COLUMBUS — Joan Gray, a dedicated gardener and the moderator of the 217th General Assembly, calls this an “out of season time for the Presbyterian church.”
It’s not a definite time for sowing, for pruning, for reaping the fruit. It’s an “out-of-season season,” Gray said — a time of uncertainty.
And the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which drew about 350 people to its recent national meeting, reflected that uncertainty — much of it centering around how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should respond to the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA).
Here’s the short version. Many evangelicals in the church are churned up about the task force report — talking about withholding funds, making lists of essential tenets, possibly leaving the denomination. The task force report emphasizes that decisions about ordination are made at the local level — and conservatives are pushing measures in many presbyteries to make it clear that sexually active gays and lesbians won’t be ordained, at least not there.
Progressives, on the other hand, tend to be happier with the task force report — but not with the PC(USA)’s constitution, which limits ordination to those who practice fidelity if they’re married or chastity if they’re single.
So how hard do they push to try to change the constitution?
How do they respond to the parts of the task force report that encourage discernment and community building across theological lines?
What do they do to urge presbyteries and sessions to consider ordaining people who are gay or lesbian, living in committed relationships — and who have real gifts for ministry?
“We are still responding to the General Assembly in Birmingham,” which approved the task force report, said Jon Walton, a New York pastor who is a Covenant Network co-moderator.
“The Birmingham assembly took the church to a new place,” said Deborah Block, a Milwaukee pastor who is also co-moderator. “And we are learning to live in that new place.”
A new place
Where exactly is that new place?
That’s one of the uncertainties — no one’s quite sure.
Clearly there’s a lot of action in the presbyteries. Some are considering lists of “essential tenets” or are being asked to declare that no “scruples” or exceptions based on conscience will be granted. Tricia Dykers Koenig, the Covenant Network’s national organizer, said proposals have been presented in about 40 of the 173 presbyteries, and have passed in about a dozen.
The Covenant Network contends that many of these measures violate the PC(USA)’s constitution. Among those it considers outside the bounds are resolutions that say candidates must answer particular questions in particular ways, and those which assert that no “scruples” or deviations from the standards based on conscience will ever be granted.
Presbyteries or sessions can discuss in advance what kinds of questions they want to ask candidates, Covenant Network leaders say. But the determination of what answers are acceptable must be made, they believe, on a case-by-case basis.
“Some presbyteries may be acting at this point out of fear,” Walton said in the interview. “And we know what Jesus had to say about that — `Perfect love casts out fear’ … This early, of course, there’s going to be strong reaction. But in time, worthy candidates with faithful statements and clarity of call will have an opportunity to stand before presbyteries” and to be considered.
There was considerable discussion of the role that theologically-diverse discussion groups can have in presbyteries or communities in building up trust and understanding.
“I’m very sad that the gift that was offered to our church by the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity has by some in our church not been accepted,” Koenig said in one workshop. “They offered us a gift. … We don’t have to be at each other’s throats all the time.”
The struggle continues
Having said that, the Covenant Network is well aware that the struggle over gay ordination continues in the denomination — and that there is a lot at stake.
A subtext at this gathering Nov. 11-13 at Broad Street Church in Columbus was how hard and how quickly to push for a change in the PC(USA) constitution — how to make room for a “season of discernment,” as the task force has called for, without giving up the fight.
John Buchanan, a Covenant Network co-founder, called for the Covenant Network to set aside its legislative agenda and to “reach across the aisle.”
In an interview, Buchanan said: “My hope is that we won’t be working on overtures. We won’t work to try to get G-60106b out of there” — meaning that, at least for now, the Covenant Network would stop its efforts to remove the “fidelity and chastity” section from the PC(USA)’s constitution. (See also the article “Buchanan urges Covenant Network to accept PUP task force call ‘to reach across the aisle‘” in the November 27 OUTLOOK).
But Walton indicated that Buchanan was speaking for himself, not necessarily for the Covenant Network board. “We’re still advocating removal of G-60106b,” while not endorsing any particular overtures, Walton said in an interview.
Lisa Larges, a lesbian who has been denied ordination in the PC(USA) and who is the regional partnership coordinator of That All May Freely Serve, preached one morning about the need for Christians to act in love, but also to talk about power. “Love is the reordering of power in the service of the divine will,” Larges said.
She told of the story of Elizabeth and Mary responding to the angel Gabriel, both women becoming pregnant at God’s bidding. These two women “count for next to nothing in the culture,” Larges said, but when Mary tells Elizabeth what she knows about the reordering of power about to come — that she will give birth to the Messiah — Elizabeth “feels a sacred kick and calls it joy.”
Larges contended that Presbyterians need to do what the task force did not finish: to talk directly about power in the PC(USA).
“Let us be as politically astute about love as Karl Rove is about power,” Larges said. “Before we get to love, we’ve got to talk about power.”
Deborah Mullen, dean of master’s programs and director of the Center for African American Ministries and Black Church Studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, put it directly.
Whether discussing gay ordination or the long fight in the church to win ordination for women, “we’re talking about power,” Mullen said. “Ordination is power.”
Block, during a celebration of the anniversaries of women’s ordination, told of attending the General Assembly in San Diego in 1978. She had gone to every assembly since 1971, when she first attended as a youth advisory delegate. This time, as a newly-ordained minister, “I felt that I had arrived.”
But as Block sat in the bleachers at the San Diego assembly, she listened while, on the floor, “one of the most contentious, uncivilized debates about homosexuality occurred.”
She heard arguments made that echoed those she had heard criticizing the ordination of women — arguments about cultural norms and biblical principles.
“I realized so suddenly and so clearly,” Block said, “that this was all one thing.”
Several speakers made that point — that in its treatment of people of color, of women, and now of gays and lesbians, the debates in the churches bear uncanny resemblances, and that what’s at the heart of it all are questions of power.
The issue of gay ordination “has driven a wedge into the church’s witness” to the world, Mullen told the gathering. And she quoted author Jack Rogers, who has written: “I believe we will be one whole and holy church only when all our members are treated equally.”