I am pretty certain that many American LGBTQ Christians envy the position of their Presbyterian cousins. Over the past several years the papers covered our progress: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opening ordination to LGBTQ people in 2011 and adopting a definition of marriage to include same-sex couples in 2015.
I expect many Catholic, Methodist and Evangelical believers pray that their church family might get that far.
Indeed. How has the Presbyterian Church found in its Christian faithfulness a way to these inclusive positions? In two words that are fundamental to our Reformed tradition: mutual forbearance.
The PCUSA has recognized the freedom of conscience of each ordaining body to assess a candidate’s qualifications for ordination and vote accordingly. And it has affirmed the freedom of conscience of pastors to choose to preside at weddings and of sessions to rule on use of the church building for weddings.
This is the heart of mutual forbearance. And this means that pastors whose conscience tells them same-sex weddings are within Christian understanding of holy matrimony can officiate at them.
Those who do not can decline if asked.
So what does this mean? This means a majority vote in many churches and presbyteries will approve LGBTQ candidates for ordination now. In some places (like my region of the church) the majority may still judge that sexual orientation and practice or gender identity disqualifies a candidate for ministry. Their conscience—if a majority—will prevail there.
The catch phrase for this tradition is attributed to St. Augustine: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. What has happened in the PCUSA is that continued disagreement concerning LGBTQ people has shifted from essential to non-essential, where liberty prevails.
Even still—these changes do not mean that ordination and marriage of LGBTQ people has been made an essential of our faith. What is deemed essential and upheld in this agreement is freedom of conscience, also known as mutual forbearance.
So what is it like for LGBTQ Presbyterians to be affirmed at the national level and in many regions of our church?
Here’s one thing: We feel bold enough to present to our national gathering, the General Assembly meeting this summer, a resolution called the Apology Overture. If passed, this resolution would put the PCUSA on official record apologizing for harm done to LGBTQ pastors, church elders and aspiring clergy whose lives were twisted and maimed in the forty years of contention over our place in the eyes of God and the church.
What do we mean by harm? Lives turned upside down. Lifelong Presbyterians forced to choose between the love of their lives and their love for Jesus. Crippling loneliness and despair rising from alienation from either one’s church family or one’s God-given sexual orientation or gender identity.
There are way too many of these stories among LGBTQ Presbyterians. And all but a handful of us contributed to this all too widespread pain. Way too many of us were utterly silent, colluding by turning our eyes away. Others supported the LGBTQ cause but kept our heads down, leaving it to Janie Spahr or Lisa Larges or Michael Adee or Erin Swenson to be the lone voices year after year.
I trust our conservative colleagues, too, can acknowledge how hurtful our years of strife were.
I know they want to love their neighbors, as Jesus commanded us, and seek, therefore, to love their LGBTQ sisters and brothers. This overture calls upon the PCUSA to confess it “has been wrong in the way it has treated the LGBTQ/Q community,” and to make “this pronouncement as an act of forgiveness, healing, mercy, and reconciliation.”
And yet, outcry has already begun denouncing this overture as a violation of the bedrock principle, “in non-essentials liberty.” Critics say it presumes as wrong the convictions of Presbyterians who do not hold a theology that affirms LGBTQ people. Not only conservatives in the church have read it this way. A longtime LGBTQ ally, Barbara Wheeler, was an early critic of the overture and echoes others in saying the overture “breaks the promise of freedom of conscience.”
As LGBTQ Presbyterians and allies, we can yearn for our colleagues to see this overture in a way other than an attack on their theological convictions. But it is likely they will not.
What are we to do then?
What are we to do when we are accused of poking our colleagues in the eye with this Apology Overture? In this moment, I invite us to examine ourselves. Is this overture, itself, what “forgiveness, healing, mercy and reconciliation” looks like? Is this Apology Overture “in all things, charity”?
What I see is this: it could be. With the removal of a few phrases from the resolution itself (according to PCUSA rules, the Rationale is not official so is less important), the Apology Overture could become a powerful confession of harm done to LGBTQ people by our church without condemning non-affirming beliefs.
The dilemma for LGBTQ Presbyterians, as I experience it, is this: on the one hand, our theological convictions lead us to consider our conservative colleagues wrong about our place in God’s heart and in the church. On the other hand, progress in the PCUSA for us arises from our agreement to show mutual forbearance. They bear our belief and we bear theirs. Except when we don’t, like in a few phrases in this overture.
I humbly suggest taking those few phrases out.
Then the overture will not be a judgment of conservative beliefs. But it will take responsibility for the tactics being harmful. Please, let’s admit it: they were. It seems to me that one good way to express love for our neighbor that we all share is admission of sin for how we all have expressed our convictions.
Perhaps, then, our conservative colleagues can preserve their beliefs even as they admit harm was done. And the conversation about our beliefs will continue.
We all can admit our guilt—each of our own sort (e.g. silence, slow or no action, insult, threat)—and ask forgiveness in this Apology Overture. With a few amendments, the Apology Overture can become a true confession from the whole PCUSA of sin against LGBTQ people. It just needs to take out words like “erroneously,” and “erroneous belief” that can be taken as a violation of our commitment to mutual forbearance.
So there’s a window into life in the PCUSA right now: how difficult it is to do “in all things charity!”
I see the blessed possibility of such charity toward LGBTQ and conservative Presbyterians at our General Assembly in a slightly amended Apology Overture. Please pray for us that it may be so.
Photo via flickr user Eglwys Bresbyteraidd Cymru - The Presbyterian Church of Wales