Presbyterian Church U.S.A.: Faith and gay rights
Last week, a majority of the 173 presbyteries making up the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. voted to amend the church’s constitution and allow openly gay and lesbian members to become ordained ministers, elders and deacons. The vote followed decades of debate and more than six months of voting.
In taking this action, I believe our church moved a step forward and brought itself closer in line with Christ’s all-embracing love.
But it’s not a step all Presbyterians welcome. I know this because for years, I was on the other side.
Raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I was taught that being gay was morally wrong. While I was enrolled in an evangelical seminary in the early 1970s, gay issues weren’t even discussed, so I had no real reason to question my childhood beliefs.
In 1976, I was installed as minister for the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in West Virginia. I became acquainted with several gay and lesbian members of the congregation. As it turns out, they were not just faithful members of the church; their lives were exemplary.
As a longtime evangelical, I had studied the Bible extensively. But after arriving in Shepherdstown, I slowly began to see Scripture in a new, more inclusive way. Still, I had no reason to challenge church laws.
Then, in late 2001, I returned from a sabbatical and learned that the congregation’s slate of nominees for elder and deacon included Sally. Sally is a longtime active Presbyterian and beloved by our members. Sally is also a lesbian in a long-term committed relationship.
I was shocked and dismayed.
Despite my appreciation of Sally’s devotion and gifts, my evangelical foundations were shaken. The nomination was a direct challenge to the church’s constitution, and I feared the consequences of ordaining her. I was also afraid it could divide our congregation.
And I was pretty sure the session — the congregation’s governing council responsible for approving nominees for ordination — would not be in agreement. I was right.
We all had great affection for Sally, but her nomination put our congregation at odds with our denomination. After an initial discussion that raised serious doubts about approving the ordination, the session recessed for a week to read the Bible more deeply and reexamine our church’s laws and teachings.
When we came back together, each elder spoke. Some spoke for ordination, and some against. We listened to each other and then took a 20-minute recess to be alone, to pray for guidance.
After reconvening, each elder announced his or her vote and the reasons behind it. The conclusion stunned us all: The vote was unanimous for ordination.
I don’t know what swayed every vote, but I know what made the difference for me. It was one crucial question: “Would Jesus ever call a 25-year, faithful relationship of love and care unholy?” For many of us, the answer was obvious.
After the vote, my anxieties vanished, replaced by great joy. The reflections and conversations around Sally’s ordination had vanquished our collective anxieties. We came out of it feeling that our decision was indeed a celebration of God’s infinite love.
The decision wasn’t embraced by the whole church immediately. It would take time for my congregation and the larger church to see this as a divine opening. A week before our decision, we received an anonymous phone call warning us against approving Sally for ordination. Sure enough, the presbytery was notified. It investigated and rebuked our session for “irregularities.” Despite that rebuke, we never doubted that we had done the right thing in the eyes of God.
The decision triggered amazing things at our church. Yes, a few members left. But many estranged believers and formerly “un-churched” people have walked through the door. Our Sunday school is bursting at the seams. Our youth group keeps growing. The congregation is proud to be part of a church that is open and affirming. We have added staff and undertaken several building projects.
So, to pastors and others who dread the consequences of openly gay and lesbian people serving as ministers, elders and deacons, I would simply say: This is a sacred moment, and a time for rejoicing. The church’s action last week recognized an important teaching from the book of Galatians: “We are all one in Jesus Christ.”
The Rev. Randall Tremba is minister of word and sacrament at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
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