the people who hate us? Kitten, that train has left the station once this overture was proposed.

    What has CovNet done? They weren't the ones doing the get-out-the-vote campaigns and phone banking calling every single Minister for ordination and marriage. They supported PUP, which everyone (but them) acknowledged was just a stupid delaying tactic. And now they're supporting an overture on reparative therapy; an issue on which we already debated and won an overture in 1999. 1999. Seriously.

    So this "apology overture" will pass and it will pass resoundingly, because there's nothing the GA likes more than to do something that means nothing. The only thing that might have a better chance of passing is if CovNet proposed an overture studying the issue of an apology for the next 4 years.

    But what exactly are these people doing, and how are those actions making people's lives demonstrably better? Actual evidence only, please.

    1. Hey Alan,
      Seeing your comment made me nostalgic for the golden age of blogging. Thanks for the comment and hope you are well!

  10. Hi John,
    I'm an evangelical from Asia (where Evangelicalism is really huge). Being queer and ace at the same time, I've been exposed to the complexity, messiness and beauty of the LGBTQIA+ raindbow. While you and I may believe, understand and practise our faith (however we choose to define it) differently, I am truly inspired by your commitment to justice and equality. I know many people- friends and family- who are struggling to understand how being LGBT and Christian are not mutually exclusive- but they are trying. I explain to them how we can hold different theological beliefs, but we must make room for a 'bigger tent' of Christianity and not stop others from living out their faith in fullness and community because they understand their faith differently. I am speaking up because it hurts my heart that leaders in the church aren't even trying, and I just want you to know that there are many evangelicals who desire and are working towards a more compassionate, inclusive Evangelicalism- there's a lot of work to be done, but hopefully we'll get somewhere.